Explore the world of wines with these lesser known grape varieties

wines lesser known wine grape varieties


Looking to explore beyond the conventional wine grapes that we’re all familiar with? Here’s a list of wines made from lesser known wine grape varieties and where to find them.

Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot. Chardonnay. Riesling. Pinot Noir. These are familiar wine grape varietals, all of which go into the making of some of our favourite wines from around the world.

Yet the world of wine is a vast one, and for every wine made using a well-known wine grape – or group of notable wine grapes – there are many that’s vinified from lesser known grape varieties. Some of these are indigenous varieties whose names we can’t pronounce – or worse, have different names depending on where they’re planted. Others we may have never heard of, either because they’re normally made into table wines for consumption within their immediate communities, don’t appear as varietal wines on our shelves, or more commonly, are blended with other varieties to create wines for specific appellations.

True students of wine go beyond the appreciation of the finest wines from the most prestigious of appellations; they also explore the unknown, to discover and learn about the lesser known grape varieties, the regions they come from, and the wines they make. Not to mention, this makes for more learned dinner conversations!

Thankfully many examples of wines made from lesser known grape varieties are quite readily available here if we know where to look. So whether it’s Cesanese and Lagrein from Italy, Spain’s Tinto Velasco or Georgia’s Kisi, here are our picks and where to find them. Pop up with one of these (relatively inexpensive) bottles at a wine party to impress.


aglianico marco tinessa ognostro

Aglianico.

A black grape varietal that’s mostly grown in the southern Italy winemaking regions of Basilicata and Campania, Aglianico is considered one of Italy’s top three red wine grapes but is unfortunately overshadowed by the more illustrious Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. In fact Aglianico goes into some of Campania’s most iconic wines, primarily those of Taurasi DOCG.

For those who enjoy rustic wines, the high-alcohol and low-acidity Aglianico gives you that and more. The grape generally thrives in volcanic soil, and it creates a robust, full-bodied red wine with baked leather notes with tinges of cured meat and black-skinned fruits such as blackberry and figs.

A shining example of modern Aglianico is the Marco Tinessa O’gnostro from the Campania-based winery, which leverages spontaneous fermentation and is even aged for two years in terracotta amphorae to enhance its rusticity. Most classic Aglianico wines – such as the aforementioned Taurasi wines – cellar extremely well; the O’gnostro – which means “ink” in the local dialect – is done is a more contemporary style but can still derive some benefit from decanting and airing in the glass to bring out its best.

The Marco Tinessa O’gnostro is available from Arcodyn/Fermented Connections at a recommended retail price of S$79.


paco & lola rias baixas do albarino

Albariño.

Native to Galicia, Albariño – or Alvarinho as it is known in Portugal – is a green-skinned grape that’s much beloved in Spain for making wines that exhibit huge stone fruit flavours complemented by fresh acidity and a touch of brininess. An ancient grape varietal, today it’s one of Spain’s more distinctive white wines because of its beautifully bright zing that makes it a superb accompaniment to seafood dishes.

The best of Galicia’s Albariño wines hail from a single DO (Denominaciones de Origen) called Rías Baixas that’s actually broken up into five subregions. A supreme example is the Paco y Lola Rías Baixas Albariño, vinified by a cooperative located in the largest of the five Rías Baixas subzones, Val do Salnés. Albariño wines are mostly made exceedingly bone-dry, although some expressions employ barrel fermentation and lees stirring to encourage complexity. This one from Paco y Lola leans towards a balance between both styles. It lets the wine sit on fine lees until bottling for a more rounded mouthfeel, but still demonstrates intense tropical fruit notes in grapefruit and lychee that’s accentuated by alluring notes of white flowers such as acacia, honeysuckle and jasmine. 

The Paco y Lola Rías Baixas Albariño is distributed by Iconic Wines Singapore and can be purchased online at a recommended retail price of $48.


casale del giglio bellone cesane

Bellone.

The white wine grape that is Bellone is believed to have been cultivated since Ancient Rome. Primarily grown in the Italian winemaking regions of Lazio and Umbria, the native Bellone is the principal white grape that’s most often blended into wines of various DOC and IGP wines around Italy’s capital city of Rome.

Then there’s Cesanese, an indigenous Italian red grape varietal that’s grown mostly in the Lazio winemaking region. Like Bellone, Cesanese has ancient origins and is most likely to have to been employed in winemaking since Roman times. Traditionally this grape was mostly used to make sweet red wines – and some of it sparkling – but in modern times winemakers have moved to a more contemporary still and dry style.

Single varietal examples of both Bellone and Cesane are relatively rare especially in Singapore, but premium food and fine wine importers Ferrari Food + Wine brings in a range of wines from Lazio-based Casale del Giglio, amongst which are the Casale del Giglio Bellone and Casale del Giglio Cesanese.

White Bellone – because there’s an even lesser-known dark-skinned cousin, Bellone Nero – typically makes light, fresh white wines with fruity and subtle mineral notes such as this zesty example from Casale del Giglio. It is also sometimes made into sweet late harvest wines. Cesanese actually has three DOC regions committed to it, and the wines it makes exhibit fresh red cherry characters with notes of earth and pepper.

The Casale del Giglio Bellone and Casale del Giglio Cesanese are available from Ferrari Food + Wine at a recommended retail price of $38 and $40 respectively.


fautor feteasca neagra

Feteasca Neagra.

Admittedly we’re unfamiliar with Moldova, and even less as a wine-producing country. But the landlocked Eastern European nation does have a relatively thriving industry, even it has taken a hit in recent times due to political spats with Russia, a key export market. One of the indigenous grape varietals is Feteasca Neagra – literally translated as “little black girl” or “black maiden” – which almost disappeared during the Soviet era. However, some notable Moldovan producers began replanting the variety in the last two decades, and today can also be found in Romania and Ukraine.

Feteasca Neagra is a versatile red grape varietal that’s commonly made into dry, semi-dry, or sweet wines. Some of the top Moldovan red wines are made with Feteasca Neagra, exhibiting smoky fruit notes with solid tannin structure. Unfortunately Moldovan reds aren’t readily available here in Singapore, but we’ve managed to hunt down the Fautor *310 Altitudine Rosé Merlot Feteasca Neagra, an elegant rosé from the award-winning Moldovan producer. Here the Feteasca Neagra lends big berry flavours to the Merlot-led wine.

The Fautor *310 Altitudine Rosé Merlot Feteasca Neagra is available from Elixir Code at a recommended retail price of $37.


Friulano.

Another highly underrated Italian grape variety is Friulano, a white wine grape that was believed to have its roots in southwestern France. It has however established its spiritual home in northeastern Italy. Today Fruilano features prominently in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, alongside the other signature white wines of that winemaking region such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio. But Friulano – also known as Green Sauvignon or Sauvignon Vert – is also grown across the border over at Slovenia, where it’s known as Furlanski Tokaj.

Friulano is generally made to be drunk young – often within a couple of years from release. This grape is almost always vinified as a dry white, and typically expresses notes of wild flowers, almond and ripe white fruit on both palate and nose. A great example would be the Movia Exto Gredic, a youthful wine which combines the generous, well-rounded body of a Pinot Grigio and the bright acidity and expressiveness of a New World Sauvignon Blanc.

The Movia Exto Gredic is distributed by The Wine Distribution Co and is available from The Providore at a recommended retail price of $62.


ponte da boga godello

Godello.

Largely forgotten by winemakers in the earlier part of the 20th century, the white wine grape Godello almost went virtually extinct a couple of decades ago. Indeed, Godello – which has its roots in the northwestern part of the Iberian peninsula – had dwindled to a mere handful of vines by the 1970s in its native home of Galicia until a couple of Spanish winemakers decided that it was worth saving. They launched an ambitious project to rescue the varietal, and were so successful that today Godello is considered the second-most prestigious white wine (after Albarino) to come out of that part of the winemaking world.

It’s certainly one of the more exciting varietal wines from the lesser-known Galician wine subregions of Bierzo, Valdeorras, Monterrei and Ribeira Sacra. From the lattermost comes this glorious example that is the Ponte da Boga Godello – a deliciously clean and acid-forward example that’s rife with the green apple and citrusy notes of lemon, lime and grapefruit, with a light touch of mineral.

Just note that Godello is known by many synonyms in both Spain and northern Portugal depending on subregions and can get a little confusing; there’s Godelho, Trincadente, Berdello, and Gouveio among many others.

The Ponte da Boga Godello is distributed by Iconic Wines Singapore and can be purchased online at a recommended retail price of $48.


Graciano.

If you’ve not heard of Graciano, that’s probably because it’s one of the lesser known indigenous Spanish grape varieties that tend to be eclipsed by its more eminent counterpart the Tempranillo in the winemaking regions of Rioja and Navarre. Another reason is that the black-skinned Graciano is used mostly in blends and is still relatively rarely found as a varietal wine. Spanish winemakers prize Graciano as a blending partner – particularly in classic Rioja – because its intense perfume lends expressive aromas to any blend, while its character and structure helps to round a wine out.

Aside from those better-known northern Spanish winemaking regions, Graciano is also grown in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. A wine route known as Serranía de Ronda near Malaga combines a good number of quality bodegas to make up D.O. Sierras de Málaga, making wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. And Graciano.

A fine example of a Ronda wine would be the Decalzos Viejos DV+, which is elaborated from Graciano, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Here the Graciano lends an aromatic bouquet of dark flowers, blackberry and dusty cocoa to the wine, and adds a robust tannic spine at the same time.

The Decalzos Viejos DV+ – and other wines of Ronda – are distributed by Two Grapes and can be purchased from Wine Ronda online at a recommended retail price of $72.


nine oaks kiki rkatsiteli

Kisi.

Unless you’re a student of wine or love orange wine, chances are you’ve never heard of Kisi. This white wine grape is indigenous to Georgia, one of the oldest – if not the oldest – winemaking region in the world. And unfortunately, wines of the former Soviet state don’t tend to travel outside of Europe, much less to our part of the world. Like too many other obscure indigenous grape varietals Kisi almost became extinct at the turn of the last century; largely due to a market preference for Rkatsiteli (another native varietal), followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then, civil war. It’s also tricky to grow.

Thankfully, Kisi – also known as Maghranuli – managed to survive those turbulent times and today is widely grown in the Kahketi wine region east of the country. Kisi generally produces a still white wine that’s rife with aromas of dried orchard fruit and mint, but what makes it particularly exciting to adventurous wine connoisseurs is that it’s also increasingly used to make orange wine. The Nine Oaks Kisi + Rkatsiteli is a prime example of a Kakheti amber wine, and combines a crisp elegance with butterscotch notes and long, grippy tannins.

The Nine Oaks Kisi + Rkatsiteli is available from The Straits Wine Company at a recommended retail price of $76.30.


querci antica lacrima di morro

Lacrima.

A Lacrima is easily identifiable by the nose alone; Lacrima – or to be more precise, the Lacrima di Morro d’Alba – produces a rich and aromatic red wine that bursts with notes of wild strawberries and other red fruits, along with that sickly-sweet floral scent one most associate with potpourri.

What’s unique about Lacrima is that it’s a dark-skinned indigenous Italian grape varietal that’s almost exclusively grown in Italy’s Marche region. As Lacrima is rather susceptible to pests and diseases and thus relatively difficult to grow, it saw a marked decline and almost went extinct in the early 20th century. Thankfully for Lacrima a few producers stuck at it, and today it’s cultivated across a number of villages in the province of Ancona. Pretty much all of its production goes specifically into Lacrima di Morro d’Alba DOC wines. While the appellation allows for up to 15-percent of other grape varietals to be used, most producers make them 100-percent Lacrima. Which means what you find are generally single varietal wines, such as this Velenosi Querci Antica Lacrima di Morro. It is exactly what you’d expect from a Lacrima; an explosively ripe berry basket and a burst potpourri satchel in one.

Lacrimas are relatively straightforward wines made to be drunk young and are seldom oak-aged. So drink this as soon as you get your hands on one.

The Velenosi Querci Antica Lacrima di Morro is available from Cornerstone Wines at a recommended retail price of $42.


lagrein - lesser known grape varieties

Lagrein.

Native to Italy’s Alpine northwest, the ancient red grape varietal Lagrein is cultivated mainly in the northeastern Italian winemaking region of Trentino-Alto Adige bordering Austria and Switzerland. It’s South Tirol’s most noteworthy red grape, in a region more known for producing excellent white wines. There it thrives on the sunbaked slopes of South Tirol’s valleys and especially along the banks of the Adige river.

The wine Lagrein makes tend toward being strong and full-bodied, ripe with dark stone fruit flavours in plums and cherries, along with lean acidic backbone with a touch of astringency. And while Lagrein is permitted for use in blends, it’s most often made into a varietal wine as allowed under both Trentino and Alto Adige DOC.

Lagrein is also increasingly being planted in the New World; you’ll find examples coming out of various parts of Australia as well as Paso Robles in California. But to really understand Lagrein you’ll have to try one straight from its home in northeastern Italy. This Durer Weg Lagrein Suditirol DOC Alto Adige exhibits all the essential characteristics of Lagrein you can possibly expect from this Alpine varietal.

The Durer Weg Lagrein Suditirol DOC Alto Adige is distributed by The Wine Distribution Co and is available from The Providore at a recommended retail price of $57.


ponte da boga mencia - lesser known grape varieties

Mencia.

Like Godello, the indigenous Spanish red grape varietal Mencia is primarily found in the northwestern part of the country as well as in Portugal (where it’s known as Jaen or Loureiro Tinto). Previously Mencia was limited to making light red table wines meant for easy and early consumption, but in recent years has risen to prominence as a number of Spanish winemakers have worked it to create more complex wines worthy of international repute.

This renewed interest in Mencia has seen a number of Galician producers in the DOs of Bierzo, Valdeorras, and Ribeira Sacra actively cultivating it to produce quality examples, creating wines with fresh acidity, bright tannins, while bringing out fruit flavours such as sour cherry and blackberry with a hint of liquorice, mint and slate. Mencia is often vinified in stainless steel tanks for an easier-drinking, fruit-forward style, but can also be aged in oak to produce expressions that can keep and evolve for a number of years. An example of a more youthful Mencia would be the Ponte da Boga Mencia from Ribeira Sacra.

The Ponte da Boga Mencia is distributed by Iconic Wines Singapore and can be purchased online at a recommended retail price of $48.


Nero d’Avola.

A rising star amongst the indigenous grapes of Italy is Nero D’Avola, and certainly the most important red wine grape to from Sicily. But Nero D’Avola only gained prominence in recent times; prior to the 1970s the varietal was largely exported to the Italian mainland – and even France – and used as a component to add colour and body in blends. Its fortunes changed considerably when notable producers such as Planeta and Donnafugata discovered its potential as a quality single varietal wine, which catapulted Nero d’Avola into the consciousness of wine enthusiasts. So where it was once limited to cultivation in the southeastern part of Sicily around Syracuse, today Nero d’Avola is far more widely planted across the island.

Nero d’Avola makes plush, full-bodied wines, and so is perfect for fans of Cabernet Sauvignon or New World Shiraz who are looking for something different. These wines typically exhibit notes of plum, liquorice, chocolate and even a touch of pepper, and like those counterparts make good food pairing wines especially with meat-heavy dishes.

A good place to start is the biodynamic Marabino Rosso di Contrada (which despite its name is 100-percent Nero d’Avola); the small Noto-based family winery pulls fruit from four different vineyards to create a classic Nero d’Avola that very well showcases its provenance. Drink this one young.

The Marabino Rosso di Contrada is available from Cornerstone Wines at a recommended retail price of $49.


pelaverga piccolo - lesser known grape varieties

Pelaverga Piccolo.

You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the red wine grape Pelaverga Piccolo, even if it hails from Piedmont, one of Italy’s most vigorous wine producing regions. That’s mostly because it’s languished under the region’s star grape Nebbiolo, which goes into the making of the iconic Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Indeed plantings of this red wine grape has fallen sharply since its hey days; today it sees only limited cultivation concentrated around Piedmont’s Cuneo province, most of which goes into making Verduno Pelaverga and Colline Saluzzesi DOC wines.

Pelaverga Piccolo – not to be confused with Pelaverga – makes a lighter style of fruit-forward red wine that evokes flavours of fresh cherries and strawberries with an occasional touch of spice. If you’re a fan of Gamay, a Pelaverga will hit the spot. But getting your hands on a Verduno Pelaverga or Colline Saluzzesi is somewhat of a challenge. Instead take a look at the Olek Bondonio Langhe DOC Rosso Giulietta, made by the tiny Barbaresco producer with 100-percent Pelaverga Picolo.  This wine has all the typical Pelaverga Piccolo characteristics – especially with its heady notes of wild strawberry – but also a caress of tannin from spending two weeks on skins before being pressed and sent off to rest in tank for a year.

The Olek Bondonio Langhe DOC Rosso Giulietta is available from Arcodyn/Fermented Connections at a recommended retail price of S$79.


scaicarello - lesser known grape varieties

Sciacarello.

Known as Mammolo in Tuscany, Sciacarello is a red wine grape of Italian origin that’s widely planted on the French island of Corsica. While in Italy Mammolo is used as a blending partner for its more illustrious Sangiovese counterpart to make the wines of Chianti, Sciacarello is also used to make varietal wines under a couple of Corsican wine appellations.

Wines made Sciacarello tend towards a paler shade of red, and generally clocks high levels of alcohol (so they’re generally picked earlier) along with bright acidity and comes with notes of red fruit and spice. While Corsican-made Sciacarello wines are rather rare in our part of the world, we’re fortunate that we do have access to an example of Sciacarello closer to home from Australia. The Koerner Mammolo from the Clare Valley, South Australia producer is a modern New World take of Sciacarello, and given a lighter touch to bring out its freshness. The fruit mostly hails from the family-owned winery’s Vivian vineyard, and three months maturation in amphora followed by seven months in stainless steel helps preserve the varietal’s youthful vigour, bringing out fresh cherry and pomegranate flavours with a hint of light spice.

The Koerner Mammolo is available from Indigo Wine Co at a recommended retail price of S$308 for a pack of six.


sousao - lesser known grape varieties

Sousão.

One of the wine grapes that is commonly used in the making of port wine is Sousão, along with key indigenous Portuguese varietals such as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Tina Roriz. Originally hailing from Minho in northern Portugal, the dark-skinned Sousão is also widely planted in neighbouring Douro Valley where it’s used to help add a deep colour to port wine.

But Sousão – also known as Vinhão in other parts of Portugal, and Sousón in Spain – is commonly made into regular unfortified wine too, mostly in field blends and sometimes in varietal wines as well. This Quinta do Vallado Douro DOC Sousão is a classic example of the latter, exhibiting the intense dark berry, liquorice and rustic leathery notes that the varietal is known for.

You might be able to find examples of Sousão wines from other parts of the world – Australia, California and South Africa sees some acres planted to it – but if you get your hands on a single varietal Sousão/Vinhão, chances are it’s from northern Portugal like this Quinta do Vallado is.

The Quinta do Vallado Douro DOC Sousão is available from Alentasia at a recommended retail price of $55.


tinto velasco - lesser known grape varieties

Tinto Velasco.

If you’re unfamiliar with Tinto Velasco, you’re not alone – we didn’t know of it either prior to writing this story. This indigenous Spanish black wine grape is native to the lesser-known winemaking region of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain. Once popular, this rare grape has fallen into disfavour; it’s suspected there’s less than 50 hectares planted at all today.

Thankfully all is not lost… yet. La Mancha’s family-owned Bodega Finca la Estacada makes a sustainable red wine from Tinto Velasco, and the Finca la Estacada Ocho y Medio Tinto Velasco produced by its American winemaker Todd Blomberg remains one of the bare handful of commercially available examples at all. Now we wouldn’t be able to tell if this elaboration is a shining example of Tinto Velasco – we simply have no benchmark. But its aromas of black fruit and roasted coffee are alluring, while on the palate berry juiciness combined with lively acidity and a slight salty tang in the finish make this an interesting wine to savour.

The Finca la Estacada Ocho y Medio Tinto Velasco is distributed by Two Grapes and can be purchased from Wine Ronda online at a recommended retail price of $31.


teroldego - lesser known grape varieties

Teroldego.

A very old red wine grape from Trentino in northeastern Italy, Teroldego have been cultivated for centuries and was once a favourite wine of courts across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s seeing a bit of a revival these days too, with some 300 producers cultivating the varietal to produce the wine of Teroldego Rotaliano DOC (all of which are made entirely from grapes grown around the alluvial plain of Campo Rotaliano between the Adige and Noce rivers). Teroldego can also be found in Tuscany, Sicily and Veneto, but is mostly used in the blends of those regions.

Teroldego is traditionally trained on pergolas, but today the conventional guyot system is more widely used. A classic example of Teroldogo can be found in Villa Corniole 7 Pergole; the family-owned Trentino producer makes the wine with grapes grown both guyot and pergola style in Piana Rotaliana. Expect a highly aromatic, elegant and well-structured wine with black cherry notes along with supple ripe tannins.

The Villa Corniole 7 Pergole is available from Wine Stories at a recommended retail price of $89.