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Top 10 underrated white varieties

Following our look at the world’s most underrated red varieties, we consider 10 marginalised white grapes that are tantalisingly poised on the cusp of greater recognition.

Screen-Shot-2013-11-18-at-15.12.43As Prosecco – or Glera as we must now call it – surges from strength to strength, Pinot Grigio retains a loyal following, Chardonnay attracts a broad spectrum of followers and Sauvignon Blanc appears unstoppable, any grape looking to break this dominance will need to be figuratively thick-skinned.

Fortunately for biodiversity and the curious drinker, plenty of winemakers both large and small are planting less familiar grapes in new places, using new techniques and fresh marketing ideas in a bid to bring them to a wider audience.

Whether driven by climate change or a desire to create the next big thing, many of these efforts are highlighted over the following pages as we pick up some potential stars of the future.

10. Pignoletto

PignolettoIt’s difficult to understand what helps one variety rise to fame while other worthy candidates languish in obscurity, but making it onto the shelves of one of the world’s largest retailers definitely helps.

Pignoletto may not be about to replicate the astonishing success of Prosecco, but this native of Emilia-Romagna managed to catch the eye of Tesco a few years ago, which now lists a sparkling expression under its Finest label.

Productive, light and refreshing, Pignoletto seems ideally suited as a candidate for fuelling the world’s growing love affair with sparkling wine. That said, with Tesco rumoured to be slashing its wine, beer and spirits range by a third, can the little underdog Pignoletto survive the cull?

9. Loureiro

loureiroAs one of the top quality grape varieties behind Portugal’s Vinho Verde, not to mention Spain’s Rías Baixas, Ribeira Sacra and Ribeiro regions, Loureiro lies behind many of those fresh, lightly aromatic white wines that have been rising in popularity over recent years.

For the moment, Albariño is doing a good job of stealing the limelight when it comes to these north-west Iberian styles that offer such a perfect match for seafood and summer. However, as these wines expand their audience, there will hopefully be a chance for Loureiro to shine in its own right, especially now that this grape is appearing more often as a single variety rather than being lost in a blend.

Vinho Verde is one region in particular that has been shifting its wine style to attract a more international audience. Here Loureiro has been nudged towards a drier, weightier, more complex expression. While some have expressed concern about the move away from Vinho Verde’s traditional spritzy, high acid, lower alcohol blends, this new facet to its personality does appear to be boosting exports.

8. Assyrtiko

AssyrtikoThis native of Santorini has proved its ability to create high quality, well structured and intensely flavoured white wines in hot conditions without losing acidity.

Those properties should make the variety an interesting candidate for the many warmer climate winemakers in countries such as Chile and Australia now looking to the Mediterranean as more appropriate inspiration than Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Indeed, 2012 saw leading Clare Valley producer Jim Barry Wines plant 600 vines of what was believed to be the first Assyrtiko in Australia after tasting wine made from the grape while on holiday in the Greek islands.

It’s still too early to see the results from this experiment, but at the time managing director Peter Barry said: “Clare is a cool district with good rainfall but we must face up to climate change and water scarcity and adapt our management appropriately. Varieties which can grow on minimal irrigation and still produce contemporary wine styles is what we all look for.”

7. Sauvignon Gris

Sauvignon GrisWill the world ever tire of Sauvignon Blanc? And if so, where will it turn next? Some producers believe that Sauvignon Gris could provide a useful but still comfortable alternative.

A mutation of its better known relative, Sauvignon Gris has likewise enjoyed a career boost by heading outside its native France to seek success in countries such as Chile and New Zealand.

In the former country, respected producers such as Cousiño Macul, Viña Leyda and Casa Marin all feature a Sauvignon Gris in their portfolios. Meanwhile in New Zealand, Pernod Ricard’s Brancott Estate seems to be taking this grape variety more and more seriously, claiming around 90% of the country’s total plantings – Villa Maria is another high profile producer to make a Sauvignon Gris.

Having first planted the variety over a decade ago, Brancott launched a second expression last year. Chief winemaker Patrick Materman suggests that wines made from this variety may suit “people who find the vibrant acidity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc a little too much.”

6. Carricante

carricanteNot to be confused with fellow Sicilian grape Catarratto, Carricante is perhaps the most appropriate white foil to this island’s classy and equally promising red counterpart Nerello Mascalese.

As with Nerello, Carricante is found across Sicily but seems to be showing particular promise in the volcanic soils of Mount Etna. Indeed, anyone producing wine under the Etna Bianco DOC must by law use a minimum of 60% Carricante in the blend, a proportion that rises to 80% for Etna Bianco Superiore

Among the producers waving the flag most vigorously for the potential of these Etna wines is Sicilian specialist Planeta, who recently launched a pair of Carricante wines from this region.

Explaining the particular appeal of Carricante over other local white varieties, co-owner Alessio Planeta argued: “for me Carricante is the one – it has that white flower flavour, minerals and acidity for long aging.”

Although plantings of Carricante remain small – just 264 hectares in Italy according to data from 2000 – and there is as yet little evidence of it travelling further afield, if this variety is able to prove itself on Etna then it may well join other high quality Mediterranean grapes that have already caught the eye of international winemakers.

5. Furmint

furmintInextricably linked with one of the world’s most historically admired wines, Tokaji, Furmint has a long track record of producing top quality wines, and yet would draw blank stares from most wine drinkers.

In part, that PR issue is linked to the wider challenges facing Tokaji’s own revival, emerging from decades of damage from phylloxera, war and communism into a world that had largely lost its taste for sweet wines.

Today, however, producers such as Royal Tokaji are working hard to restore the region to its former international glory through a combination of inventive serving suggestions, single vineyard releases and even dry styles which show off Furmint’s charms in more contemporary way.

With many of today’s younger generation of sommeliers captivated by the food-friendly, charismatic expressions offered by Furmint, not just in Hungary but Slovenia and Austria too, the variety has also been given the chance of more mainstream appeal as a recent addition to Tesco’s Finest range.

4. Savagnin

savagnin_blancJust as its red neighbour Trousseau has been riding a wave of recherché popularity in the wine bars of New York, so too is Savagnin helping to drive demand for Jura wine.

This ancient variety is perhaps most closely associated with the region’s Sherry-like vin jaune wines, a perfect fit for the natural wine movement which continues to attract disciples and detractors in equal measure.

However, there are also some distinguished producers making less oxidative styles of Savagnin. Among these is Domaine du Pélican, an estate bought in 2012 by the owner of Burgundy’s Marquis d’Angerville, who bring not just expertise in winemaking but also international distribution to a region that remains relatively undiscovered.

Further afield, Savagnin may have got off on the wrong foot in Australia, when it was originally mis-identified as Albariño, but some producers such as Drakesbrook Wines in Western Australia have embraced the grape as an interesting alternative to the country’s more widely planted varieties.

3. Grenache Blanc

Grenache BlancIts better known red incarnation is one of the most widely planted but, in some well-qualified people’s view, underrated wines in the world, so spare a thought for its even less well-known, paler sister Grenache Blanc.

As with Grenache Noir, this variety’s heartland lies in southern France and Spain, but plantings are in steady decline with many producers preferring to view the grape as a workhorse rather than a star player.

Prone to high alcohol levels and oxidation though it may be, in the right hands Grenache Blanc is capable of making everything from easy-drinking, floral whites to more serious, textured wines such as the expression from Rhône star Château Rayas that features this variety as 50% of its blend.

Also worthy of note, and arguably even more underrated than the variety itself, are the vins doux naturels of Roussillon, where Grenache Blanc plays a central role in creating these venerable, charismatic and often outrageously good value fortified wines.

2. Fiano

FianoAnother grape variety whose crisp, fruity charms have helped it tip-toe, if not into mainstream consciousness, then certainly into the ranges of most UK supermarkets these days. It’s also easy to pronounce, which possibly gives Fiano the edge over its fellow southern Italian grape Falanghina, although this too seems to be making steady headway in the supermarkets.

Giving Fiano a valuable boost is the interest that this grape is sparking Down Under, with Australian winemakers embracing it as part of a wider move towards Mediterranean – but especially Italian – varieties that can thrive in warmer, dry climates.

While ambitious producer Fox Gordon has been producing a particularly stylish Fiano from vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, the grape has also been adopted by some of the country’s largest brands.

Jacob’s Creek added a Fiano to its range last year alongside a Sangiovese, the result of trials with 12 different Mediterranean varieties. Explaining their appeal, Jacob’s Creek chief red winemaker Nick Bruer commented: “They seem to perform well in a warm climate, retaining delicacy and good varietal typicity. There’s also a implicit concept that Italian varieties should be good with food.”

1. Semillon

260px-Semillon-2It seems wrong that a variety so ostensibly mainstream as Semillon should feature in this list, but it’s difficult to think of any other grape whose top class, original, age-worthy wines can struggle so much to win the attention they deserve.

If you look beyond the celebrity status of Yquem, Sauternes is struggling to find it way in the modern market, with some producers turning to dry styles as one possible solution.

Then there’s the great old vine Semillon plantings of Hunter Valley and Barossa, just waiting for the world to notice them. Some producers such as Lindeman’s are holding back their best examples for several years before release so that they reach the market closer to their prime, although this is financially and spatially prohibitive for many.

For other producers such as McGuigan, who enjoyed success with “The Semillon Blanc” when it launched in 2010, the solution is to create a style capable of tackling the ever-popular Sauvignon Blanc head on.

Of course, Semillon can also work in partnership with its Sauvignon Blanc rival to great effect, as shown by the great Graves whites and their Australian “SBS” and “SSB” counterparts, whose perhaps most distinguished examples can be found in Margaret River and Adelaide Hills. Despite their quality – and blissful match with seafood – these wines have struggled to gain the profile at home or abroad that their winemakers ardently believe they deserve.

Semillon also has a long history in South Africa, but again has been overlooked in favour of Sauvignon Blanc during recent decades. Now, however, there are signs that the variety could enjoy something of a renaissance on the back of South Africa’s increasingly admired white blends.

Among the prime examples is Chris Alheit’s Chenin Blanc/Semillon blend Cartology, which Tim Atkin MW hailed as setting “a new benchmark for South African whites.” 

Meanwhile one of the country’s most highly regarded Sauvignon Blanc producers, Cape Point Vineyards, uses Semillon as a key blending component in its top end Isliedh expression.

Despite all its hard work in the background, until Semillon makes the break onto front labels of the stars it creates, this variety looks set to remain among the world’s most unfairly and dramatically underrated grapes.

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