Grape Varieties

An A–Z of Lesser Known White Wine Grapes (Part 1)

How adventurous are you when you buy a bottle of white wine? Do you
Posted 06th August 2012        

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How adventurous are you when you buy a bottle of white wine? Do you prefer to stick to what you know and buy a bottle of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc or do you take a risk on an unfamiliar region or grape variety?

Whilst there are many reasons to select a bottle of one of the famous international white wine grape varieties, playing it safe should not be one of them. There are many lesser known white wine grapes grown around the world producing fine and interesting wines which should be explored. To arm you with a little knowledge as you embark on that journey of exploration we shall highlight a selection of white wine grapes which may be less familiar but in many cases are just as enjoyable as their more illustrious cousins.

Burgundy is renowned for its Chardonnay wines but little attention is paid to the white wines produced in the region from the Aligote grape. The grape is concentrated in the Saone-et-Loire and Cote d’Or areas and is found scattered elsewhere in the region where the sites are unsuitable for growing Burgundy’s primary grape varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It has its own appellation in the Cote Chalonnaise and in a good year has a lovely fresh flavour with characteristics of buttermilk. It does not age well so needs to be drunk young. Aligote is also grown in many Eastern European countries but high yields tend to lead to a consequent drop in quality so these wines are probably best avoided. It is also grown occasionally in California and Chile.

Albarino is Spain’s most fashionable white wine variety. Its production is concentrated in the Galicia region where Rias Baixas has been awarded DO status and the wines are ever increasing in price. Albarino white wine is gently aromatic and usually light and refreshingly zippy with hints of exotic and citrus fruit and minerals. The grapes are usually picked before reaching full ripeness which gives the resulting wine its attractive lightness but if allowed to ripen further hints of apricot and white peach come through in the wine. The grape is known as Alvarinho in Portugal and is one of the primary grapes used in Vinho Verde.

The Bacchus white wine grape is the product of crossing Muller-Thurgau and Silvaner x Riesling grape varieties. It is primarily found in Germany, particularly in Rheinhessen where is used in blended QbA wines and in Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Franken. It is heavily scented and produces quite exotic tasting white wines when allowed to ripen fully. The Bacchus grape is also used by many producers in England where it makes table wines smelling of hedgerows with flavours of pear and elderflower.

The Chasselas grape produces light, relatively neutral white wines. The best examples come from Switzerland where the wines reflect the terroir, ranging from flowery and acidic from vines grown on granite soil to fruity with honey characteristics when originating from chalky soil. The grape is widely planted around the world but probably the best Chasselas white wine outside of Switzerland comes from Crepy in the French Savoie region.

Colombard is a white wine grape often featured on labels as part of a blend. It is used in Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne blends where it adds hints of peach and nectarine to the wine. It crops up also in blends from minor areas of Bordeaux such as Blaye to enhance the acidity and perfume of the white wines. South African producers have embraced the grape where the warm climate helps to create fresh young wines with hints of grapefruit and peach. Some Australian producers are also making some enjoyable whites from Colombard grapes.

Cortese is the grape behind the Italian white wine Gavi. It is planted primarily in Piedmont and the border with Lombardy and provided the yield is kept low and the summer is not too cool it produces white wines with good body and characteristics of greengages and limes. If you enjoy Gavi look out for wines originating from Gavi del commune di Gavi as they are often better than the wines labelled as plain Gavi.

Another Italian white wine grape is Garganega. The best known wine from this grape is Soave although it is also behind Gambellara and other whites from the Veneto region. It is a late ripening grape and at its best produces delicate, elegant and yet structured wines with characteristics of citrus fruit, almonds and greengage plums. Sadly, like so many other grapes, it loses its finesse when yields are too high and produces too many thin and dull wines. Garganega can be used to produce sweet Recioto wines which will age for a decade and longer.

Image by rkramer62.


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