Winemakers have made about 15 grapes, out of the more than almost 10,000 in existence, commercially desirable. And any winemaker that strays far from the list that includes Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, etc, has an uphill battle to sell the resulting product.

Not only has modern commercial winemaking limited the grapes utilized for the activity, but it has also, by practice, limited the commercially conventional points from where those grapes can originate. Since we are all at the mercy of what’s on the shelves in our local wine retail outlets or in restaurants, it just seems to me that there is a lot of opportunity out there for adventuresome grape farmers with deep pockets to offer some unique items from interesting, out-of-the-way places. 

As usual, the limiting factors are manufacturers willing to chance-it, and eager buyers whose curiosity puts forth the situation where the quest is worth the risk.

That is not likely the direction to be taken with modern market conditions, but it’s fun to ponder the possibilities. Still, there are grapes out there that are “sort of” readily available and some of us are being more curious than others. Don’t you want to be the first person on your block to embrace a (fill in the blank)? Of course you do. So start with one, or all, of these.

 

Tokaji

Don’t even try to make sense of the spelling, it’s Eastern European. The pronunciation is Toe-Kye and we in the West sometimes just note it as Tokay. But it is delicious. So delicious that a member of the Royal Family of France, Louis XIV, the Sun King, long ago described Tokay as the “King of Wines and the Wine of Kings.” How’s that for a recommendation?

Oh, but you don’t like sweet wines? Simple advice: get over it. These wines are delicious and provide an almost never-ending experience on the palate with beautiful flavors of communicate dried fruit, berries, honey, stone fruit and nuts. I get pecans but those professional evaluators not from the South, and not familiar with that flavor, can’t verify it. 

Retailers and restaurateurs are having a very hard time getting you to try Riesling, a more common wine perceived to be “sweet,” and now here we are suggesting you take a leap of faith to try Tokaji. Well, I know that is a lot more than can be reasonably hoped. But for those of you willing to take a chance on a new recommendation, the rewards are upside and numerous. This time of year, fresh crab, shrimp and seafood from the Gulf would benefit from the pairing with flying colors.   

 

Chinon

What does a small historical community – enclosed by a great fortress wall, on the banks of a picturesque and fabled River – have in common with the rest of a country that reveres wine and food?

As it turns out, plenty. The Loire Valley, slightly to the south and west of Paris, is a great spot to grow all kinds of plants, flowers, vegetables and fruit. But what it really turns out, although in limited quantities, is Cabernet Franc.

This lighter red grape sits somewhere on a tactile scale between a pinot noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Delightfully spicy with red cherry overtones, Cabernet Franc is making a big comeback as a standalone flavor, branching out from its proud history as a Bordeaux region blending grape alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Today the solo act is a grand success and wine lovers are rewarded with the flavors of a new discovery that was in evidence all the time.

Not only do Cabernet Franc wines from this part of the Loire Valley deliver a softer, completely interesting and integrated character to the culinary community than the bold and strong wines from other areas of France, like the Rhone or Bordeaux, but this grape also lends itself to the creation of seductive rosé wines that have become the darlings of knowledgeable wine sybarites worldwide.

The Sancerre white wines from just to the east of Chinon, comprised of possibly the best expression of Sauvignon Blanc grapes from any region anywhere, provide the perfect ying to the Cabernet Franc’s yang. Long an afterthought in France’s pantheon of wine regions, the products of the Loire today are a sought after delicacy easily ranking with the likes of Burgundy and the northern Rhone. 

 

Pinot Noir from South Africa, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand

Yes, of course you already enjoy pinot noir and you happily, but boastfully, tell your friends you were drinking the grape long before Miles extolled its virtues, while slamming Merlot, in the hit film “Sideways.”

Lately, however, the beguiling characters of the grape have moved down the scale to a more massive, not so tantalizing or shy expression on the palate and the nose. Pinot Noirs from certain places like California – even Oregon – can stand up to big slabs of beef and bold sauces.

That is not how the grape is supposed to express itself as defined by its ancestral home, the Burgundy region of France. Delicate wisps of fresh red strawberries and garnet, almost see-through colors have given way to the Dark Side.

But there are other places not usually associated with pinot noir that are putting in the effort to keep the lighter, elegant features while allowing the fruit to express the influence of its agricultural surroundings – even though those surroundings are not the first areas that spring to mind.

While some regions of South Africa, Argentina, Chile and most notably New Zealand are not fully suitable to preserve the natural qualities of the pinot noir, surprisingly, there are small pockets of micro-climates in each of these places, along with the presence of winemakers willing to put in the effort, that can deliver not the classic expression of Pinot, but something equally interesting and darn close to authentic.

Turning out huge gobs of pinot noir wines is not the goal. Limited productions fulfill the desire of vintners who are in love with the grape and its fickle ways. The exception to this list is New Zealand whose South Island climates and soils allow for full-scale farming and have turned huge areas, like Central Otago, into New World Pinot Noir enclaves.

The wines from each of these areas will never be confused with Burgundy or even Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Yamhill-Eola Hills regions, but in their own way, these far-flung committed and talented winemakers have demonstrated a recognition of what this grape likes and can tolerate.

To your benefit, every one of the wines noted above are readily available, hiding, if you will, on that wall of wines at your retailer, quite in plain sight.    

 

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