UNTIL THE LATE twentieth century, the average California wine drinker came into contact with only a handful of the 10,000 grape varieties that are used to produce wine: cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, zinfandel, chardonnay, maybe an occasional dribble of chenin blanc, Riesling, or petite sirah. Italy’s pinot grigio made its first appearance in the U.S. only in 1977; sauvignon blanc, merlot, and Syrah didn’t become major players here until the 1990s.
Now, sommeliers around town are gently steering diners away from yet another glass of chardonnay to appealing wines made from lesser-known grape varieties from around the world.
“I love mencía,” says Caroline Styne, co-owner and wine director of the Lucques Group (A.O.C., Caldo Verde). “It has so much versatility. It picks up the minerals in the soil and makes fantastic food wines. I think of it as a great stand-in for pinot noir.”
Besides mencía, grown mostly in northwestern Spain, Styne points to wines made from varieties like assyrtiko from Greece—“A f wine; so beautiful and bright”; carignan, born in Spain but also now common in the South of France, which Styne hails as “just such a good barbecue wine”; and Sicily’s signature grape, nero d’Avola: “A vivid expression of its terroir” and “a wine we should all be drinking more of.”
Here are brief notes on mencía, assyrtiko, Carignan, nero d’Avola, and three other comparatively obscure grape varieties that are well worth knowing.
- Traditionally, the wines made from this quintessential Sicilian grape are rich and tannic, with plenty of alcohol and often a raisiny or dried-fig character. Wines made from grapes grown at higher elevations tend to be more elegant.
Recommended: Planeta La Segreta, $14, and COS Nero di Lupo, $30.
- A popular blending grape in France’s Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon region and in Spain’s Priorat (and long a staple of California jug wines, but don’t hold that against it), Carignan typically yields meaty, spicy wines with juicy, blackberry-like fruit.
Recommended: Iché Les Hérètiques VdP de l’Hérault, $10, and Terroir al Límit Arbossar Carignan Priorat, $100.
- Expect a brilliant, dark-red hue, appealing floral aromas, and flavors of cherry and strawberry in this up-and-coming Spanish cultivar. Wines made from mencía grapes will sit well with lovers of pinot noir or Barolo.
Recommended: Mencía “El Mismo” Trasto, La Osa, $22, and Guimaro Finca Meixeman, $40.
- As its name suggests, the tannat grape produces highly tannic wines, typically earthy and jammy, especially in its homeland of Madiran in southwestern France. It’s also now widely used in Uruguay, where it’s usually vinified in a pleasant, lighter style.
Recommended: Establecimiento Juanico 2018 Don Pascual Coastal Tannat (Uruguay), $15, and Domaine Labranche-Laffont Madiran Vieilles Vignes, $27.
- Crisp and fresh, with a distinct mineral character, assyrtiko—especially from its probable birthplace, the island of Santorini—is a perfect partner for grilled fish or shrimp.
Recommended: Tselepos Canava Chrissou “Vieilles Vignes” Santorini Assyrtiko, $35, and Assyrtiko by Gaia “Wild Ferment,” $42.
- Marsanne is key in hermitage blanc and other whites in the northern Rhône. Santa Barbara County vintner Bob Lindquist was a marsanne pioneer in California back in 1987 and still makes the state’s definitive version. In France and Australia, as well as here, marsanne can be crafted into complex wines, worthy of aging, that evoke aromas of roasted almonds and ripe peaches.
Recommended: Lindquist Family Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Marsanne, $38, and M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette Hermitage, $100.
- Grown primarily in northern Argentina, torrontés grapes produce lush, fresh, intensely aromatic wines—think jasmine or peach blossoms but less cloying. They’re generally inexpensive, easy to like, and delicious with Thai or Chinese food or just for sipping on a warm afternoon.
Recommended: Bodega Colomé, $10, and Susana Balbo Crios, $13.
This story is from the June 2022 issue of Los Angeles magazine:
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