Jan. 6 2016 10:16 AM

Finding wine values among obscure grapes

Obscurity can be a fulfilling adventure.

It can be exhilarating to try a wine I’ve never had before — especially if it’s priced in my favor. On the other hand, it is frustrating to seek out unique, off-the-beaten-path vino, only to discover that a decent but kind-of-innocuous wine would cost $30 to $40 here in the states. (I’m looking at you, Switzerland.) The good news? It’s a buyer’s market for wine in Michigan. Here are some lesser known grapes to look out for when you get bored of the typical chardonnays and pinots.

Grape no. 1: kerner. This European grape is grown almost entirely in Germany in the regions of Rheinhessen and Pfalz, but the best kerner is found in Alto Adige, across the Alps in northeast Italy. It is a offspring of riesling and carries some similar aromatic traits, but it tends to have lower acid. In the right hands, it can be a lot of fun. Abbazia di Novacella’s 2013 kerner is a standout at about $20.

There are some riesling hallmarks: apricots and peaches, jasmine, effortless finesse. But the kerner just feels a bit more weighted. Think of it like a mostly dry riesling with the full-bodied profile of an un-oaked chardonnay.

Grape no. 2: dolcetto. It sounds Italian, because it is. You won’t see much of it grown in the U.S., only tiny pockets in California, Washington, Oregon, Texas and even Michigan. Dolcetto is mostly planted in northwest Italy in the region of Piedmont, largely around the cliffs and semisleepy town of Dogliani.

Quality red grapes grown in Piedmont tend to have higher acid. Dolcetto is the rare opposite, which is even more strange because the grape also has higher tannins. So what do you do with dolcetto?

If you’re Nicoletta Bocca at San Fereolo, you buck the trend of round and fruity dolcetto by barrel aging the wine for three years and then laying them down in bottle for four more years. The result is a wine closer to pinot noir from Burgundy, with a touch of rustic and dried cherry notes that are a bit like Chianti. This is somewhere between medium and full-bodied, and it tastes like a wine that has influences both in traditionally minimal and perceptively modern winemaking. Rarely is dolcetto worth more than $15. This is one of those times. ($35)

Grape no. 3: negroamaro. The workhorse of southern Italy isn’t exactly elegant or refined, but it can make for one hell of a pizza wine. Most negroamaro is grown in Puglia, the only of Italy’s 20 regions that can consider itself flat. With the help of smart winemakers who lend a watchful eye and don’t let the grapes get overripe, negroamaro is juicy, spicy and fruity.

Masseria Li Veli consistently puts out one of the best deals of Italy’s heel. Its Passamante negroamaro, from the tiny subregion of Salice Salentino, should run you about $14. There’s raspberry, red cherry, plum, smoky spices, cloves and cinnamon notes all over this wine. No, it’s not soft. This is all unabashed flavor, and it’s totally worth the price tag. If you can’t find this particular wine, the flavor profile of Italian primitivo is not too different.

Grape no. 4: Müller-Thurgau. This is probably the least sexy grape name on wine-lovers’ radar. It never makes ageworthy wine, but it can result in aromatic, fruit-driven wines that are of good value. Another offspring of riesling, Müller- Thurgau is mostly grown in Germany. But a compelling example of it comes from Oregon’s Montinore Estate. Look for the 2013 vintage.

At $19, this wine shows like a floral, stone-fruit-influenced wine that has restraint. If your dinner date is into finesse and subtlety, take a chance on this. Subpar versions of this grape can be unfortunately neutral tasting, but Montinore’s is pretty without getting too perfume-y or aromatic. It’s a nice branch-off for riesling drinkers. If you can’t find a Müller-Thurgau, look for albariño from Galicia, Spain. Those are a bit more mainstream but still exhibit many of the same nuanced and feminine attributes.

Grape no. 5: blaufränkisch. There are altogether too many names for this grape, and all of them are annoyingly obscure. Here’s the primer: blaufränkisch is the first name by which it was known in Franconia, Germany, right around the time of the U.S. Civil War. Another (now more popular) name, lemberger, surfaced about a decade later, also in Germany.

To further complicate things, this grape came to be known as kékfrankos in Hungary. This is mostly not worth knowing unless you’re gunning to be the next Ken Jennings. But what is worth knowing is that kékfrankos is the main grape that goes into the famous Hungarian wine known as Bull’s Blood.

History aside, good deals on this grape abound in Europe but are rare in the states. This could change soon, however, with new plantings. One particular winery in California, Steele Wines, has been proactive in creating an inexpensive wine out of this sometimes clumsy, sometimes full flavored grape.

Steele is California-based, but its Blue Franc is sourced from Washington. It assumes the easygoing nature of Sonoma pinot noir, but with hints of merlot ripeness. It never gets too hot on the palate. Steele’s Blue Franc is lip-smackingly good with short ribs that aren’t too spicy or perhaps some mushroom burgers. ($16).

Always remember that there are hundreds, if not thousands of great wines available to you under $25 to $30 any given week. Trust your independent wine shops, and ask questions about wines like these. And now is a good time to buy. The businesses that geek out on stuff may even hook you up with generous deals in the post-holiday hangover.

Justin King is a certified sommelier and resident of Williamston. He is part-owner of Bridge Street Social, a restaurant opening this winter in DeWitt. He’d totally come over and eat all your ribs and drink your wine. Email him your obscure finds at justingking@gmail.com.

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