The next superstar wine variety could be lurking in a vineyard around the corner. So consider this column an American Idol for wine grapes.
How come I always see the same four varieties of apple at every supermarket? Sure, I like Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious, MacIntosh, and Fujis. Sometimes, my local produce buyer even gets adventuresome and stocks Braeburns or Pippins. But what about the more obscure types like Baldwins, Lord Derbys, Cleopatras, and Sundowners? Unless there’s a good farmer’s market in your neck of the woods, you’re likely settling for the commercially viable varieties.

With wine grape varieties, as with apples, people often don’t look beyond the usual Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc on the shelves. But varietals are the spice of life for the wine drinker, and most novices eventually start delving into more remote territory, perhaps trying Pinot Noir, Syrah, or Viognier. The astonishing fact is that ampelographers (scientists who study wine grapes and their origins) estimate that there are as many as 10,000 different varieties in the grape species Vitis vinifera alone. And that doesn’t even include the nonvinifera grapes, such as the Concord. There’s a lot of unexplored territory out there, folks.

Here are three varieties you may never have heard of, but they’re worthy enough of notice to strut their stuff center stage.
Bottega Vinaia Lagrein Trentino 2000 ($21)
As its name suggests, the Lagrein grape is probably indig-enous to the Lagrina Valley in the Trentino region of northeastern Italy, and there is mention of it in the 17th-century records of a Benedictine monastery near Bolzano. These days, Lagrein, with its high tannins and color, is often used in blending to bolster less-assertive grapes. Made as a varietal wine, Lagrein has loads of racy character and reminds me of the dark, juicy allure of Grenache.

Although there are a few quite appealing American versions (from Mosby, Whitcraft, and Santa Barbara wineries), Lagrein is still mainly an Italian phenomenon, as in this bottle. Bottega Vinaia is an upscale label of the large Cavit company, based in Trentino. Tasting the 2000 Lagrein recently with the winemaker, Anselmo Martini, was a revelation. It’s an immensely charming wine, bursting with ripe, tangy red fruit. Where has this grape been all my life?

Don David Michel Torino Torrontés Cafayate 2002 ($14)

Torrontés is a white grape from the Galicia region in northwest Spain, but the same name is used for several different white varieties grown in various parts of Argentina. Obviously, ampelographers still have a lot of work to do on this grape. In any case, Torrontés is in the process of becoming Argentina’s signature white, just as Malbec is the country’s calling-card red. It is characteristically tangy and aromatic.

Founded in 1892, Michel Torino is located in northern Argentina’s Cafayate Valley, rather remote from the better-known Mendoza region. The dry, sunny conditions here in the Salta province seem to suit this grape, and the Cafayate Valley has become a leading source of quality Torrontés. The 2002 Don David Torrontés, named in honor of one of the company’s founders, is aromatic and lush with smooth, creamy texture and lovely mineral flavors.

Wild Horse BlaufrÄnkisch Paso Robles 2000 ($16)

The origin of this grape’s name goes back to the Franks, a Western Germanic tribe whose most celebrated king, the ninth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, was a notorious oenophile. Legend has it that this wine-loving Frankish big shot created one of Burgundy’s greatest vineyards, Corton-Charlemagne. Since the Franks were such winebibbers, it became common practice in the Middle Ages to identify quality grape varieties as Fränkisch. Blaufränkisch (“the blue grape of the Franks”) is one of these.

This variety is now principally produced in Austria, where it makes some killer, fruit-driven wines. But California’s freewheeling Wild Horse Winery loves to explore uncharted vinous waters and is now making the first official American Blaufränkisch. The winery even had to secure permission from the Feds to use this varietal name on its labels. The 2000 Wild Horse Blaufränkisch is loaded with bright cassis and pomegranate fruit. Its velvety texture and firm acid structure make for great balance. Charlemagne would definitely have approved.


Bottega Vinaia Lagrein Trentino 2000
tangy, charming
serve with grilled meats

Don David Michel Torino Torrontés Cafayate 2002
creamy, minerally
a nice match for escabeche

Wild Horse Blaufränkisch Paso Robles 2000
velvety, balanced
try it with pork loin