Like This? Try that: Indigenous Grapes Edition

Like This? Try that: Indigenous Grapes Edition

Apr 26, 2022Gage Kennie

Have you ever heard of Prié Blanc? How about Ondenc? Chances are these grapes are not particularly familiar, because these are lesser-known indigenous varieties.

Familiar grapes like Pinot Noir, Cabernet, or Merlot, while French in origin, are referred to as international varieties due to their abundant use in major wine- regions around the world. These grapes dominate vineyard acreage, consumer recognition, and wine sales. They are also often the wines that inform our personal tastes.

While international varieties used to be the only game in town for US wine lovers, recent years have seen a renaissance when it comes to indigenous grapes. In the shop today, you’re as likely to see a Chardonnay as you are a Friulano, and Grenache rubbing shoulders with Listan Negro.

Navigating these new waters can feel dizzying. To help, I’ve identified five commonly requested wines — Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Gamay, and Chardonnay — and suggested indigenous analogs for each. The native varieties will give you a starting place to deepen your exploration and give you a chance to move beyond the familiar names you’re used to while tasting some incredible wines.

Love a bold Cabernet Sauvignon? Try Sagrantino

Cab is king! It plays the leading role in the legendary Left Bank wines of Bordeaux, it’s often the star in cult California labels, and it’s virtually a synonym for red wine — after all, it’s the most planted grape variety in the world.

When someone asks for a Cab it tells us that they like full-bodied reds, they want a wine high in tannin, and they want the fruit profile to veer towards dark fruits like black cherries and black currants.

One of my favorite recommendations is to take old-school Cab drinkers to the Italian section and introduce them to Sagrantino. Native to the central Italian region of Umbria — more specifically the Montefalco area in the Province of Perugia — Sagrantino is as big and bold as you can get.
One of the popular origin stories for its name is that it was used by the church for sacrament or sacresia. Sagrantino is incredibly tannic (even more so than Cabernet) and will deliver deep and dark fruits. Like a great Cab, it shows best with a grilled steak.

Always asking for Sauvignon Blanc? Meet Picpoul de Pinet

Sauvignon Blanc was one of the first wines I felt confident identifying in a blind tasting. It has some unmistakable aromas like grapefruit, peach, and green grassy notes. I particularly enjoy Italian versions from Friuli and of course the crisp whites of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

If you count Sancerre among your top picks on a wine list then you should consider Picpoul de Pinet. Native to the Vaucluse region in southern France, it is beloved as a blending partner to invigorate Languedoc and Provençal whites.

However, it is probably best known as a varietal wine in the appellation Picpoul de Pinet grown between Pézenas and Sète. Here you can really appreciate its citrusy and refreshing finish that will make any Sauvignon Blanc lover ask for another glass.

Crazy for Syrah? Schioppettino is for you

Syrah makes some of my all-time favorite wines. You might know it as Shiraz in Australia, as a blending partner in a Côtes du Rhône, or at its gutsiest in Cornas.

Syrah has been known to stain teeth a deep purple, knock a BBQ pairing out of the park, and gain a following of fans on the hunt for its cracked pepper and brambly fruit attributes.

I like to bring Syrah drinkers to the Italian region of Friuli and set them up with a bottle of Schioppettino. Like many of these native grapes, it was close to extinction. Thankfully, in the 1970s a few dedicated growers found some vines, brought them back from the edge, and by 2000 there were more than 230 acres planted.

While it may not have all of the same attributes as Syrah —I like to think of it as a cross between Syrah and Gamay — you’ll find that hallmark peppery note in both Syrah and Schioppettino.

Drinking a lot of Gamay? Add some Grolleau to the rotation

While Gamay may not be as ubiquitous as Cabernet and Chardonnay, it has slowly been working its way into being one of our most requested reds. A popular choice for Thanksgiving wine pairing guides, natural wine disciples, and value seekers alike, it’s at its best in one of the ten Crus of Beaujolais. I like to look towards Gamay when I want a light-bodied wine full of tart juicy red fruit.

Beaujolais will always be a go-to for me, but lately, I’ve been looking towards the Loire Valley’s native Groulleau to scratch this itch. The name, so the story goes, comes from the old French grolle meaning “black crow,” in reference to the color of the berries.

Grolleau’s relatively low alcohol content (Catherine & Pierre Breton’s 2020 at 12%) makes for a low-octane and refreshing sipper. Much like Beaujolais, I think this shows best with a slight chill.

Can't get enough Chardonnay? Give Jacquère a chance

I like to think of Chardonnay as a chameleon grape because it will soak up all of the components of place, as well as the techniques used in the winery. Buttery and oaky flavors are all driven by winemaking techniques and are not necessarily definitions of the variety. For this comparison, I’m considering the crisp and zippy Chardonnays of Chablis.

If you squeezed juice from a glacier, you would get Jacquère. Native to the Alpine regions of France, Jacquère is the most important variety of Savoie. It’s an incredibly productive vine, which is how it earned one of its nicknames, “Robinet,” meaning tap. Crisp, clean, and refreshing. I look to this for fondue, as an aperitif, and something to pair with Alpine cheeses.

These are just five suggestions for what could literally be thousands. It can be hard to get out of our comfort zone and ask for something new, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be slightly familiar.

The beauty with these grapes is that while they taste like themselves — Schioppettino tastes like Schioppettino and Jacquère tastes like Jacquère — there are common threads that tie them to wines we might be more comfortable ordering.

Next time you’re in the shop be sure to give a couple of styles you gravitate towards and then ask for some under-the-radar analogs.


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