In the distant, cobwebbed past of the early 1980s, when I was first learning about wine, the choices were not so different from what they had been 100 years before.
Within the sparse selections that passed for restaurant wine lists back then, you would find, depending on the food, Bordeaux and Burgundy, Champagne and sherry, or Chiantis and a few other Italian wines. Californian bottles were there, too, as the state emerged from the thrall of the "burgundy" and "chablis" jug wine era. Anything else was conveniently lumped together as "other."
The vine spreads
The exponential change in the past 35 years has been astounding. Even as recently as 2000, a wine like gruener veltliner was realtively unknown. Now, this Austrian white is a staple in many restaurants across the country, something to embrace if facing a list of newer and still obscure bottles.
In the wine world, obscurity's meaning can change quickly. In 2012, I wrote about a dozen esoteric grapes that were worth seeking out. That list included assyrtiko from Santorini and frappato from Sicily. Five years later, these grapes, if not yet household words, are at least firmly established.
The choices continue to expand. Here are 12 more little-known, sometimes very rare, grapes worth getting to know, in alphabetical order.
Who knows? One or two may be old hat by 2020.
According to "Wine Grapes" by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, this white grape, from Alto Adige in northeastern Italy, is almost extinct. The only bottle I have seen comes from Heinrich Mayr's wonderful Nusserhof estate. (On the bottle, it is referred to as B......., to sidestep legal issues over labelling.)
This wine is beautifully fragrant, floral and herbal with a touch of citrus. It is light, yet substantial and pure. With a slight chill, this wine would be a summer delight.
An outlier on this list: Whether called a carignan in France, carignane in California, carignano in Sardinia or mazuelo in Spain, this red grape is not unknown. But it has long been despised, especially in France, where it was overcropped into bitter, acidic plonk.
Carignane has benefited from a revival in California, where it was often a component in old-vine field blends. Producers like Dashe, Broc Cellars and Lioco make deliciously fruity, refreshing wines that belie the grape's historically wretched image.
I love this white grape from the Mount Etna region of Sicily, an area far better known for its reds. The best carricantes come from the Milo area, where in proximity to the Mediterranean, the grapes develop a savory, almost salty tang.
The best producers include Benanti, which makes Pietra Marina, one of Italy's greatest white wines; Salvo Foti; Graci; Tenuta delle Terre Nere; and Ciro Biondi.
The Alpine Valle d'Aosta region of northwestern Italy, which abuts Switzerland and France, is the source of all sorts of unusual grapes like cornalin, fumin and prié. I especially like cornalin, which in the hands of a good producer like Grosjean Frères, makes a spicy, lively, absolutely delicious red.
Its floral, slightly exotic flavors go well with stews and roasted meats. Cornalin is also grown in the Valais region of Switzerland, where it is called humagne rouge.
This rare grape accounts for some of the best white wines from the Dão region of northern Portugal, a country far better known for reds. In the hands of good producers like Quinta do Perdigão, Casa de Mouraz and Quinta das Marias, encruzado makes an herbal, earthy, tangy wine, with an intriguing bitter note that lingers. It is refreshing, surprisingly flavourful and well worth trying.
Famoso di Cesena
According to Ian D'Agata's superb book "Native Wine Grapes of Italy," the famoso di Cesena grape, long grown in the Emilia-Romagna section of Italy, was considered extinct when, in 2000, two rows of old vines were discovered.
A small number of producers have since worked to revive it, including Villa Venti, whose Serena Bianco is the only famoso I've encountered. It's intensely aromatic and exotic, with flavours of apricots and herbs.
This grape from the Cirò appellation in Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot, can make gorgeously rustic reds, with aromas of roses and smoke and grippy tannins.
These are not profound wines, but from the best producers like À Vita and Cataldo Calabretta, they can be delicious with fatty meats and pizzas. Ciròs must be at least 95 per cent gaglioppo. Other Calabrian reds like Savuto have smaller percentages.
Like so many other rare grapes, limniona, indigenous to the Thessaly region of central Greece, may have disappeared if not for the efforts of growers like Christos Zafeirakis, who helped resurrect it. Domaine Zafeirakis's limniona is distinctive and delightful, lively, mysterious and spicy. If you ever roast a leg of lamb on a spit Greek style, this is a wine for you.
This Greek white is another grape to have been rescued, as "Wine Grapes" puts it, from oblivion. From good producers like Domaine Gerovassiliou and Domaine Zafeirakis, malagousia makes a rich yet zesty wine, perfumed, peachy and floral. Try it with light seafood and pasta dishes.
This red grape was once well known in the regions of Savoie and Isère in eastern France, but largely disappeared after the epidemic in the late 19th century of phylloxera, an aphid that preyed on the roots of vines. Persan was almost gone before Nicolas Gonin and a few other growers who treasured indigenous varieties helped bring it back.
The wine is deep, dark and almost exotically fruity, with a lovely aroma almost like pomegranate juice blended with flowers and earth. I'm grateful to Gonin and other growers I have mentioned for their work. Imagine the grapes that have already been lost to the ages.
In the southwestern part of Germany around the city of Württemberg, trollinger makes red wines so pale they could be mistaken for rosé. In the hands of good producers like Jochen Beurer or Andi Knauss, trollinger becomes wine that you almost can't help but guzzle.
Relatively low in alcohol and intensely refreshing, it embodies the French phrase vins de soif, or wines for quenching thirst. Nusserhof also makes an excellent version in Alto Adige, where the grape is known as schiava.
The only wines I've had from this white grape from the Veneto region of Italy come from the producer Contrà Soarda, but I have been enchanted every time, whether in its young, fresh Breganze version or the Vignasilan version, which receives longer aging at the winery.
Either way, the wines are lively with surprisingly substantial texture and a rich, ripe citrus flavor that makes you want to drink more.
The New York Times
Have we missed a grape? Let us know your favourite in the comments section below.