Orphan Wines: Obscure Varieties for Adventurous Drinkers

TIMEDecember 8, 2021

One reason Italians developed dozens of types of pasta was an appreciation for diversity. Americans, by and large, love spaghetti and little else, but visit Italy and you’ll find many different kinds of pasta because there are different kinds of sauces that seem to go best with each one.

Real wine lovers also love diversity, which is one reason we are beginning to hear of Glera, Bastardo, Favorita, Lagrein, Blaufrankisch, and dozens more. Each makes a different kind of wine, and although many are relatively obscure, they do have their supporters.

If you’re getting a little tired of the same old wine aromas and flavors, these obscure varieties are worth seeking out if only because they offer fascinating new experiences that simply can’t be found in today’s chardonnays or cabernets.

Those who branch out and seek obscure grape varieties generally are people trying to avoid the commonplace. They’re willing to diverge from traditional flavors.

I began discovering these wines about 40 years ago. Shortly after, I wrote a column in which I described them as “orphan wines.”

Before discovering them, I had been smitten by non-mainstream wines such as dry rosé, dry riesling, chenin blanc, pinot blanc, Gewürztraminer, and sémillon. Today, alternatives are popping up everywhere.

Lagrein grapes, from Italy, make dark red wine with unusual spice elements. Pinotage, a grape native to South Africa, is rarely seen in the U.S., but it’s growing. Tannat, a dark, tannic red wine from central France, is also made here in tiny amounts. St. Laurent is a light, elegant, blueberry-scented red made by fewer than five wineries in California.

What captivates me about these wines, and many others, is their distinctiveness. And orphan wines need to be adopted. But that calls for adopters willing to seek them out, which calls for shopping primarily in fine wine stores. Quests to find orphan wines in traditional supermarkets are likely to be futile.

Once you’ve crossed off your list the approximately 20 commonplace varietals, there are a huge number of orphans out there, but they reside mainly in fine wine stores.

Take sémillon, a lower-alcohol dry white wine that frequently smells a little bit like lanolin.

Or try dry riesling. In California, the best each year are from Trefethen, Stony Hill, Navarro, and Smith-Madrone.

Pinot blanc, a sort of cousin to chardonnay, can be superb, especially from Mendocino County, California, and Oregon.

Vermentino, a respected Italian white wine grape variety, also is planted in small amounts in California. A handful of domestic wineries produce excellent versions.

An entire book could be written about the emerging orphan wine grapes that we’re beginning to see throughout the country. Included are such East Coast and Midwest favorites as Norton, Brianna, Noiret, Chardonel, Petit Manseng, Zweigelt, Vignoles, Seyval, and Pecorino (not the cheese).

Many of today’s younger wine consumers tell researchers they’re adventuresome, willing to try different aromas and flavors in their beverages.

They’re the ones who are fueling the interest in alternative beverages of all sorts.

And they’re also the ones most likely to appreciate wines that, decades ago, were seen as outliers. Today, risk-taking wine lovers might benefit from trying some of these orphan varieties. They might be surprised at how fascinating they can be!

Wine of the Week

2020 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier, California ($16): These two less-than-common grape varieties have combined for several years to make this delightful light, elegant, fruit-laden white wine an absolute treat. The former grape (80 percent) provides lemongrass, fresh figs, and a trace of melon; the latter grape adds in floral aromatics and a richness in the mid-palate. A delightful patio sipper or accompaniment to appetizers, or serve it with slightly sweet seafood dishes. Often found discounted.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Pine Ridge Vineyards)
Dan Berger
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