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Drinking Out Loud

'Unknown' Wines

Where are they? Who are they?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer wants to know which regions and grapes you think are undeservedly unknown.

Matt Kramer
Posted: November 1, 2016

So there I was in Ontario, Canada, about two weeks ago. It was a quick trip where multiple producers had generously agreed to convene at one or another winery so that multiple wines could be tasted and discussed with ease.

At one such tasting, a producer poured his sparkling wine. It was striking stuff, really fine, the sort that even the most exacting Champagne lover would find both intriguing and gratifying.

“What is this?” I asked, as politely as possible.

“It's Trius Winery Showcase 5 Blanc de Noir,” came the reply. “It's 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Pinot Meunier. And it's spent five years on the lees in the bottle.”

Believe me, it's lovely: rich, creamy, surprisingly un-leesy for a wine with five years of lees contact. It also showed best in a big glass rather than one of those skinny things too often designated as a Champagne glass and used unthinkingly for any and all wines that have bubbles.

It was not the first impressive sparkling wine I've had from Ontario. Last year I bought and hauled home two cases of a 100 percent Pinot Noir sparkling wine from a tiny winery called The Old Third, in Prince Edward County (on the colder north shore of Lake Ontario). It had three years on the lees. And it too was exceptional, one of the finest 100 percent Pinot Noir sparkling wines I've had outside of Champagne itself.

Also on this latest trip, I had, for the second time, a bottle of Flat Rock Cellars “Crowned” sparkling wine, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend that has six years on the lees in the bottle. It too is nothing less than remarkable bubbly by anybody's measure, the Chardonnay giving the blend a striking degree of finesse.

I couldn't help but think to myself, “Why are these wines, and so many others, unknown?”

Now, I use the word “unknown” with a certain literary license. Of course, there's no such thing as an unknown wine. Everywhere in the world, wines have a local—and often avid—audience.

Sometimes these wines remain unknown because they aren't distinctive enough to justify the cost and effort of bringing them to a farther-flung audience. Or maybe the supply isn't big enough. Or perhaps the producer wants only to be a local hero and to hell with the larger world. Fair enough on all counts.

Still, too many fine wines slip through the net. Life is unfair, you say. Got it. But here's where modern-day crowd-sourcing shows its strength. Sure, I've got a column and a platform. And yes, I likely taste more wines and visit more wine districts around the world than your average wine drinker. But what is that compared to the collective experience and exposure of all of us wine lovers together? My experience is but a narrow slice. What's on offer to us today is vast.

All of which brings me back to this business of “unknown” wines. It's astonishing just how many producers are delivering original, distinctive goods. But for a variety of reasons—personal ambition, capital, obscurity of location, or perhaps just a sheer lack of pizzazz—they go unnoticed, or at least insufficiently noticed.

For example, how many Syrah lovers are aware of Cabot Vineyards in California's Humboldt County. Owner-winemaker John Cabot makes wines from the northernmost vineyards in California, cool-climate beauties that deserve greater attention. (For the record, I have tried.)

Likely, it's the very isolation of Cabot's location that inhibits deserved attention. And his production is indeed small. But so too is that of many Burgundy producers who nevertheless get plenty of attention.

Myself, I would nominate such places as Australia's Hunter Valley, which despite a continuous winegrowing history dating to 1825 has never achieved the worldwide recognition it deserves. I'd also toss in Italy's Valle d'Aosta as undeservedly unknown, despite some exquisite wines made from indigenous grape varieties grown at high elevations.

The list of worthy “unknowns” clearly is lengthy, and your nominations/suggestions matter. Which winery or wines or grapes or regions are undeservedly unknown today? Madiran? Sherry? South Africa? Tasmania? Grapes such as Lagrein or Monastrell/Mourvèdre? Greece? Are we missing something from Mexico? Or Uruguay? Or Brazil?

You tell me. Better yet, tell us all. Unknown wines, producers or even whole districts don't deserve obscurity in today's connected world.

I look forward to your nominations of the unknown or underrated. It's a rich vein to be mined, don't you think?

Stewart Lancaster
beaver, pa —  November 1, 2016 12:59pm ET
Tasmania. My son brought me back a sauvignon blanc and pinot noir that were wonderful. Great acidity
Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  November 1, 2016 11:48pm ET
i started drinking the Ciro appellation from calabria which use the gaglioppo grape.Rustic wines with notes of cherry,pate d amande and portugease ginja.The Good wines from that region still detail for below 20$,the great ones a bit over 20$
Kathryn Merchant
Cincinnati OH —  November 3, 2016 9:47am ET
I recently toured Southwest France with the Wine Scholar Guild. This very diverse region struggles to be understood coherently in the global marketplace, especially in the shadow of adjacent Bordeaux. Some people may know that Malbec originates from Cahors. Others might possibly know that Tannat claims Madiran as its spiritual home. But I've never met anyone who knows much about the capability of Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng, or Courbu and Petit Courbu, to make sparkling, still dry, and luscious sweet wines that can rival Sauternes from regions including Jurancon, Gaillac, and Fronton. And then there's Irouleguy. I believe this little Basque oasis in the foothills of the French side of the Pyrenees is not at all known. It's a real shame, one I would love to help correct in the public consciousness. As a wine writer, I have summarized several parts of our weeklong mid-October journey -- more to come -- on the Wine Scholar Guild's Facebook page and will soon repost them on my own blog vinoventurescincinnati.com. What I would really love is to write about Southwest France for Wine Spectator, but I am awareness that you only rarely invite freelance writing. So I hope that you will add awareness of Southwest France to any followup pieces to help uncover unknown (or little known) wine regions. Kathy Merchant, DipWSET, CSW
Cody Hall
Philadelphia —  November 3, 2016 11:24am ET
I tried Chatus, from the edge of the Massif Central near Ardeche and loved it. It's both an obscure grape and a lesser-known region. I only discovered it because of an entry in an old ampelography describing the area's devastation by phyloxerra, and the unique terrace and training systems once used to cultivate the grape. It's still coming back from the edge of extinction today, just as Viognier was a little while ago.
Ryland Barlow
Virginia —  November 4, 2016 8:07am ET
I would like to let more people know about the quality wines from Virginia out there. There are gorgeous vineyard to be seen, especially in Central Virginia, Norther Virginia, and Shenandoah Valley, producing unique wines. Viognier and Cabernet Franc, and even Riesling, have become the flagships with Petit Manseng starting to make inroads as well. Specifically, I had a Cabernet Franc from Stone Mountain (located at 1,700’ BTW) that blew me away, tasting even better than I remembered it from the winery the previous year. Rockbridge usually makes a nice V D’or ice wine every year at a much better price point than other places. And for a truly unique experience try one of the better Norton variety wines being produced. The grape was developed in Virginia in the 1800s and spread to Missouri and other places. It is an interesting combination of high acid and dark fruit, and the only North American variety without foxy notes. Unfortunately there are some mediocre bottlings out there, but the better expressions are well worth a taste.

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