Some grapes go by different names across different languages, countries, and regions. Pinot Noir, for example, is known as Pinot Nero in Italy, Spatburgunder in Germany, and Blauburgunder in Austria. If people are paying $60 a bottle for Barolo while the humble Spanna is sitting on the same shelf, what other regional secrets exist?
Photograph by Nick Kindelsperger
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet." William Shakespeare
When we lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on York Avenue, a location with all the no-subway pain of Alphabet City with none of the cool, there was this wine shop called In Vino Veritas. Nobody really knows about it; the place doesn't even have a website.
It was run by a father with a penchant for getting very excited (“this wine is so tight!”) and his two indistinguishable sons (it took us a couple awkward exchanges before we realized there were two and not just one). The shop specializes in Italian wines from little-known varietals and regions, which meant that many of them were under $20 and none were familiar. After walking around like idiots for a couple minutes, shuffling around labels that meant nothing, we’d ask for a little help. And thus began a long strange relationship in which we asked the most inane questions imaginable, and they answered every single one of them.
“Do you have a big tannic wine for $10?”
“What wine goes best with blueberry pancakes?”
“What goes best with beef stroganoff?”
And no matter how ridiculous the question, one of the brothers would simply say, “There’s this region of Italy that eats a lot of cream-based beef dishes. This will go well.” Because we never asked for a specific kind of wine—just one that went well with the dish—we were given some very unusual bottles.
The moment when this all sunk in was when we asked for a Barolo to cook some short ribs because that’s what Mario Batali had called for in his recipe (Though he lied!). It is nearly impossible to find a Barolo for less than $50, and then it would probably be too young to drink, and would need, say, another 10 years of aging before it became palatable.
Without batting an eye, one of the brothers immediately informed us that there are lesser-known areas in Piedmont that use Barolo's famed Nebbiola grape but which have taken to calling it something else—Spanna. "This wine is just as good as Barolo but a fraction of the price," he said. "Literally, it's the same grape. You'll love it." We took it home and loved it.
It got us thinking—people are paying $60 a bottle for Barolo while the humble Spanna is sitting on the same shelf. What other regional secrets exist? In a rapidly globalizing wine world, can we find other incredible deals?
Some grapes go by different names across different languages, countries, and even regions. Pinot Noir, for example, is also known as Pinot Nero in Italy, Spatburgunder in Germany, and Blauburgunder in Austria. But it’s doubtful anyone will care that the Italian Trebbiano is French Ugni Blanc. Or that Vernaccia can mean any number of different grapes because the root of the word is “vernacular” or “indigenous,” so the wine could mean whatever local grape was around.
But a great place to start is with Oregon’s Pinot Gris. Most people have heard of the wine because of the tongue rolling Italian variation: Pinot Grigio. It is often made into clean, crisp, gently fruity white that goes with everything. It's very refreshing, a nice counterpoint to that other American white obsession, big, heavy Chardonnay. But in France, where the grape is called Pinot Gris, they make a wine of more complexity and balance. It's also pretty darn pricey.
In California, they're calling wine made from this grape Pinot Grigio, because that makes eyes light up in recognition of the Italian name, and sells well. But up in Oregon's cooler climate, more similar to the Alsatian region of France, they're making Pinot Gris. Like in France, it has more body, longer finish, and real personality. And its quality is still ahead of its price.
A lesser-known secret is Italy's Primitivo, a wine made from the genetic twin of California’s favorite Zinfandel. Rarely do grape histories get any sexier than that about where Zinfandel came from. As recently as last year, wine makers in that state have attempted to make it the official grape of California, not because they don’t make other great wines, but because Zinfandel was seen as wholly American. Part of the hubris was due to the fact that no one could figure out where the grape had come from. It didn’t taste like many other European wines.
Meanwhile, poor Primitivo was languishing relatively unknown in Puglia, in Italy’s boot heel, used mainly in blends and losing ground to more well-known grapes. But thanks to some intense research and DNA testing, it was shown to be the identical grape. They both apparently came from the Croatian tongue-tangler Crljenak Kastelanski, which we’ve never seen on a shelfand hopefully will never have to pronounce. But we do like Primitivo. The examples we’ve sampled lacked Zinfandel's rich oak and pepperiness but made up for it in spice and funkiness. Best of all, they’ve all been much cheaper, hovering around the $10 mark. And it’s almost as much fun to say.
Serious Eaters (and drinkers)—what are your secret wine deals?
Oregon Pinot Gris
Adelsheim Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2005 We found this wine for a respectable $17. After the first sip, it's clear it has far more to say than your basic Pinot Grigio, which is best enjoyed ice cold and crisp as a quick, pleasant tongue wash, with lighter fare like shellfish or salmon. Our Oregon Pinot Gris could do the same, but had a far deeper, almost meatier complexity bolstered with acidity to keep it fresh, and a long finish. A wine you could almost, but not quite, sip alone like a bottle of interesting red.
Terra e Sole Primitivo di Manduria 2003 You could tell someone to smell this with their eyes closed, tell them it was a stinky cheese, and they'd believe you. Funky, funky red with an unmistakeable whiff of blue cheese that opens into a sweet, almost maraschino cherry scent. It's quite thin in the mouth, a little on the spicier side, and very fun. You'd probably get tired of it without a food that was dominant enough to compete.