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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.