We are all aware of the popular international red wine grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. We can browse the supermarket or off licence shelves and pick out a bottle of Grenache or Syrah/Shiraz with some confidence, knowing what to expect.
However, there are a whole host of other red wine grape varieties with which many of us will be unfamiliar. Many of these are indigenous to a particular country or are more commonly used in blends so the grape variety is not always highlighted on the label. Awareness of these lesser known grapes should give us the confidence to try something different from the more common international varieties and prevent us from missing out on some wonderful red wine drinking experiences.
If you enjoy reds from southern Italy you may come across the Aglianico grape. This grape was brought to Italy from Greece by the Phoenicians and these days is concentrated in the Campania and Basilicata regions with some growths in Puglia, Calabria and the island of Procida. The Aglianico grape produces a weighty and concentrated red wine with berry and smoky characteristics.
Baga is the primary grape in Portugal’s best known red table wine Bairrada. It is renowned for being extremely tannic but modern wine-making techniques are succeeding in softening the tannins sufficiently to allow the berry characteristics to come through. Baga is used as both a varietal and in blends and can be aged for up to 20 years in the bottle. Aging adds depth to the wine and whilst it can be an enjoyable drink it would not be called a fine wine.
Barbera is one of the two red wine grapes dominating the vineyards in the Piedmont region of Italy. Young Barbera wines tend to be light and fruity with fresh cherry characteristics whilst aged Barbera wines have a weightier character with hints of sour cherry. Increasingly, Barbera wines are being barrique-aged which gives the wine a rounder feel and brings out characteristics of plum and spice. Barbera d’Asti tends to be elegant with a brighter red colour whilst Barbera d’Alba is usually darker in colour and more complex and powerful. Whilst Piedmont is Barbera’s homeland it is becoming popular in some New World areas such as California, Argentina and Australia.
Cabernet Franc was once the king of red wine grapes but it has been overshadowed by its far more famous offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon. These days it is regarded as a minor grape, featuring in Bordeaux blends. In fact, its inclusion in many Bordeaux blends helps to bring out the best in Cabernet Sauvignon and it makes a fine varietal in its own right. Try out the Cabernet Francs from the Chinon and Bourgueil areas of the Loire Valley and you will find a delicious red wine full of raspberry characteristics with hints of fruit leaves.
Carignan is a hot climate red wine grape which was once a major contributor towards Europe’s wine lake but is now falling in popularity, although it is still found in large volumes in Languedoc-Roussillon. The problem with Carignan is that the vines tend to be very high yielding which results in an often underwhelming wine. However, when vinified using carbonic maceration and blended with other red wine grapes such as Grenache or Shiraz it can come into its own. The key to success with Carignan is old vines and low yields. Some Languedoc producers are prepared to put the work in and the result is a fine wine. Carignan is found elsewhere around the world, often under a slightly different name. Old Carignan from Chile is worth looking out for.
Chambourcin is a relatively new French hybrid red wine grape. It has only been planted since the 1960s and is found in table wine in south west France and in some wines from the Pays Nantais area in the Loire Valley. It is also grown in Australia where it is produced as a varietal, occasionally as a sparkling red wine and is sometimes blended with Shiraz. Chambourcin produces a deep purple coloured wine with strong flavours of plum and black cherry and occasionally with hints of game and spice.
Cinsaut, or Cinsault as it is known in France, is another red wine grape where the quality of the resulting wine is dependent on the yield. Low yield Cinsaut wines can be rich and lush and full of character. It is one of a group of red wine grapes which are known for improving wines if used in a blend and is often used in the Languedoc region of France to soften reds produced from the Carignan grape. It is a popular grape in North African countries such as Lebanon and Algeria and is Corsica’s primary red wine grape.
Image by die.tine.