Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay may dominate wine collections and menus worldwide, but the world of wine is far greater than those three powerhouse grape varieties can make it seem. In fact, close to 1,400 types of vitis vinifera—the species of grape responsible for fine wine—grow around the world, and the resulting bottles are nothing short of astounding when it comes to flavor and value, even if they are notoriously difficult to pronounce. Conveniently, these wines are becoming more widely available than ever before, giving collectors and casual connoisseurs more opportunities to discover a new favorite.
Regions like Greece, Austria, Eastern Europe, and even pockets of the United States, Italy, and France offer a wealth of indigenous grape varieties that showcase the diversity of the flavor spectrum of wine. In fact, even established wineries including Bordeaux First Growth icon Château Lafite Rothschild and drinks powerhouse Moët Hennessy have invested heavily in lesser-known wine-producing locales, even planting vineyards in China.
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“The term ‘esoteric’ is a moving target,” explains Eric Danch of Danch & Granger, a United States-based importer that specializes in Eastern European wines made using traditional techniques. He points out these styles are often older than their modern Western counterparts, and have long been recognized as fine wine, noting: “Pliny the Elder was writing about these wines centuries ago, and Chardonnay wasn’t statistically relevant until the 1970s in California. These wines are just new to us.”
With the fall of the Soviet Union and increased globalization, wines that were once exclusively local table wines are now available around the world, providing drinkers with a myriad of options, which Chris Munro, Head of Wine for Christie’s in the Americas, thinks all wine enthusiasts should seek out.
“If you’re a wine enthusiast or collector, getting to know varieties from all over the world is part of your education, and to ignore them is a shame,” he says, adding that though they are rarely found at auction, many have excellent aging potential and provide significant value to drinkers—a sentiment Danch echoes.
You can really get an exceptional bottle for $20 or $30 if you look to these underappreciated regions
“The biggest selling point for them is value. You can go to Hungary and access Grand Cru Tokaji. In Burgundy, you may not even be granted a tasting appointment. In these other countries, the doors are wide open to explore.”
And exploring can be easy, since many unknown grape varieties share DNA and thus flavor and aromatic similarities to more popular, international varieties. For Pinot Noir enthusiasts, Danch recommends reds made from the Saint Laurent grape in Austria, which are similarly light in body and offer bright, berry and cherry fruit flavors. Lovers of Sauvignon Blanc, or crisp whites can look to Northern Italian whites such as Verdicchio and Vermentino; Hungarian whites like Furmint or Hárslevelű; or Greek bottlings like Assyrtiko. In regions like China, wine estate Ao Yun is experimenting with both classic varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and indigenous grapes, offering drinkers both tradition and adventure on the palate.
The reason many of these grapes are experiencing a renaissance is, in some estimations, the result of failed experiments with internationally popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot which—contrary to the example set by Super Tuscan powerhouses—aren’t a cash crop in every ecosystem.
“People have gone back to indigenous varieties that they knew did well historically, and that’s a good thing, compared with planting more popular varieties,” says Munro. “You can really get an exceptional bottle for $20 or $30 if you look to these underappreciated regions.”
Danch also notes that lesser-known grapes and regions often use the same techniques as more popular, collectible wines making them an excellent choice at the table. “Croatian wines like Plavac Mali are made and aged in the exact same way as many top Barolos,” he says, “They’re all aged in large Croatian barrels, and these reds age just as beautifully.”
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As classic fine wines like Grand Cru Burgundy, classed-growth Bordeaux, and Barolo become increasingly rare and expensive, sommeliers and collectors are embracing wines on the fringe, which are increasingly becoming more available. For instance, legendary Copenhagen restaurant Noma has embraced many Serbian wines, and San Francisco’s two-Michelin-starred Californios has included Hungarian wines on its pairing menu.
Winemaker Jason Holman, who’s based in America’s ground zero for traditional grapes, Napa Valley, points out that across California, consumers are eager for values that combine pedigree with a favorable price, making bottlings like Napa Valley Albariño, Tempranillo, and obscure blends a profitable (and delicious) option. “Our tasting room in Napa is packed with people who are tired of the same $200 Cabernets and Chardonnays, and they are thrilled to taste a new wine. It doesn’t hurt that these grapes thrive here, and offer a price point that is virtually unheard of for more classic wines in our region.”
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From top restaurants to tasting rooms and wine bars, it’s abundantly clear there’s room for more diversity in wine, a fact perhaps no one points out as well as Munro: “Super Tuscans are things that appeared from nowhere. It was a $20 wine in a wine store that today is worth thousands. There’s scope for another wine like that. And why not?”