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Top 5 Underdog Wine Varieties

by Tim Elliott on February 12, 2011

There are a lot of wine grapes that don’t get their due but there are five that I think should get some more respect. And I’m going to do something about it by not just pointing them out here but also reviewing wines made from these grapes on the blog and podcast.

Some Underdog WinesThe wine world has become so fixated on Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that other grapes that make distinctive wines seem to get lost in the shuffle. Sure, there are hundreds of wine varieties and they can be difficult to remember but by going outside the lines a bit in a good wine store you can find some great wine experences and values.

So here are my top 5 underdog wine varieties for your consideration:

  • Aglianico – Italy has hundreds of great wine grapes but it seems only a few make the worldwide stage. And as great as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese are, there are equally interesting wines made from many other grapes in the country. One of my favorites is Aglianico grown mostly in the Basilicata and Campania regions (a few are also growing this variety in California). This is an ancient grape prized in Roman times as Falernian, their equivalent to First Growth wines of France today. And it’s easy to see why this was so popular back then as the wine today is very fragrant and earthy with plum and chocolate flavors, supple tannins and plenty of acidity to match with food.
  • Torrontés – The white signature grape of Argentina, this variety is set to do for whites what Malbec did for reds in that country. A fusion of the characteristics of Viognier, Muscat and Gewürtztraminer, Torrontés makes a statement all it’s own. The dry and aromatic wines made from this grape in Argentina make a great pairing with spicy Asian foods and seafood. I really think this is a breakout variety that could develop a mainstream following soon.
  • Charbono – A variety with a bit of an identity problem, this grape grown in California is not related to the variety grown in Italy of the same name (which is actually Dolcetto). But it is the same grape known as Bonarda grown in Argentina. DNA testing confirmed it was actually the obscure Corbeau grape found in Savoie. Whatever it’s called, the wines made are big, tannic and fruit-forward similar to Barbera with a bit more earthiness and acidity.
  • Palomino – The white grape of Sherry, Palomino can be made in many styles from the fresh Fino, to nutty Amontillado to rich and dry Oloroso. It can also be sweetened to make those Cream Sherries that used to be so popular back in the day. Sherry seems to be mired in the “acquired taste” category here in the U.S. but I’m hoping to find some examples to review here that might change your mind.
  • Carignan – Probably the most popular grape in my roundup, Carignan (also spelled Carignane) is grown around the world and makes hearty, tannic wines of deep color. A classic workhouse grape, Carignan gets little respect on it’s own but when blended can produce wines of great distinction. There are several styles of these blends but the most successful seems to be the Rhône style with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre or the “Mixed Blacks” style popular in California where Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are often included and co-fermented.

So there you have it, five grapes that deserve more respect. I’ll be featuring these in reviews and podcasts over the next several months. And be sure to add your own underdog wine varieties in the comments.

WBW 43 – Comfort Wine

by Tim Elliott on March 5, 2008

If there is a single wine that I could name that pointed me onto the path of becoming a wine lover, it’s the Zinfandel made from the Lytton Springs vineyard. I’m not exactly sure why this wine made me sit up and take notice, but it did, and remains today one of my sentimental favorites. So when Joel from Wine Life Today announced the theme of Comfort Wines for this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday, I knew there was only one wine to fill the bill: Ridge Lytton Springs.

Lytton Springs WInery ZinfandelIt must have been late 1981 or early 1982 when I stumbled across a small winery named Lytton Springs in my search for the best Zinfandel. This variety had already become my favorite most likely due to the forward fruit in most bottlings that was noticeably different from the Bordeaux and Napa Cabs I was mostly drinking at the time. Since I didn’t yet read any wine publications, I must have chosen Lytton Springs Zinfandel from the recommendation of a wine merchant or, more likely, just at random. From my first experience with the aromas of dark fruit offset by spices and cedar, I was hooked. The layers of flavor and impeccable balance also didn’t hurt either and this became my “benchmark” Zinfandel that all others were judged against.

The Lytton Springs Winery was founded in 1970 after Richard Sherwin purchased the old vine vineyard near downtown Healdsburg, California. The vineyard had been planted around the turn of the 20th Century on lands owned by a Captain Litton who many years before built a hotel catering to Bay Area visitors to the local hot springs. By the time of the vineyard planting, the spelling of his family name had evolved to Lytton.

The vineyard is a classic “field blend” of inter-planted varieties with about 70% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah and the remainder split between Grenache and Carignane. As early as 1972, Ridge Vineyards winemaker Paul Draper made wines from this vineyard but it wasn’t until Ridge purchased Lytton Springs Winery in 1991 that the entire 35-acre property was devoted to Ridge wines. There is a great interview with Richard Sherwin over at Gang of Pour if you are interested in more background on Lytton Springs Winery.

I can’t recall when I made the switch to Ridge Lytton Springs but it was most likely in the early 1990’s. The grace and even elegance of this wine made it stand out to me over another favorite Sonoma vineyard, the famous Ridge Geyserville most recently tasted on my birthday last year. So I was looking forward to getting back to Lytton Springs 2004, a wine I last tasted about 14 months ago but failed to blog here for some unknown reason.

Ridgeytton Springs 2004Ridge Vineyards, Zinfandel, Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley 2004 ($34) – This wine still displays a youthful purple-ruby color. The aroma profile is classic Lytton Springs: black raspberries & blackberry with fennel and cedar. The flavors are also a mixture of dark fruits with the addition of some blueberry, black pepper and minerality that finishes long with great balance and moderate tannins. Although this wine weighs in at 14.5% ABV, there is no hint of heat on the palate or in the aromas. This is clearly still one of the best Zinfandel’s produced today and is in wide distribution due to production of over 10,000 cases each vintage.

14.5% ABV
Natural cork closure
Score: 92
Rating: ★★★★☆

Buy this wine online

When I taste this wine today, it takes me back to my earliest memories of noteable wines. In fact, Lytton Springs Winery Zinfandel was the best wine I had ever tasted until it was upstaged by a glass of 1974 Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cab that I had in 1986. But I still have a warm place in my heart for Lytton Springs Zin that will never be changed.

Kudos go to Joel from Wine Life Today for a great theme and congratulations on the birth of his second child just a few days ago. I’m hoping he can find some time to recount all the stories this month in between his fatherly duties.

Next month some guy from New Jersey named Gary is hosting. Should be fun to see what he’s got in mind.

Ridge, Zinfandel, Geyserville 2005

by Tim Elliott on November 19, 2007

Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel 2005When the wine bug first bit me back in the early 1980’s, Zinfandel became my favorite varietal in large part due to the wines of Ridge Vineyards. Their field blend from the Geyserville vineyard in the Alexander Valley AVA of Sonoma County soon became the benchmark that other Zinfandels were judged.

Although I also greatly admire the Ridge Lytton Springs bottling, I always come back to Geyserville for the power and elegance that could only come from old vine Zinfandel, Carignan and Petite Sirah grown in this vineyard. Over the years the wines have been distinct and very malleable to the vintage but the layers of dark fruit flavor is always represented. So this wine was the natural choice for me to pickup to celebrate my birthday this past weekend.

Ridge Vineyards, Zinfandel, Geyserville 2005 ($34) – A field blend of 77% Zinfandel, 17% Carignane and 6% Petite Sirah. Very deep black-purple color with aromas of blackberry, kirsch, sage, fennel and cedar. The palate is classic Geyserville, with layers of dark fruit — blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry — supported by black pepper and spices. The tannins are firm but nicely integrated making the wine well balanced and very enjoyable right now. I would also expect this to age well over the next 8 to 10 years.

14.6% ABV
Natural cork closure
Score: 94
Rating: 4/5 stars

Buy this wine online.


WBW 35: Passionate Spain

by Tim Elliott on July 11, 2007

Plaza de España, Sevilla (photo by Scott Clemens)

Another month has passed and it’s time for our virtual tasting, known as Wine Blogging Wednesday, masterminded by Lenn Thompson almost 3 years ago.

This month’s theme, Passionate Spanish Wines, was chosen by Michelle & Kevin of My Wine Education. They ask that we pick some Spanish wine to blog with special attention to the values found for $10 USD and less. And what a great theme for me as I just spent 10 days in Spain. So I thought I would write notes for four wines that meet the host’s criteria; two purchased in Spain and two purchased here. I thought it would be fun to see which side of the pond the best Spanish values could be found.

Spanish Purchases

When I was in Montsant with Gabriella and Ryan from Catavino on July 2nd, I picked up the first wine I’ll blog tonight for 6.30 Euro ($8.66). It carries the prestigious Priorat D.O. and proves you can find some decent values from this red-hot region of Spain.

Vinicola Del Priorat, “Onix Classic”, Priorat 2006 – A blend of Garnacha and Carignon. Dark purple in color with aromas of bing cherry and licorice. Cherry and strawberry fruit flavors with white pepper and dusty tannins. A solid value.

15% ABV
Natural cork closure
Score: 86

The next purchase was made in Barcelona at a great wine store Ryan introduced me to named Vila Vini Teca. We challenged the staff for the best wine for under 6 Euros and they came up with the following for a shade over 4 Euro.

Bodegas Agapito Rico, “Carchelo”, Jumilla 2006 (4.30 Euro/$5.90) – Made from 100% Monastrell (a.k.a. Mourvedre) this wine is extremely dark purple-black in color. Very strong blackberry jam and fennel aromas prepare the taster for a fruit bomb. And this wine doesn’t disappoint in the mouth with fresh boysenberry pie filling flavors with some blueberry and black pepper finishing very juicy and round with good acidity. A very nice value and a fun wine to drink.

14% ABV
Natural cork closure
Score: 88

Twin Cities Purchases

Back home I picked up a Garnacha (a.k.a. Grenache) from D.O. Calatayud in northeastern Spain’s Aragon region.

Viña Alarba, Grenache, “Old Vines”, Calatayud 2005 ($8) – Garnet-purple in color with aromas of cherry, spice and earth. Medium bodied in the mouth with cranberry and strawberry fruit, some white pepper, earth and minerality on the finish. A lot of wine for the money.

14% ABV
Synthetic cork closure
Score: 88

My final selection is one I tasted before I went on my trip that is only available here in the U.S. Selected and blended by Eric Solomon, this wine is perhaps the best value from Spain I’ve yet found.

Bodegas Castano, “Hecula”, Yecla 2003 – ($10) – Another 100% Monastrell, this time from D.O. Yecla. Complex cherry, black currant, violet & licorice aromas. Black currant, blueberry & black pepper finishing with fine grained tannins, minerality and good acidity. A delicious value.

14% ABV
Natural cork closure
Score: 92

What’s interesting about this tasting is how many great values can be found inside Spain and here in the U.S. From browsing wine stores in Spain, I’d give them the nod for more wines available under $10 USD a bottle. But here in the Twin Cities, we pay more for wine than in other parts of the country so you might find better pricing in your local market.

Thanks again to Michelle & Kevin for a great and timely (for me) theme this month. I’m looking forward to WBW founder Lenn’s selection for next month’s 3-year anniversary event.

Photo by Scott Clemens / Epicurean Traveler