An Ode to Godforsaken Grapes (#WinePW)


So many bottles so little time!

On New Year’s Eve – while very much in a New Year’s Eve state of mind – I found myself verbally stumbling to describe to a friend what I find most exciting about wine right now. Honestly, I’m not sure what words I actually managed to get out, but let’s pretend I said something like this: I absolutely love that it’s possible to have an adventure via good bottles from all over the world. Better yet, those adventures can easily be had for between $15-$25.

Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine
by Jason Wilson describes exactly what I’d wanted to convey. It’s is an entire book dedicated to adventures through the wine glass and the literal adventures the love of wine can lead to. 





The book takes its name from a tirade by Robert Parker where he refers to a lot of lesser known varieties as “godforsaken grapes.” However, as Wilson points out, there are currently 1,368 known varieties (and likely way more), but 80% of the world’s wine is made from only 20 grapes. Why limit oneself? I see things very much as he does:
Or perhaps maybe you’re like me, and you’re excited about new experiences and learning new things. Every new grape you’ve never tasted before, after all, offers the chance to taste a new flavor. (pg 21)
That's without even considering the importance of biodiversity on an environmental level. 
 
In the quoted tirades, Parker also goes off on the sommeliers, etc who recommend them as elitists, among other things.  As a regular drinker of these wines, I both laughed and took umbrage at Parker’s description, because one of my personal key reasons for drinking them is affordability. Of course, not every wine in the book falls into that $15-$25 price range, but many of the “Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine” grapes he describes can be easily found at that pricepoint, and for this very reason, quite a lot of them end up on our wine racks. (More on that in a bit.)

From a reader’s perspective, I personally had such a good time reading this book because I could really relate to Wilson’s journey. Moreover, a lot of the grapes he describes have become very familiar to me. I’ll admit that I took geeky pleasure in the fact that I’ve tried a good majority of the grapes he discusses in the book. However, more than just the glee of reveling in super-nerdom, reading about his explorations of these lesser-known grapes was like reading about friends. Other grapes are more recent acquaintances, and reading about them makes me excited to get to know them better. For others who might not already be in the deep end of the wine geek pool, I think this would still be a fun read that could inspire one to try new wines as it’s also about exploration and travel. 



I loved this Bott Frigyes Kékfrankos.

Of course, most American wine drinkers don’t start their wine journey drinking wines made from grapes like Kékfrankos, Lagrein, or anything with an umlaut. (Per Wilson, we Americans are generally afraid of any grape with an umlaut. People, please don’t let grammar keep you from good wines! 😉)  Like most people in the US, I started with the more common grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Syrah, mostly red in my case at the time, and mostly from California since we were living in LA during our 20’s. Argentina, Chile, and Australia also made it into the mix – but still generally from the grapes we all know. A few family members (my brother-in-law Dave is particular), however, did start to introduce us to wines from Europe and I got a glimpse of the meaning of “terroir.” I started to study wine seriously when we moved to New York and eventually began working in the field, at which point I learned and internalized the classic regions. I was working at Wine Spectator, so I had access to some pretty amazing stuff and got an awesome wine education. In between the classics, I also got to start to get to know some more obscure regions and grapes as well.

I still love all the classics, but once we moved back to California, I no longer had the same access on a regular basis and the price tags on a lot of those renowned regions just don’t work for everyday - at least not on our budget. So, I started to look elsewhere, and now we drink wines from an amazing number of grapes and regions. I know I’m also lucky to have fairly easy exposure to all kinds of wines that would be hard to find elsewhere. The East Bay has an amazing number of wine bars and stores offering up all kinds of interesting wines. I realize it's more difficult in other markets.

 
One of my favorite pictures Greg took on our trip to Porto is of these Rabelo boats that historically shipped the wines up and down the Douro River.
Beautiful views at Achaval Ferrer in Mendoza.


After I passed my CMS Certified exam, I remember commenting to Greg that my world of wine had grown exponentially in the process of studying for it. I don’t think I even realized then how much bigger it would get or where that would take me/us. In the book, Wilson takes the reader through some of the amazing places his own wine journey has led him to, including impossibly high Swiss mountainside vineyards, all through Germany and Austria, Portugal, and Slovenia. I haven’t hit anywhere near the number of places Wilson has gone, but already wine has taken me to many areas I would not have otherwise thought to go to: the Golan Heights, Cahors, a remote town in Catalunya, Mendoza, and many countryside hilltops in various parts of Italy . . .  Ok, the Italian countryside would have been a draw anyways, but wine gave us the chance to speak to people we never would’ve had a chance to meet.



I went to several amazing wineries in the Golan Heights including Château Golan, where winemaker Uri Hetz makes extremely compelling wines.

Actually, before I ever got into studying and working in wine, we’d gone tasting in the Mexico, the Okanagan Valley in Canada, and the Finger Lakes, as well as some better known regions. My very first “tasting” experience, as far as I can recall, was actually in Missouri when I was a kid. We were on a family day trip when a tornado was spotted approaching the town we were visiting. Everyone was told to take shelter in a large, old winery in town where we all waited for the tornado to pass by.  I was pretty literally protected by obscure wine  . . . and my brother and I got thimble-sized pours to try. It’s quite possible that I owed Bacchus a debt from very early on, and so he chose to slowly pull me into his service.


Tasting room at Clos de l'Obac in Priorat.

I think these more obscure grapes and regions make my life better on a much more day-to-day level as well though. As I mentioned, these types of wines are often available and wallet-friendly prices, and I think we drink better, more interesting wines on a regular basis thanks to them. These wines are also usually much less expensive on restaurant wine lists as well. 




Fleurie is one of the Crus of Beaujolais, made from the grape Gamay. The wines are super versatile. This one is by  Chanson and enjoyed at The Hidden Vine in San Francsico.

Light to Medium bodied reds like the Fleurie above and this Trousseau by Harrington Wines make a great choice at restaurants because they pair easily with a wide variety of foods, which is useful when everyone is ordering different dishes. This bottle was enjoyed at Mägo, one of our favorite spots in Oakland at the moment.

Right now our everyday wine rack (yes, I have multiple wine racks and they are partly categorized by purpose/occasion) contains bottles of Baga, Kerner, Albariño, Furmint, Ribolla Gialla, Riesling, Counoise, Trousseau, Grüner Veltliner, as well as blends from Slovenia and Lebanon. All kinds of light to medium bodied reds from places like the Loire Valley, Austria, Germany, Beaujolais, and northern Italy are usually up there too, but we tend to go through those fast and we need to stock back up. The majority of these cost me under $20. (Sadly, tariffs could soon change this.) 


All of these bottles from obscure grapes and/or regions were purchased in that $15 - $25 range.

As a bonus, in the process of buying and drinking these wines, my brain gets pushed out of my otherwise insulated American bubble to think about the wider world, including many places that probably wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my mind, connecting me to them for a brief moment. What a gift.


I’d really love to challenge everyone to push a little past their comfort zones and try something new in 2020. This doesn’t have to be a huge leap. I know not everyone wants to jump in the deep end. That’s totally fine. It took me a while to get there as well. But maybe think about trying a grape out of your usual scope – maybe that means grabbing a Grenache or Gamay rather than a Pinot Noir, or an Albariño instead of Sauv Blanc. Or try a grape you already know you like, but from a different region than you’d normally buy it from. You also don’t have to go quite so obscure in terms of location. There are tons of wonderful regions in the US that aren’t as well known either, and I’ve been seeing better and better examples of wine from these “other” US regions.  Even here in California, there are plenty of places to explore, like the Santa Cruz Mountains, Lodi, Lake County, and Santa Barbara, which might be a lesser know, but aren’t all that hard to find and make delicious wine.




Bokisch and Acquiesce are both in Lodi and making delicious wines from unexpected grapes for the area.

Exploring these wines might actually help you save some $$$ too. (Tariffs pending.) Or you might even get inspired to go on your own wine adventures.



Bottle of classic and obscure grapes and regions mixed together at a wine geeky gathering.

I know wine can be intimidating, especially when the grapes are hard to pronounce and/or you’re diving into wines or areas you’re unfamiliar with. Many obscure wines do require a little context or explanation as well. I’m, therefore, going to include some tips. They’re actually pretty useful for finding good wine in general.


Tips For Finding and Exploring Interesting Wines



1.  Set an initial price point of $15 to $25.

If you go too low, it’s more likely you’ll run into mass market bottles with less typicity. (I always say there’s a difference between inexpensive and cheap.) At $15 you can start to find lots of quality bottles especially if you enlist a little help (see #2). It's not that there aren't great bottles under that price point, but the odds get better at around the $15 mark. (Good recs can help bring that price point down a bit as well.)

On the flipside, if you don’t like the bottle, you’re not out tooooo much money. Once you have some comfort with a grape or region, you can increase the price point and treat yourself to the higher-end stuff.

(Again, this suggestion is pending resolution on the looming tariffs.)


2. Find a good wine store/wine bar – they can help guide you to new wines you might like.

Tell them what you typically like to drink, but explain that you’re looking to try something new and give them your price point. They should be able to lead you to some love matches. 

Also, when I say a “good” wine store I mean a store where the staff is knowledgeable and provides helpful service. If a staff-person is snooty, that is not good service. Above all, you should feel comfortable. Once you find a place you like, get to know them. They’ll get to know you as well and will be able to hone in and calibrate their recommendations over time.

I tend towards smaller wine stores, but some larger stores like Costco and Whole Foods often have really solid wine sections with helpful staff as well. This can vary a lot of course, so it’s a question of getting to know the ones in your local area. 


Wine bars are great too of course, because then you try a glass of something new without committing to a bottle. Better yet, look for bars that offer flights where you can try small tastes of lots of things.




3. Go online.


If the wine selection isn’t all that varied in your area, there are lots of great online resources these days. (Provided, of course, that shipping of alcohol is allowed in your state.) A lot of wine stores have online portals and will ship – for example K&L which has a handful of locations in California with lots of wines from all over the world. Wine.com has a solid selection if you're willing to look around a bit and even has a feature where you can speak to a wine consultant to help guide you. There are also solid flash sale sites/apps/email newsletters. I’ve been making a lot of use of Garagiste.com lately – a very informative flash sale newsletter curated by Jon Rimmerman.



4. Pay attention to distributors and importers.


Look on the back of the bottle and you’ll see the name of the importer and/or distributor. After a while, you might notice that a lot of the bottles you gravitate towards are coming from the same ones. A lot of times, these have been curated by a person or team with a point of view. (This is particularly true of smaller and mid-sized companies.) If you start to notice the bottles you buy often are coming from the same importers/distributors, there’s a good chance you line up with their palates. Seek out their wines.

Wilson mentions several good ones in the book, including Terry Theise (who operates through Skurnik) for German and Austrian Wines.

I’m also going to throw a shout-out to Danch & Granger Selections in this realm of more obscure wines. They’re a new company that essentially picked up the mantle when the couple who started Blue Danube (mentioned in the book) retired, and they bring in a lot of wines from Eastern and Central Europe. They're now bringing in the Kékfrankos pictured further up. Eric Danch is also one of the best wine storytellers I’ve ever met, and he makes that gift available online too. His info and tech sheets (both those he wrote for Blue Danube and now for his own company) are just insanely informative. Here’s info for a winery in a monastery in Bosnia – muse on that for a while! The wine is good too.




Useful Books:

  • Obviously Godforsaken Grapes for inspiration.
  • What to Drink with What You Eat by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page is a great quick reference guide for how to pair an extensive list of  wines and other beverages. I constantly use this one for inspiration.
  • Perfect Pairings and Daring Pairings. The of the two is by Evan Goldstein with recipes by Joyce Goldstein and gives advice and recipes for pairing a lot of the "noble" grapes, along with a few lesser known grapes. Daring Pairing, also by Goldstein falls pretty squarely into godforsaken grape territory, and features recipes written by some of his favorite chefs. 
  • Wine Food by Dana Frank and Andrea Slonecker is joyful cookbook that features many beautiful recipes paired predominantly with wines that would fall into this territory.

 

Additional Resources:

  • Borderless Wines takes thing to another level by also seeking to creat social impact through sustainable wines from lesser known regions.
  • The Seven % Solution yearly events showcase wines made from outlier grapes in California.

 

Posts Related to Godforsaken Grapes:

We're constantly drinking and covering these types of grapes and regions, so a full list would be difficult, however, here are a few posts that might be helpful:



I'll be updating this periodically with resources and pairings related to these wines over time, so be sure to check back.

A couple of pairings before departing: 


Grignolino is a lesser known grape from Piedmont, but it's usually more wallet friendly than Nebbiolo, the superstar grape of the region. This one from Agostino Pavia & Figli is paired with risotto. 
Xarello is one of the grapes typically used in Cava production. It's also good still and has enough weight to pair with pork. This one is by Pardas.
Lesser known grapes mixed in with classics on a wine geeky Thanksgiving table.
*****

The rest of the Wine Pairing Weekend blogging group is also exploring Godforsaken Grapes. Thanks so much to Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla for choosing this topic as I really enjoyed the read.






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18 comments

  1. Love your post. Agreed on the affordability of these obscure wines. Like my Blaufrankkisch from Austria that I got from a mystery wine box bought online, it can't be more than $10. Also learning and blogging this unfamiliar grape does make me research more!

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    1. Thanks so much Pinny! Blaufrankisch is a regular here and your pairing looked delicious, so gonna have to try that match up!

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  2. So much great advice in this article. Thanks so much for sharing it with us novices.

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  3. Thanks for joining the party! Your posts always enlighten and entertain me. Great tips, too, on how to get outside of our American bubbles.

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    1. That is so kind Cam! And again, loved this topic and the book. Thanks for hosting!

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  4. fantastic post! so much information. Love the tips! And that photo of the boat is incredible!

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    1. Thanks Lori. And right? I think it's such a magical pic -- looking at it always takes me back.

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  5. I second that emotion on seeking out wines outside of one's comfort zones in 2020, and your tips for doing so are great Nicole!

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  6. Such a big world of wine out there! We could all benefit from your great advice to go outside the box in 2020.

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  7. A great plug for exploring interesting wines! I do it mostly for the taste, value and virtually exploring the world. Biodiversity is another good reason, thanks for mentioning!

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    1. Thanks David! And yes, we're totally on the same page.

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  8. What a very informative and fascinating post! I'm learning a lot.

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  9. This is such a meaty, juicy post! I like that you recommend trying gamay over pinot and albarino over sauv. I also like that you used the word umbrage because I just learned what that means!

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Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!