Serious Grape: A Mixed Case of Interesting Reds and Whites for Fall

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape.


Photograph from stephee on Flickr

It's back to school time. Even if you aren't going back to school yourself, even if you don't have kids, you may be nostalgically thinking about those days of sharpened pencils, new lunchboxes, and shoes that pinched.

If you're longing to learn something new this fall, how about grapes? Most of us gravitate to the same few grapes when we buy wine and prefer to bank on familiar favorites rather than take a risk with something we're not sure we'll like. But these grapes will please most palates and provide you with an opportunity to expand your wine knowledge--and your wine comfort zone.

Because the point of this mixed case is to expand your knowledge, I'd suggest you ask your local wine store to pick out one bottle of wine made with each of the following six red grapes and six white grapes. You can always go back for more of your favorites.

Six Whites

1. Roussanne: Wines made with Roussanne grapes are rich, round, and flavorful. If you like robust Chardonnays you will probably like Roussanne. I often associate the aromas and flavors of Roussanne with ripe orchard pears. There are often melon, floral, and apple notes as well.

2. Albariño: If Roussanne reminds me of pears, Albariño always makes me think "apple." Ligher in body than Roussanne, Albariño has zest and lift to go with the richer flavors of apples, peaches, and other stone fruit. Another iconic Spanish grape, Bonny Doon has been making some excellent domestic Albariño wines in Monterey County, and Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi also makes terrific, affordable wines.

3. Prosecco: You probably thought this was a type of sparkling wine from Italy (it is), but it's also the name of the grape that goes into that sparkling wine. Prosecco grapes make light, crisp wines that are full of citrusy aromas. The best can have some floral notes, as well. And they're affordable, too.

4. Garganega: You may not be familiar with the grape, but you are probably familiar with one of the areas where it is popular: Soave in northeast Italy. Garganega wines have a pleasing bitter almond note that goes along with apple, pear, and lemon aromas and flavors. People who like Chardonnay usually like wines made with Garganega grapes and find them a refreshing alternative.

5. Verdelho: An often-overlooked grape, this historic variety goes into prized Portuguese white port and Madeira. These days, it's also being made into dry table wines. I often pick up Verdelho when I would have chosen Sauvignon Blanc but wanted something a bit different. Expect flavors and aromas of honeysuckle and peach, along with with zingy grapefruit notes. I've had very good Verdelho from California and Australia.

6. Palomino Fino: This is the grape that provides the juice for Sherry. If you've never had Sherry, you're in for a treat. The wine made with this grape have nutty, briny, and yeasty aromas and flavors. Look for a dry Fino, Amontillado, or Manzanilla Sherry to chill down and sip before dinner with a handful of almonds. You'll be in heaven.

Six Reds

1. Tempranillo: Though some readers may think this is too common a grape to appear in this mixed case, there are still a lot of people who have never tasted Spain's iconic red grape. If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, you'll like Tempranillo's gutsy berry and cherry flavors and firm tannins. Look for Spanish wines from Rioja (one maker I like is Bodegas Montecillo), as well as Tempranillos from California.

2. Gamay: I sometimes describe the wines made with this beautiful grape as "poor man's Pinot Noir." A combination of earthy and fruity aromas and flavors are typically found in the light- to medium-bodied wines made with this grape. Look for affordable wines from France's Beaujolais region, although the grape is also grown in the Loire and in parts of California, too. And don't buy last year's Beaujolais Nouveau--you can get really good Beaujolais for about $13 that isn't "nouveau."

3. Malbec: Malbecs often remind me of a cross between Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. They have all of Syrah's lush fruitiness with a bit more grip and structure. I often taste blackberry and blueberry fruit flavors, and detect notes of leather and tobacco, too. Malbec grapes are most often associated with Argentina, and for good reason. But you can find Malbecs grown in Washington State and California, too.

4. Mourvèdre: Mourvedre is often found blended with Grenache and Syrah, but it deserves its own spot in the limelight. I often taste some combination of cherries, plums, and chocolate when I drink Mourvedre--and what's not to like about that? Mourvedre is grown in France, Australia, Spain, the United States, and elsewhere so you should be able to find an affordable bottle.

5. Dolcetto: Though the name means "little sweetie," the wines made with the Dolcetto grape are dry, rich, and flavorful. What I love about them is the interesting combination of black cherry and licorice aromas and flavors. In spite of the name, Dolcetto grapes are tannic and you may need to give the wine time in the glass before it shows its real potential. Fans of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon should enjoy wines made with this grape. Look for wines from Italy, California, and Australia.

6. Nero D'Avola: If you like Syrah, especially new world Shiraz, then you will probably adore wines made with Sicily's Nero d'Avola grape. Expect to taste every berry you can name when you sip this wine, while the low tannins and spicy aftertaste make it a natural partner to soups, stews, and tomato-based dishes. There are excellent values to be had in Sicilian Nero d'Avola.

Extra Credit, Touriga Nacional: If you're thinking you've already tasted all of these grapes, earn some points and try this beautiful Portuguese grape. It is a strongly aromatic grape, with lots of tannins that pucker up the sides of your tongue when the wine is young. When they mellow out, however, these red wines are lush and velvety with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, and pepper.