Off The Beaten Path: Obscure Reds

Three international varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir — are considered “noble varieties” because they are grown worldwide in varied climates but still maintain their varietal characteristics. These grapes make some of the best known, and arguably the finest, wines on the market. However, there are many hundreds of red wine grapes grown around the world. Why limit yourself to just three?

I asked several local wine enthusiasts what they drink when they want a break from being noble.

Peter Sullivan, principal at The Sullivan Group in Worcester and wine aficionado, says that when he’s looking for a change he looks to Italy. He said he has a few favorite alternatives, including Nebbiolo from Piedmont.

Piedmont is located at the foot of the Alps, hence “pied” “mont,” in Northwestern Italy. The main red grape in the area is Nebbiolo, which is responsible for producing exquisite Barolo and Barbaresco. This grape thrives in the unique Alpine climate, a pure representation of terroir.

Nebbiolo is thin-skinned like Pinot Noir so it produces a wine that is similar in color (ruby red in its youth) but much fuller bodied and higher in acid and tannin, which makes the wines very long lived. With age, the violet and rose petal perfume with layers of leather and tar becomes intensely heady. Sullivan says he finds that Nebbiolo wines are reliably high quality.

“I read in a blog,, that Nebbiolo ‘is a thinking person’s wine: subtle yet bold, simple yet complex,’ and I completely agree. There are so many facets to the grape and the wines that are made from them. I really can’t turn away Barolo, Barbaresco, or Gattinara. A good Nebbiolo from a reliable producer can sometimes be pricey. However, some of the more notable producers available in our market such as Vietti and Paolo Scavino are more affordable, in the $40 to $50 range.

Luke M. Vaillancourt, one of the people responsible for Worcester’s first Wine Festival in October, finds his off-the-beaten-track red wines in France.

“When I first dove into the wonderful world of wine, I tended to stick with the basic Cabernet Sauvignon wines as safe wines that wouldn’t disappoint,” says the founder of www.massfoodies. com. “It took me years to appreciate the nuances and complexity that red grape varieties offer, and today I find myself sticking exclusively to wines of Northern Rhone or Châteauneuf-du-Pape — with particular interest in wines based on Grenache noir.”

The wines of the Rhone tell the story of two main red grapes: Syrah in the North and Grenache in South. Overall, there are 13 main red grape varieties grown in this Mediterranean area of France, all of which are allowed in the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend of the Southern Rhone.

However, Syrah dominates the Northern Rhone wines. Very thick-skinned variety Northern Rhone wines are deeply concentrated blue black, high in acid, tannin, and can tend toward high alcohol, with intense violet aromas. The Grenache variety is paler, softer and rounder with strawberry and mineral aromas. When blended, these two varieties balance harmoniously to produce the signature wines of the Rhone.

Vaillancourt prefers the Grenache-heavy wines of the Southern Rhone.

“The grape yields such a round, spicy flavor that channels tobacco, black cherry, and even a bit of olive. It’s a variety that gives me comfort, whether enjoying during a hearty winter’s meal or with a cigar on a balmy summer’s evening.”

Beyond the Rhone, Vaillancourt can reliably find alternative reds across the French wine regions.

“In my opinion, the greatest things in the world areFrench, and that also applies to wine. I may be stubborn, but I’d rather drink a bad French red (if that were to really

exist) than a ‘great’ American white.”

The most widely available Rhone wines come from the famous Rhone negociant E. Guigal. Southern Rhone wines labeled Cotes du Rhone tend to be very affordable, in the $12 to $15 range. Whereas a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a Northern Cote Rotie start at $35 and can cost much, much more, particularly in low volume vintages in the North.

If you are on the hunt for something completely different, you ask wine professionals, also known as “wine geeks.” Wine geeks love to seek out wines that are completely in left field but, surprisingly, are frequently available in fine wine shops.

Luiz Alberto, a Wellesley wine blogger (, says, “One of the most noble of the Greek red grapes, Agiorghitiko (meaning St.George’s) is one red wine that deserves more attention than it currently enjoys.”

The former Master of Wine student explains, “pronounced Ah yor yee’ ti ko, it is the most planted red variety in the country, producing wines that display deep red color and stunning aromatic complexity. Agiorghitiko’s ripe tannins, in combination with a well-balanced acidity, allows the production of many different styles of wine; from fresh, aromatic rosé wines, to extraordinary, complex, well-structured, full-bodied reds.

There’s an Agiorghitiko for every taste.”

Maggie Campbell, head distiller at Privateer Rum in Ipswich, says her go-to “geek” red is “Trollinger, this cool climate grape variety is mainly grown in the Alto Adige region of Italy and Germany around the town of Stuttgart.” The Master of Wine candidate explains that taking a risk on this variety is not a risk at all because its “ight silky body, loves a light chill making it great for food pairing (especially lunch!), low tannin makes it super approachable for getting the uninitiated to try something obscure.

Plus, it is really value priced but quality has improved a lot in the last 5-10 years.”

The number of high-quality wines available in the Massachusetts market is on an upward trend. It seems that the wine buyers in our local shops and restaurants are actively trying to break us out of our boring wine drinking habits, and it is time for you to take them up on the challenge.

This winter I encourage you to seek out a bottle of “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” and open your mind and your palate to new opportunities.

Woods, S. (2017, Winter). Off the beaten path: Obscure reds. Worcester Living, 79-82.