Five grapes to expand your wine horizons
January 24th, 2012
09:05 AM ET
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Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.

Here in the U.S. of A., we drink a lot of Chardonnay - over 53 million cases of it from California alone. Cabernet Sauvignon, too; we love the stuff. Merlot, Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, bottle after bottle of those as well.

And that's all well and good. But there are thousands of different wine grapes out there in the world, and with all that abundance, why not take a flier on an oddball but tasty option? Here are five lesser-known but nifty varieties to look for.

Torrontés
Possibly because Malbec has been such a wild success story, Argentina’s signature white grape has gotten much less attention. Yet it’s delightful (and affordable): flamboyantly floral and citrusy at once, it’s at its best from the high-altitude Salta region, where altitude and cooler temperatures keep it crisp, but there are some fine versions from Mendoza too. A few brands to look for: Crios de Susanna Balbo, Colome, Michel Torino’s Don David bottling, and Notro.

Furmint
Hungary’s primary white variety, and the grape behind the great sweet wines of Tokaji, Furmint also makes impressive dry wines - all herbs and minerals, with zingy acidity. Plus, you can walk around with a glass of it, and say to your friends, “Hey, look, I’ve got a glass of fermented Furmint!” They will think you’re really cool. Trust me. Brands to hunt down: Hetszolo, Royal Tokaji Wine Company, Chateau Pajzos, Kiralyudvar, Dobogo, Heidi Schrock (she’s actually in Austria, but what the heck).

Mencia
A fragrant, medium-bodied, often violet-scented red grape, Mencia grows the northwestern Spanish regions of Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, where it clings to the steep hillside slopes with the tenacity of a cat on a screen door (well, at least my cat when I was a kid, who used to climb up the screen door to eye level and yowl when he wanted to be let in). Producers to seek out: Descendientes de Jose Palacios, Triton, Vinos Valtuille, Dominio de Bibei, D. Ventura, Pittacum.

Agiorgitiko
Or, if you’d rather, St. George, which is the English translation - it’s a lot easier to pronounce. Either way, this Greek grape makes full-bodied, spicy reds that go very well with big winter stews, roast legs of lamb, whole barbecued moose, that sort of thing. (It also makes very good rosé, if you’re already thinking about summer.) And, just so you know, it’s pronounced ah-yor-YEE-ti-ko. There are a number of good bottlings out there, among them those from Gaia, Palivou, Boutari, Tselepos. It’s also worth noting that Greek wines are sometimes labeled regionally rather than by grape variety - any red labeled as “Nemea” will be made from Agiorgitiko.

Blaufrankisch
It’s Austrian, it’s red, it’s crisply spicy and/or peppery, it’s fun. It just sounds sort of daunting. So if you can bypass the dour Germanic sound of the name, this is a tasty, medium-bodied red that’s great with a huge range of foods (Suggested marketing tagline for the Austrian wine authorities: “Blaufrankisch! It’s not just for schnitzel anymore!”). Look for: Moric, Weninger, Paul Achs, Triebaumer, and Zantho (which is appealingly inexpensive).

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soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Peter Gal

    hi! Blaufrankisch is not Austrian, or rather not only Austrian. It is the main red variety of Hungary (it's called Kékfrankos here).

    January 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  2. Sue Staggl

    Great news that our national pride Blaufränkisch – besides Gruvee – is gaining ground in the US. Just be careful and aware that we Austrian drink most of it by ourselves. So grab every bottle you can find!

    January 25, 2012 at 8:05 am | Reply
  3. natalia

    loving our torrontés :)

    January 25, 2012 at 1:13 am | Reply
    • Toreto

      Rodgers is great! And this song is now in your brain! And no mtater what kind of clever zinger you post... the haunting has already begun... This song will be with you when you eat breakfast, when you drive your car, when you try to sleep... You might even get crazier than you already are... But don't fret... Don your Green and Gold and succumb to your inevitable destiny as a Green Bay Packer fan... America get ready for another round of Green and Gold Domination!

      January 31, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  4. CocktailHour.TV

    I see no wine snobbery here, just a lot of opinionated people making comments about themselves. The message I get is a great one...here are some lesser known oddball varietals, try them. That's it. So go out and try them or stay safe and get that
    awesome bottle of KJ Chard and enjoy!

    January 24, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply
    • CN Red

      Right....including you, however your opinion doesn't count.

      January 25, 2012 at 7:20 am | Reply
  5. TwoCents

    There are so many sensory factors lighting up as you take a sip of wine that not only does it taste different to each person but (by factor of the ever so slight aging process and the taste of whatever you might be eating at the time), wine can even taste different from sip to sip. Hence, wine snobs arguing about which wine taste "better" is about as futile as arguing which [insert teen pop artist name here] song is better. It's all taste, so to speak.

    January 24, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  6. Jack M

    Lemberger is another name for Blaufrankisch and our New York State wineries are having a lot of success with the grape.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  7. Pigdad

    Nasty Sour Grape Juice. Wine snobs need to get a grip on themselves. I once listened to two idiots argue about which wine tasted better from the same Italian area except one was from the East side of the harbor and one was from the West side. Both fools needed to be slapped.

    January 24, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Goober Grape

      What a fungi you are! Do you do kids parties, too?

      January 24, 2012 at 11:40 am | Reply
      • Pigdad

        Only if your wife will be there!!

        January 24, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
    • Michelle

      Wine is great; but I agree, folks take it far too seriously. I went to a really laid back winery in Amador county, and the owner said, "You know what the best kind of wine is? The one that tastes good to you." Pretty much sums it up.

      January 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  8. Goober Grape

    That's a tasty-looking bunch of ... me!

    January 24, 2012 at 8:50 am | Reply
    • Fruit of the Loom

      Nope, me!

      January 24, 2012 at 8:53 am | Reply
      • Renato

        A nice report esp given the focus on wine which is often overlooked in the reports from El Bulli Despite numerous attempts I've never been able to bag a table so I guess we will have to continue live vicariously through reports such as this.

        February 1, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
      • niopap

        WWQm8U eqnwirzgjrwu

        February 3, 2012 at 6:40 am | Reply
      • tywxaxvuup

        L9ssPb gouyfqokugwq

        February 4, 2012 at 4:50 am | Reply

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