It’s astonishing to see how many people opt to buy cases and cases of the same wine year in and year out. With thousands upon thousands of wildly diverse wines emerging from nearly every corner of the globe each year, it’s practically a vinous crime to limit yourself to one particular brand, let alone one particular grape variety.
So in the name of experimentation, put down that bottle of Napa Cab, and make 2011 the year you branch out into the obscure, offbeat universe of fabulous wines you’ve never heard of. Risk breeds reward, as they say!
Here are the top five offbeat and intriguing wines you should look for in 2011:
If you’re a fan of crisp, citrusy whites and tend to gravitate towards clean, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc, Assyrtiko is the wine for you. This dynamic wine is indigenous to the Greek island of Santorini and is one of the major reasons Greece is now considered to be a world-class wine growing region. The best examples of Assyrtiko are characterized by a briny, mouth-watering, and mineral-edged salinity that comes from the maritime climate in which Assyrtiko is grown. Wines made from Assyrtiko are typically bright and vibrant in the mouth and show bracing notes of grapefruit, lemon peel, chalky minerals, and tangy passion fruit.
Blaufränkisch is Austria’s all-star red wine that typically grows in the region of Burgenland. The coolest thing about Blaufränkisch is that it yields wines that can be drastically different in style. Some examples tend towards the light-bodied finesse of Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo and others are much more rich, spicy, and seductive in style, recalling Syrah from the northern Rhone in France. No matter the expression, Blaufränkisch is undoubtedly one of the world’s most delicious and distinctive wines.
Kerner is an extremely unique grape variety whose characteristic aromas of honeysuckle, peach, and mango are simply beguiling. Kerner is a cross between 2 grapes: Riesling and Trollinger (a red grape also known as Schiava) and is one of the most pretty, feminine, and floral wines out there. It’s grown primarily in Germany, northern Italy (in the region of Alto Adige), Austria, and Switzerland and tends to be richly textured and lush in the mouth. If you’re a Riesling drinker, take a little leap and experiment with Kerner.
Spain is a veritable treasure trove of eccentric native grapes and Mencia is one of the country’s most interesting. Mencia comes from two different regions in Spain: Ribeira Sacra (which is located within the larger region of Galicia) and Bierzo, and the grape’s expression in these different growing zones could not be more distinct. In the area of Ribeira Sacra, Mencia is often produced in a fresh, straightforward, and unoaked style and shows clean and precise flavors of red cherry, red currant, tart raspberry, and minerals. Some of the region’s pricier bottlings do see some oak and are fantastic as well. These are wines of unprecedented purity that grow on steep terraces built by the Romans in the area’s river valleys and truly reflect their place of origin.
Mencia that grows in Bierzo, on the other hand, is usually very meaty, inky, exotic, and brooding in style. These are polished wines that are redolent of blackberries, wildflowers, iron, and led pencil shavings. Some wines in this region are also made in a fresh, unadorned style as they are in Ribeira Sacra. No matter where it comes from, Mencia should definitely be on your short list of new wines to try.
Croatia is steadily gaining momentum in the wine world, and its native grape, Plavac Mali, is leading the effort. Plavac Mali is said to be a descendent of Zinfandel, in the same way that Italy’s grape, Primitivo, is related to Zin. Plavac is technically a cross between ancient Zinfandel and Dobricic grapes and hails from the Croatian peninsula of Peljesac. Wines made with Plavac Mali tend to be quite tannic in style and show bold flavors of wild strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry fruit as well as exotic spices. As Croatian wines are still very much under the radar, you can find some spectacular examples at very low prices.