There has never been a better time to try a (obscure) new wine!
How obscure grapes are changing our approach to wine
To be fair, I don't think that we should call them obscure grapes. Robert Parker called them "godforsaken" a few years ago, but as the past 5 or 6 years in the wine business have shown us that these grapes are anything but godforsaken, and in many cases not so obscure anymore. I think we should just call them..ok now bear with me for a second because I'm going to sound a little crazy... "grapes" and "wines". Whoa! Somewhere some writer for a stuffy old wine magazine just got a nosebleed, but I think its time to stop calling these wines obscure. Let's just call them what they are. Delicious!
To me, the term obscure seems too patronizing, as does the term esoteric when trying to talk about natural wines or biodynamic wines. It almost seems too say to the wine drinker who I am trying to convince to buy a wine that they shouldn't worry their pretty little head because they probably won't understand what is going on. Biodynamic is not that hard to understand, its a belief that everything in the vineyard is living and connected. The practice of biodynamic farming takes great attention to detail, so more often than not biodynamic producers make incredible wines! Was that so hard? If we remove the condescending language of "obscure, esoteric, and godforsaken" then we open ourselves up to the amazing things that are happening in the wine world right now.
Which is why it has never been a better time to try a new wine! Go for it!
With everything that is going on in the wine industry, from forward-thinking wine producers to the reintroduction of old grapes and the increased access to incredible new wine regions, it feels like it is too dangerous to play safe. Five years ago who would have thought that American's would grow a taste for Txakolina, or that Valdiguie and Counoise would suddenly be on everybody's wish list. When I started drinking wine I never knew Pettilant Naturel was a thing, now the hottest restaurants carry it by the glass as their sparkling wine of choice. We have options, so why wouldn't we exercise them?
For decades our parents were told what to buy. They seemed like a very easy group to influence. Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson would rave about a wine and they would all dutifully follow the ratings, open up their wallets, and proclaim this wine or that wine to be the greatest thing on earth. But it was all the same. It was Pinot Noir, Bordeaux, Chardonnay, and Burgundy. Prices shot up, and up, and up so that owning great Burgundies (and other select wines) became a status symbol. The more you had the greater your status, so they dare not wander from what was known.
The problem is, with their narrow choice frame of mind, they made a lot of those amazing wines inaccessible to the younger generation, a generation that does not have as much disposable income as they do (mostly because we spend most of our income on them in the form of rent, but whatever) and so we looked for rewarding experiences of a different nature. We almost had to become a generation that explores the world and seeks out new experiences that are just as richly rewarding.
It's not just wine drinkers, but winemakers of our generation too!
We would probably not be drinking and exploring all of these new wines and grapes if we did not have producers who were so excited to bring them to us. These winemakers are working with great grapes whether through resurrecting forgotten varietals or experimenting with new varietals in interesting places. It is a great way for daring, younger winemakers to stand out amongst the clutter. There are hundreds of wineries making Sauvignon Blanc (and pretty good Sauvignon Blanc too!) but what if you could stand out from them by offering an interesting Chenin Blanc, or Albariño, or Verdelho. Hey, why not try your hand at a Grüner Veltliner! Whatever it may be, its a way of cutting through the noise and offering something interesting in an industry that has offered so much of the same.
Our favorite winemakers have, for varying reasons, found their place in the wine world by being different. The Teutonic Wine Company of Portland, Oregon is making wine inspired by the Mosel region in Germany. Working mostly with Riesling, they have also let that inspiration loose with wines inspired by music, friends, and German culture which has seen them work with the metal band, Red Fang and create such interesting wines as a "Rauchwein" where they used some Riesling grapes that were lightly exposed to summer fires and reminded them of German Rauchbier. Sam Bilbro of Idlewild in Healdsburg, California has a heritage in wine but it was Piedmont in Italy and it's signature varietals that really spoke to him. His winery, Idlewild, is making exceptional wines from Dolcetto, Barbera, Cortese, Arneis, and of course, Nebbiolo in California. Not many would have thought that California could produce a great Dolcetto, and every time I mention it to a friend their ears prick up, but Sam has proved that you can do it if you have a vision and the guile to do so.
Others are digging deep into the history of their regions to bring its history and heritage back to the forefront. In California the likes of Matthew Rorick or Forlorn Hope is one such person who delights in finding interesting grapes and vineyards and then bringing them to life in the bottle. Where else in the world could you find somebody eager to work with Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Saint Laurent, and Picpoul all under one roof? You never know what to expect, or what to get, when each new release comes out. Keep Wines have surprised us with varietals such as Cieliogiolo, Counoise, and Pinot Meunier, and anybody who reads the Vynl blog regularly knows that we often cite Broc Cellars as a massive inspiration for some of the hippest wines on the market, especially their Valdiguie! This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are new winemakers coming into their own every day who have managed to introduce us to a new wine that they hold near and dear to their heart.
This is not just a California thing or even an American thing. Curious and adventurous winemakers are broadening their horizon based on an expanded knowledge of wine grapes and trying to see which grapes would work best in their region. For this reason, we are seeing Riesling explode in New York with winemakers such as Litten Buffel bringing it into the realm of wine hipsters, but we are also seeing some good Riesling come out of Michigan. Wineries like Maine's Oyster River Winegrowers and Vermont's La Garagista are showing us that Vitis Labrusca/Vitis Vinifera hybrids can make for some glou glou wines that are bright and exciting, especially when these wines are treated in the natural, minimalist sense.
Explosive winemakers with a passion for breaking through all the clutter have been able to put themselves, their regions. and even their countries on the map. Milan Nesterec is one such winemaker who's dynamic wines have put him and the Czech Republic on the wine map. His wines are sought after the world over, and you feel lucky sometimes to even get your hands on a bottle. He is not alone either, you cannot talk about Slovenian wines without having to talk about Ales Kristancic and his Movia winery, or the explosion of Etna Rosso onto the wine scene without mentioning the natural wine genius of Frank Cornelissen. Meanwhile, Arianna Occhipinti has been tearing up the rulebooks in Sicily, building on what she learned from her uncle at COS and running with it to further our love for grapes like Nero d'Avola, Frapatto, Albanello, and Muscat of Alexandria.
So we discovered new wines, and we keep on discovering!
We are a generation who loves to share our experiences, and we live in a time where we can do so more easily than ever. With eager wineries, distributors, and boutique retailers looking to quench our thirst for the interesting, it has never been easier to share and share in wine experiences around the world. I could go on holiday to Slovenia, write to my friends, share the wines I drink on Instagram and see friends in Los Angeles, Berlin, and Portland, Maine (Fucking Maine!) go out and uncover my new find in their local wine store. Our influencers are not the writers like Parker, Robinson, and Clarke, but rather each other. We don't have to follow, we can create our own paths through sharing, encouraging each other to try new things that we will enjoy both collectively and individually.
Every bottle of wine feels like the next step in an adventure, taking me around the world as much as it is taking me deeper into the shared culture of wine around it. Each sip of a new grape, or blend, or style, is one that just expands my love for it, making me feel so unique and special. With these small winemakers making big splashes but remaining small we feel so much closer to them than we would a massive brand. You feel special, almost lucky to behold something that a person has strived so hard to make just for you. You'd be kidding yourself ofcourse, but with so much going around you share these wines as if they were made by your dear friend and you cannot wait to see what wine they will introduce to you next.
Will we ever make it to Bordeaux and Burgundy? Probably yeh, but it will take time.
I think what ruined Bordeaux for me was not Bordeaux itself being boring, but rather the cheap Bordeaux being able to skirt by on the basis of being from there. Cheap shit has been riding the coattails of extravagance for a long time. Great Bordeaux is and will always be fucking great Bordeaux, but I don't have $1,000 or even $100 to spend on a wine every night like many people I know. Those older than us without the disposable income seemed to have settled for the cheaper versions from the legendary regions because it was a "proper wine."
Those Château Étiquette de Merde Ennuyeux just don't make sense to us anymore. The younger wine consumers have done something to wine today that they have done in just about every industry. Why pay more money for a well known established brand, when I can get better quality from a lesser known brand for the same price? We do it with jeans, cars, and razor blades so why can't we do it with wine?
We will make it to Bordeaux eventually. Our lust for incredible, insatiable experiences will bring us to seek out the pinnacles of winemaking from the grandest winemakers, but it will take time. I love a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon as much as anything, but I love GREAT Napa Valley Cabs from the likes of Heitz Cellars, Silver Oak, and my personal favorite, Trefethen. I just don't have the disposable income, like so many of my peers, to drink it as often as we crave the experience of drinking something exciting. So we have been looking elsewhere, and for big, bold wines we have turned to Xinomavro from Greece in lieu of Barolo, the Douro wines from Portugal in lieu of Bordeaux, and Etna Rosso in lieu of Burgundy.
Maybe 5 years ago obscure was an interesting term that we could use to describe grapes that have flown under the radar for decades. Some, for most of us, will remain ever hidden away from our glasses, but so many more are now readily available to us if we only go out and look for them. If we open ourselves up to trying new things, we get to experience so much more and in each glass, in each sip, is a new adventure to some corner of the world so different from the rest. I'm not saying that Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rest of the noble grapes are bad wines. On the contrary, I think there are plenty of fantastic wines from all of those grapes. But with so many wineries and retailers eager to grab our attention with something unique then if we just look a little to the left, right, up, or down the next time we are in a wine shop we will come across something new. That is why there has never been a better time to expand our horizons and try an obscure, weird, wild, or wonderful new wine.