Have You Heard About These Lesser-Known Wine Varietals?

Words: Crush

We all enjoy a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinotage — but have you met the lesser-known wine varietals?

With over 10 000 wine varieties globally, we’re really spoiled for choice. There’s a whole bunch of wines you’re missing out on and we simply won’t allow it. So, let’s get familiar with some lesser-known wine varietals that you ought to try.

Red Wine Varietals

Try a glass of these lesser-known red wines.

lesser-known wine varietals

Cinsaut Noir/ Cinsault

Although you wouldn’t typically find Cinsault on liquor store shelves, this lesser-known wine varietal was once popular. Cinsault was born and bred in the south of France (circa 1600) before it was introduced to SA. Due to its high harvest yields, this wine varietal was a commodity for red wine bulk production. However, Cinsault became less popular when winemakers favoured more quality wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Shiraz thus became more sought-after and Cinsault Noir subsequently observed a decline in harvest.

This varietal was crossed with Pinot Noir grapes and gave rise to the proudly South African varietal that is Pinotage.

Cinsault is praised for its subtle notes, making it ideal for blending red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Shiraz and even Rosé. This varietal was crossed with Pinot Noir grapes and gave rise to the proudly South African varietal that is Pinotage, in 1925. Although Cinsault is more agreeable with red blend production, it can be enjoyed as a single varietal when grown under optimal growth conditions.

Pronunciation: san-so
Characteristics: soft, ‘easy drink’, used in red blend wine varietals.
Tasting notes: spiced and fruity notes of stone fruit, wild strawberry and pomegranate.
Growth regions: Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl, Breedekloof, Swartland.
Blends: often added to Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan for soft notes.


Cabernet Franc

This wine varietal is one of the more seasoned wines and has been around for some time. Cabernet Franc hails from Basque, Spain. Similar to Cinsault, this varietal is also prominent in the production of red blend wines but has gained popularity as a single wine varietal more recently. Interestingly, Cabernet Franc is one of the biggest black grape varieties grown globally, but is often dominated by Bordeaux wines and blends.

You might find that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are similar in taste to this varietal, as they both stem from Cabernet Franc (pun intended).

Cabernet Sauvignon is often confused with this varietal – the main difference is that Cabernet Franc has a brighter (red) hue. You might find that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are similar in taste to this varietal, as they both stem from Cabernet Franc (pun intended). You can expect a perfumed aroma and taste from this lesser-known varietal. Tasting notes range according to region and growth conditions but are said to be earthy, peppery and grassy — often compared to tobacco, Tabasco and spiced chocolate.

Pronunciation: kah-buh-nay frangk
Characteristics: dry, medium-bodied, earthy,  grassy, spicy, peppery.
Tasting notes: roasted bell pepper, black pepper, chilli, raspberry, currant, plum.
Growth regions: Stellenbosch, Paarl, most SA wine farm regions and Loire Valley in France.
Blends: blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.


Chenel

Perhaps not the most recognised blend due to its acid taste, Chenel works incredibly well when incorporated into neutral white wines due to its well-balanced tasting notes. Some might find this lesser-known varietal to taste rancid due to its naturally acidic levels.

Chenel is usually blended in brandy, as well as other white wine varietals, to balance the flavour and add more acidity.

This cultivar is relatively young and was first planted in the Robertson region in 1974. What makes Chenel particularly agreeable is that it can thrive in moist and warmer climates. It’s resistant to mildew and berry cracking, meaning it has high harvesting yields. Chenel is usually blended in brandy, as well as other white wine varietals, to balance the flavour and add more acidity.

Pronunciation: cheh-nehl
Characteristics: Incorporated in brandy, or wines requiring a high acidity.
Tasting notes: neutral, high acidity.
Growth regions: Robertsons Valley, Olifants Valley and the Northern Cape, SA.
Blends: normally blended in brandy, and to increase the acidity in certain wines.


Grenache Noir

While flavourful wine has roots in Spain, the Rhône region in France is well-known for its Grenache Noir. The production of this varietal isn’t as popular in South Africa, but has become more recognised over the years.

Tasting notes found in Grenache Noir vary, but most agree that it’s similar to Pinot Noir. This lesser-known wine varietal tends to have an earthy taste, perhaps attributed to the warm-dry weather conditions and soil it’s grown from. Its flavours can be likened to soy sauce, mushroom, potting soil and even leather (yes, leather). Grenache Noir isn’t as ‘gritty’ and dry as some red wines as it has a moderate amount of tannins. Although this isn’t a universal practice, in the Rhône region of France, it’s often blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre, making it drier (higher tannins) compared to single Grenache Noir varietals.

Tasting notes found in Grenache Noir vary, but most agree that it’s similar to Pinot Noir.

You’ll find that grapes with thinner skins are usually light-bodied wines, but this isn’t quite the case with Grenache grapes. While Grenache grapes have thinner skins, Grenache wine is high in alcohol which adds to its viscosity, thus making it a fuller-bodied wine. Remember, the higher the alcohol content, the fuller the wine (vice versa).

Pronunication: gruh-naash nuh-waa
Characteristics: medium-full bodied, high alcohol content, medium tannins, medium acidity.
Tasting notes: berry (strawberry, raspberry), fruits (cherry, plum, fig), herbaceous (lavender, mint, thyme), spiced (liquorice, clove), earthy (stone, mushroom, soy sauce) and smokey.
Growth regions: Southern France, Spain, Australia, Israel, South Africa (Swartland, Paarl).
Blends: often blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre.

Grenache pairs well with lighter meals and proteins, so you might want to try our Lemon & Sage Flat Roast Chicken.


White Wine Varietals

Get to know these white wine varietals.

lesser-known wine varietalsGrenache Blanc

This white wine originates from the northern region of Spain and then moved over to France where it became popular. As it stands today, Grenache Blanc isn’t as popular locally, compared to certain white wines like Chardonnay.

Grenache has ‘green fruit’ notes like green apple and pear.

What’s particularly great about this lesser-known varietal is that it can withstand dry climates and even outlast droughts. Grenache has ‘green fruit’ notes like green apple and pear. Other tasting notes include honeydew, citrus and spicier notes of cumin and star anise. It’s often aged in oak barrels, which lends buttery flavours, similar to that of baked apple, lemon curd and even brioche — wine that tastes like dessert, yes please.

Pronunciation: gruh-naash blongk
Characteristics: rich, full-bodied, high alcohol content, low acidity.
Tasting notes: green fruit notes (green apple, pear, honeydew, lime), stone fruit (peaches, apricot, lychee), spices (cumin, star anise, nutmeg) and herbs (dill).
Growth regions: Spain (origin), France, South Africa.
Blends: Grenache Noir is allowed to blend with all thirteen varietals in Rhône, France.


Mourvèdre

If you ever get bored of Cabernet Sauvignon, have yourself a glass of Mourvèdre. This lesser-known wine varietal is valued for its dark grapes and bold flavours. It was first planted in Spain, but we really have the French to thank for championing this wine. The 16th century was undoubtedly a great time for wine and Rhône Mourvèdre wines were sought after due to their quality. Sadly, this lesser-known wine varietal lost the popularity contest to Grenache grapes, which were planted to replace Mourvèdre vineyards after the phylloxera epidemic. Luckily, Mourvèdre was still able to thrive in the Rhône, where the soil was sandy and unaffected by certain pests.

Sadly, this lesser-known wine varietal lost the popularity contest to Grenache grapes, which were planted to replace Mourvèdre vineyards after the phylloxera epidemic.

It was introduced to South Africa in the late 80s, making Mourvèdre a relatively young varietal. It’s found in almost all wine production regions, except for the Northern Cape. Paarl and Swatland produce the largest amount in the country. This full-bodied and fruit-forward wine also has herbaceous and floral notes, which are reminiscent of thyme and violet. In some growth regions, it has a savoury profile and tastes smokey, spiced, dare we say even ‘meaty’. Mourvèdre is normally used to make other red wine blends.

Pronunciation: mohr-ved-dra
Characteristics: dark grapes, used in red wine production, high tannins, medium acidity.
Tasting notes: berry notes (mulberry/blackberry), plum, spiced (liquorice, cinnamon, pepper).
Growth regions: Spain (origin), France.
Blends: often bottled as single varietal wines, but also blended with Grenache and Shiraz.

Rich and umami-based, gamey flavours often pair well with Mourvèdre to soak up the pronounced tannins. Try our Pulled Pork with Sticky Plum Sauce with a glass of Mourvèdre.


Riesling

Riesling is one of the more versatile wine varietals and its flavours range from sweet to dry. This lesser-known varietal thrives best in high-sloped regions and the distinct ‘wet stone’ flavour attributed to Riesling comes from the slate minerals in the soil. The taste/smell of Riesling is often compared to petrol, this is due to an aromatic compound (TDN) present in most wines. All wines contain this compound, but the aroma becomes more pronounced during the ageing process of this varietal. Riesling has particularly high acidity, just one sip and your mouth begins to salivate. Apart from tasting like wet stone and smelling like petrol, Riesling varies by region. It generally contains fruit-forward flavours, such as apple, peach, tropical fruits, honey and ginger.

The taste/smell of Riesling is often compared to petrol, this is due to an aromatic compound (TDN) present in most wines.

In South Africa, we have Emerald Riesling, which is a white grape cultivar. While both varietals share a name, they have slight differences. Emerald Riesling was cultivated after Riesling, but some believe it’s a cross between Muscadel and Grenache. Winemakers wanted to mimic the taste of Riesling, but because Riesling appreciates cooler climates, it wasn’t compatible with South Africa’s warmer climate.

Pronunication: reez-luhng
Characteristics: light-bodied, high acidity, low alcohol content.
Tasting notes: fruity (peach, apple, peach, apricots), zesty (lemon, lime, orange), sweet (honey), ‘wet stone’.
Growth regions: Germany (origin), France, Austria, Australia and South Africa.
Blends: Riesling is often blended with Chardonnay.

As variegated as its tasting notes may be, Riesling is a rather mildly flavoured wine and should complement the flavours in most dishes. But we think it especially works well with spicier dishes. Try our Pork Neck Vindaloo Curry with a glass of Riesling.


Sémillion

Sémillion is indigenous to France and was actually brought to SA by the Huguenots, circa 1690. This white wine varietal was one of the largest produced grape varietals but struggled to gain popularity after crops were invaded by pests around 1880. Sémillion is rich in taste compared to other light-bodied wines, which can be attributed to the ageing process. While Sémillon is closer to Chardonnay, in body, the tasting notes are similar to that of Sauvignon Blanc. This lesser-known wine varietal varies from bottle to bottle, but it’s generally categorised as an off-dry or sweet wine.

Sémillion also has what’s often described as a waxy/oily taste which most ascribe to lanolin or beeswax.

Most Sémillion wines have a fairly moderate alcohol content, while its acidity is lower than most white wines. This wine varietal has the ability to thrive in both warmer and cooler climates, but as you know, growth conditions influence the taste. Sémillion is riper when harvested from warmer regions and tends to have tropical fruit flavours like mango, papaya and yellow peach. When grown in cooler climates, Sémillion grapes aren’t as ripe, giving way to citrus notes and results in higher acidity compared to its riper counterparts. Sémillion grown in cooler regions also have more floral notes.

Sémillion is riper when harvested from warmer regions and tends to have tropical fruit flavours like mango, papaya and yellow peach.

You would think that ripened grapes produce better wines, but in this case, less ripened Sémillion grapes are valued for their distinctive citrus notes of lemon, lime and grapefruit. To preserve these flavours, winemakers forego the ageing process. Aged Sémillion has lovely buttery notes, given by the oak barrels during its incubation. Sémillion also has what’s often described as a waxy/oily taste which most ascribe to lanolin or beeswax. In the Bordeaux region, Muscadel is sometimes added to Sémillion to infuse it with fragrant floral flavours.

Pronunciation: sem-ee-yon
Characteristics: varies (light/rich/creamy), dry and or sweet, herbal taste, oily/waxy in taste
Tasting notes: zesty (lime, grapefruit), fruity (apple, peach, pear, fig), grassy and sweet (honey)
Growth regions: primarily be found in Bordeaux, also exists in California, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Canada.
Blends: often blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadel.


Tempranillo

Tempranillo is one of Spain’s greatest imports and has been around for aeons. It’s the definition of Jesus juice (wine) as it’s been around since 1100 BC! Tempranillo is widely consumed across Portugal, but remains a lesser-known varietal in other regions.

Tempranillo has an overall savoury flavour profile and some would say it tastes like tobacco — delicious, right?

This grape isn’t as ‘high-maintenance’ as other varietals and ripens earlier than most red grapes, three to four weeks to be exact. Its name derives from the word ‘temprano’ in Spanish, which actually means ‘early’. Tempranillo has an overall savoury flavour profile and some would say it tastes like tobacco — delicious, right? It also has an almost leathery/meaty taste. Other fruit tasting notes include tomato, cherry, vanilla, dried fig. What makes the flavours distinct is the fact that this lesser-known wine varietal is able to grow in both cooler and warmer climates.

Pronunciation: tem-pruh-ni-low
Characteristics: medium-full bodied.
Tasting notes: fruit (cherry, fig), other (dill, tobacco, leather).
Growth regions: Spain (origin), Mexico, Portugal, Italy, California.
Blends: in Portugal Tempranillo is blended with Port wine.


Viognier

Viognier is a seasoned wine and has been around for centuries. The first Viognier grapes originated from Croatia (280 AD). It was then grown in the Rhône Valley of France. Like many  varietals, Viognier almost went extinct due to the phylloxera (pest) epidemic, which decimated over seventy percent of the vineyards in France in the 1800s. Viognier was brought to South Africa from France in 1989 and released commercially the following year. This wine varietal is now grown in most wine-producing regions across the country, with Paarl being the largest local producer. Viognier typically grows in warmer and southern-slope areas, but when grown in colder climates it develops more nuanced flavour profiles.

Viognier is often aged in oak barrels, which lend spicy notes of clove, nutmeg, vanilla and sometimes ginger, depending on the region and the winemaking techniques used.

As with most wines, the taste of this varietal is dependent on the soil it’s grown upon. South African Viognier usually has mild citrus-floral notes of orange blossoms/tangerine; tropical fruit flavours like mango, pineapple, as well as peach, pear and honeysuckle. Viognier is often aged in oak barrels, which lend spicy notes of clove, nutmeg, vanilla and sometimes ginger, depending on the region and the winemaking techniques used.

Most red wines have a more full-bodied taste compared to white wines, which are normally lighter, Viognier is however the exception with a fuller mouthfeel. White wines are also typically more acidic, whereas Viognier has a medium acidity level, as well as a higher alcohol content compared to some white wines.

Pronunciation: vee-o-nay
Characteristics: full-bodied white wine, grapes thrive in warmer climates.
Tasting notes: floral, honey, tropical fruit, spiced (oaked Viognier).
Growth regions: Croatia, France, California, Australia, Paarl, Swartland, Stellenbosch.
Blends: Sometimes Viognier is blended in Syrah to lend tropical/characteristic notes.

This wine pairs beautifully with dishes that have similar fruity notes and generally complements pork. Try having a glass of Viognier with our Indonesian Short rib with Plums for the ultimate pairing.

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