The World's Three Greatest Underrated Wines, 2015 Edition

In today's wine world, too many superb wines slip past the net
The World's Three Greatest Underrated Wines, 2015 Edition
Matt Kramer's newest list of underrated wines includes regions in Australia, France and Spain. (Jon Moe)
Jul 21, 2015

You would think that in our we're-all-connected-now world that no wine of any real quality could go unnoticed or unappreciated. Yet it's not so. A variety of reasons contribute to a lack of recognition.

This is worth exploring briefly, if only to underscore that although we feel like we're deluged with wines from everywhere, the fact is that many of the world's most interesting wines don't reach our shores (or those of other nations either).

Wines or wine districts often go unrecognized or are underrated because the wines simply aren't exported or, more common yet, the best wines of the zone never get sent.

Many Europeans, for example, are puzzled by the hoopla over California, Oregon and Washington wines. Why? Because the best examples from those locales never reach European markets. Indeed, some of the very best wines never leave their home state or even, thanks to direct-to-consumer winery mailing lists, reach the conventional stream of commerce even locally.

Sometimes wines are underrated or unrecognized because of changing tastes. This is particularly true for sweet wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji and Loire Valley districts such as Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux.

Finally, there's the element of fashion. In the same way that there's no accounting for taste, neither is it easy to explain the vagaries of fashion either.

For example, Riesling was hugely popular among American wine drinkers in the 1970s—and not just the ones seeking a simple, cheap sweet swill, either. A decade later it plummeted out of fashion and has never recovered in either popular esteem or sales. There's no rational explanation for this, except to point to fashion.

All that noted, allow me to nominate what I, anyway, consider the World's Three Greatest Underrated Wines, 2015 edition. I emphasize the element of an annual submission because A) I'd like to revisit this topic regularly as there are a lot of worthy contenders and B) because, thankfully, the aforementioned fortunes of fashion do change. Wines that once went unrecognized or underrated are now the new darlings. Think Grüner Veltliner, cru Beaujolais or, most recently of all, Douro table wines, to name but three.

1. Hunter Valley Sémillon. I will happily declare that the world's greatest unrecognized dry white wine today is Hunter Valley Sémillon.

How unrecognized is it? When I lived in Melbourne, it was next to impossible to find any. This was not because of limited supply but rather, because for reasons that are incomprehensible, Melbourne's wine drinkers (they are both legion and thirsty) don't care for it.

When I asked Hunter Valley producers why they don't promote their extraordinary Sémillon in Melbourne their reply was, "We don't bother any more with Melbourne. They don't like our Sémillon." The American in me was boggled. I mean, Australia only has two really big urban markets. And this is their home market, never mind trying to make inroads in the United States, Asia or Europe.

How unique is Hunter Valley Sémillon? Consider this: Hunter Valley is a very warm winegrowing zone that's a three-hour drive north of Sydney. (Substitute a "three-hour drive south of Los Angeles" and you'll get the idea.)

Yet Hunter Valley Sémillon is rarely more than 11 percent alcohol, delivers a wonderfully crisp natural acidity and yet, even though harvested very early—which explains the low alcohol and bright acidity—the grapes are fully ripe in flavor development. (The fancy term for this is phenologically ripe.) This makes no sense. Yet it's so.

When young, Hunter Valley Sémillon is disappointing. It seems thin, acidic and flavorless. Yet after a decade of age it blossoms into an astounding dry white wine proffering an eye-pleasing pale green tint and a scent and taste suffused with minerality and resonant with a lemon curd note.

The greatest examples, such as Tyrrell's Vat 1 Sémillon, McWilliams Mount Pleasant Lovedale Sémillon and Brokenwood ILR Reserve Sémillon, are comparable to grand cru Chablis—and that's not a name I take lightly or in vain. Yet the world sails serenely by, missing out on this singular dry white wine.

2. Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra Mencía. I have yet to meet a Pinot Noir lover who hasn't fallen in love with Spain's Mencía grape. The motherhouse of this red variety are two separate zones in northwest Spain, Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra.

Both were cultivated by Cistercian monks, which calls to mind the observation made by Arthur Young (about Burgundy's Cistercian-created Clos de Vougeot) in his 1792 book Travels in France: "When are we to find these fellows choosing badly?" When indeed.

Both Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra specialize in the Mencía grape, although not exclusively so. And each district delivers a different version, with Bierzo's wines being collectively richer and more burly, with Ribeira Sacra's version more stony/minerally, with a greater sense of delicacy. These are generalizations to be sure, but defensible ones, I think.

In Bierzo, you have such stellar producers as Raúl Pérez, who offers an array of single-vineyard wines, Losada Vinos de Finca and Descendientes de J. Palacios, among others. (The latter two producers lavish their wines with too much oak for my taste, but the underlying fruit is superb.)

Ribeira Sacra, for its part, boasts stellar producers such as Dominio do Bibei and Guímaro, who are easily my two favorites. Raúl Péréz, more closely associated with Bierzo, also creates wines from Ribeira Sacra. Another top name is D. Ventura.

For some reason, Ribeira Sacra producers seem more restrained in their use of oak than their neighbors in Bierzo, perhaps because the richer, more-structured Mencía wine from Bierzo seems better-structured to handle more oak, which is certainly an understandable premise.

More important is what both districts have in common, which are superbly defined red wines filled with a scent and flavor that many tasters (me included) describe as "slate"; supple tannins; refreshing acidity; and a perfuminess that sends Pinot Noir lovers into a swoon. If there's a problem it's that some producers are using too much new oak. But they'll grow out of that.

Mencía from both Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra is one of the modern world's red wine wonders, capable of taking on all comers in flavor distinction and originality.

3. Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. The rap on Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is a kind of "throws like a girl" smear, namely that Loire Cab Franc is too "green." This is a smear because the tasters who assert this are the sorts who prefer overripe Cabernet Sauvignon and look constantly for "cassis" in their Cabernet and also because the past decade's worth of Loire Cabernet Franc is collectively different from older versions.

What's changed? Maybe the weather, depending upon who you talk to. But really it's the grapegrowing and the winemaking.

Loire Cabernet Franc is now more selectively picked (with green harvesting in August eliminating unlikely-to-fully-ripen grapes), a willingness to harvest later despite the threat of autumn rains and, above all, superior winemaking. Lesser barrels are eliminated. Fresher, cleaner flavors are emphasized. Not least, growers are isolating and bottling superior single-vineyard sites.

All of these elements have combined to make Loire Valley Cabernet Franc one of the world's most underrated—and undervalued—red wines.

Will this change? Hard to say. It is true that Loire Valley Cab Franc shows far better with food than on its own in a clinical, food-bereft tasting lineup. That's a structural problem that's hard to skirt.

But for those of us who enjoy our wines—and assess them—with a meal, then Loire Valley Cabernet Franc deserves attention. The number of high-performing producers keeps increasing and they are spread across numerous districts such as Saumur, Chinon, Bourgueil, Anjou and nearly a dozen others. Many of them are small and only spottily distributed, often by adventurous small local importers looking for good deals.

For example, I bought a lovely Cab Franc from Domaine des Forges for $16 a bottle; another favorite of mine has been Domaine Guion in Bourgueil, as well as Domaine Fabrice Gasnier in Chinon. There are hundreds of producers to choose from, with new discoveries seemingly appearing every year.

You can't beat the prices, as most Loire Cabernet Francs are downright cheap. And the quality is surging higher with every good vintage.

So those are my three candidates for 2015.

Your nominations are welcome. I can think of quite a few other contenders such as South African wines, Chardonnay from Ontario and Gamay from British Columbia, yet other districts in Australia or New Zealand and up-and-comers such as Hungary or even England. And on and on. I look forward to your thoughts.

Values Red Wines White Wines Cabernet Franc Sémillon Opinion

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