There are wine aficionados out there in the world who are members of a secret club known as the "ABC". You need to be recommended by an existing devotee (or some random bloke down the pub) who appreciates your total dislike of one poor, down-trodden and misunderstood grape variety. Given the nod to join up, you'll be welcomed wholeheartedly with a chilled glass of rare Ansonica Tuscan white. If you insist on having a crisp, young Chablis instead, your membership will be revoked on the spot for blasphemous behaviour contrary to the code of the ABC. Why, you might ask, has this just happened? Obviously, your wine knowledge is not up-to-scratch, as you should have known that Chablis is made from CHARDONNAY
I exaggerate somewhat here, but the true believers of the "Anything But Chardonnay" are serious about this. There's nothing wrong with them as people, only that they happily miss out on some of the world's finest white wines including Ramonet's Montrachet Grand Cru and Coche-Dury's Meursault Perrieres. These are wines which, according to critics lucky enough to have tasted them, flirt with perfection. Their loss!
With over 1300 grape varieties grown (including reds, as well as whites), there are plenty of unique flavours and regional characteristics available to the more curious and adventurous members of the wine drinking public. Everyone has their favourites and, for some, Chardonnay is not a winner. So, why not try something different?
If you're a regular of the pub quiz I expect you can rattle off quite a few grape names from memory, or personal experience, but can you find one for every letter of the alphabet? A true test of your "ABC" membership. A quick search on Google will produce many sites which handily answer this question, but cheating's not allowed, so you'll have to memorise the following brief, alphabetical list of white wine grapes:
Albillo ~ A Spanish grape from around Madrid making rich, honeyed, dry whites similar to... Chardonnay! Try some wonderful white Ribera del Duero by Dominio del Águila if you can find some, or the particularly good value favourite of mine, the Maranones Picarana from the Gredos region.
Bourboulenc ~ A Languedoc/Rhone variety found in La Clape and one of the white grapes allowed in both red/white Chateauneuf-du-Pape including Chapoutier's "La Bernardine" Blanc. California's Rhone-inspired Tablas Creek makes an exceptional, orchard fruit and savoury mushroom flavoured 100% varietal.
Carricante ~ Grown mostly on Mount Etna, Sicily. Try the delicious, organic Nostru stocked by Frazier's, or the exciting Planeta Sicilia Carricante Eruzione 1614 for the ultimate expression. A grape which really showcases the mineral textures and ash/volcanic soil character of the area.
Debina ~ Greek grape used in the semi-sparkling wines from Zitsa. Try the Domaine Glivanos example for foaming citrus and stone fruit flavours.
Encruzado ~ Noble Portuguese grape grown in the Dao region. The excellent wines of Magnum Carlos Lucas Vinhos offer the most comprehensive range of wines from this variety with bottles reaching 50 euros each, locally. Creamy texture and citrus/floral notes. Often produced with oak ageing.
Friulano ~ Grape local to Friuli Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy offering fresh pear/apple/peach aromas with almond and oyster shell notes. Livio Felluga's example from Colli Orientali is a prime example of the style.
Grechetto ~ Another rare Italian variety, this one is grown in Lazio/Umbria, which makes both dry and sweet wines. Good enough to be awarded "Tre Bicchieri" in the Gambero Rosso, Sergio Mottura's "Latour a Civitella" combines complex flavours of apple, apricot, nectarine and super-ripe tropical fruits.
Hárslevelű ~ Hungarian partner grape (to Furmint) mainly used in the production of traditional sweet wines. The ultra rare Domaine Kiralyudvar's "Lapis" Tokaji Aszu dessert wine is a bottle to experience. Only £150 for a 50cl. Also produced in South Africa, as a dry wine, by Swartland winery Lammershoek is their "Die Harde Blaar" wine sourced from "Heritage" old vine fruit offering up aromas of honey, citrus zest & earthy spices.
Irsai Olivér ~ Another Hungarian grape. A crossing of two table grape varieties giving aromatic wines with notes of Turkish delight, orange blossom, peach, roses and lychee similar to Muscat. Torley's "Szent István Korona", available for just £2 a bottle in Hungary, is a regular Silver Medal winner in the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Jacquere ~ Native variety to Savoie in the French Alps which produces wet-stone, mineral-driven, pear, lime, apple and floral, honeysuckle character wines. Apremont, rarely seen outside of the region, is another appellation name to seek out, with wines such as Mathieu Apffel's "Avant la Tempete", the tiny, organic vineyard of Domaine Chevillard and Jean Masson's old vine cuvées being appreciated by connoisseurs.
Kerner ~ An early 20th century German crossing of Riesling/Trollinger. Still a popular planting in the Pfalz & Rheinhessen, where it used to contribute to blends for Liebfraumilch (no!), most of the best examples are to be found in the north Italian region of Sud Tirol (Alto Adige) where Cantina Kaltern make superbly aromatic wines with grapefruit and tropical mango flavours. Also, the "mad scientists" at Australian winery, Chaffey Bros, in the Eden Valley, make, as part of their "Punkt" range a Kerner which, in their own words, is: "... like Riesling on steroids. Fuller in body and more luscious in texture. It's wonderfully aromatic, with a deliciously creamy palate & some bright acidity that keeps it fresh, lively and oh-so drinkable." With a description like that, I'd buy some!
Loureiro ~ Portuguese grape grown mainly for Vinho Verde wines and also found over the border in Spain's Galicia where it's known as "Loureira". Wines offering bay leaf & herbal notes, alongside pear fruit and a zesty, grapefruit acidity are typical of this grape. One of the best Portuguese examples is the multi-award winning wine made by Esporao owned Quinta do Ameal whose Reserva is barrel fermented. For a light, fresh version, try the Joao Portugal Ramos as listed by Frazier's for around £10/bottle.
Merwah ~ An indigenous Lebanese grape variety which is often used in full-bodied white blends from the Bekaa Valley. Tropical fruits with guava, lime and melon are characteristics found in Chateau Ksara's organic version.
Narince ~ From Turkey, this grape is used for both eating and winemaking. With flavours of melon, caramel and orange, try the Sevilen "Nativus" from Anatolia, or the award winning Urla winery's "Hypnose" Narince/Beyazkere blend which has a complex aroma of apple core, grapefruit and herbs with a palate showing orange and stone fruit blossoms, ginger, lemon and candied spices.
Ondenc ~ Very rare French grape now only seen in the Gaillac region near the city of Toulouse. Sometimes made dry, but just as likely to be left to raisin and concentrate its sugars on the vine (and later on mats) producing a "Gaillac Doux" dessert wine. Try the outstanding Vin d'Autan from Florent & Romain Plageoles. Tiny yields give flavours of bruléed apples and pears coated with sweet syrup and a rich, walnut finish. Will age gracefully for decades!
Petite Arvine ~ A native to the alpine region of Valais in Switzerland where it's transformed by biodynamics into a mesmerising, botrytis affected, noble sweet wine by Marie-Thérèse Chappaz of Domaine des Claives. Only 54 litres were made of the "Grain par Grain" in 2020 and it scored a perfect "100" from the Wine Advocate. Concentrated notes of yellow plums, apricots, passionfruit and bergamot with a perfect piquancy and salinity. Her dry white, from the same grape, is almost as captivating, with pink grapefruit to the fore, but also lychee, rhubarb and wild strawberry and that salivating, saline character on the finish. More widely available are the dry wines from Les Cretes, over the border into the Valle d'Aosta in Italy, which are also considerably more affordable.
Q ~ If you know of a white grape beginning with "Q"... there's an Italian, blue-skinned variety called Quagliano from the province of Cuneo, Piedmont, but that's precisely where it stays!
Rebula ~ From Slovenia's western Goriška Brda region, this grape is also grown over the border in Italy's Friuli (Collio) where it's known as Ribolla Gialla. Edi Simcic makes some of the best Rebula in the area with the grape having peach and spices on the nose with a tangy palate of pear, honey and thyme. Mario Schiopetto's Ribolla Gialla has a complex floral, lemon blossom and almond character, while some wines are made in the extended skin-contact "orange" style by the likes of Gravner & Radikon. The grape has even found a home in both the Napa Valley and Long Island in the USA.
Scheurebe ~ A German crossing of Silvaner & Riesling. Flavours of blackcurrant and grapefruit, or lemon and honeysuckle. If you like a citrusy Chilean Sauvignon (of all things!) a late harvest, but dry, Scheurebe "Spatlese Trocken" is worth finding as a comparison. From the Pfalz, the wildly controversial producer Emil Bauer's "Scheu... Aber Geil" wine is probably the easiest example to find in the UK with its expected grapefruit pith tanginess. I first came across the grape in the 80s with a bottle from a tiny producer in Baden, southern Germany, where the vines were grown on the side of an extinct volcano. A very different flavour to most of the German wines available on the market at the time. The grape also produces excellent, sweet wines such as Beerenauslese & Trockenbeerenauslese, particularly in Austria, where it's known as "Samling 88". Alois Kracher and Andau, both in Burgenland, are prime wines of the type. Andau's luscious, unctuous palate with honey, barley sugar, candied lemon peel and caramel sweetness is captivating. Kracher's wine has floral, jasmine and lilac aromas with more exotic fruit notes of pineapple, figs, lychee and mango alongside peaches and orange zest. They're both perfect for a sweet tooth wine drinker!
Torbato ~ Native only to Sardinia, the Torbato grape is pretty rare. With smoky, flinty aromas, the wines made from it also exhibit peach, lemon preserves, cantaloupe melon and honey notes. Parpinello, at Alghero, in the north-western corner of the island make both still ("Centogemme") and sparkling wines using Torbato. Sella e Mosca's "Terre Bianche Cuvée 161" is another top wine from the island which is a 85% steel tank fermented, 15% barrel fermented wine offering aromas of grapefruit, apple, cedar and pine resin with a viscous mouthfeel and pear/grapefruit flavours.
Ugni Blanc ~ The French name for Trebbiano. Grown in Gascony, where much is used for brandy production, it's often blended with Colombard. Domaine du Tariquet's "Classic" blend is light, fresh and has citrus & floral aromas. It's long been a staple on many a pub wine list. Still tasting good after all these years! Strangely, the grape has managed to find its way to Bolivia. A complete unknown to me, but if you happen to find yourself in a supermarket in La Paz or Sucre, you might want to buy a bottle of Kohlberg just to see...
Vasilissa ~ Found in the south-western corner of Cyprus at Paphos, Vasilissa is a new grape variety grown by wineries such as Vouni Panayia and Makarounas. With grapes grown at 1100m altitude, the boutique Vouni wine has a nose of fresh citrus fruit (lime & lemon) and an intense chalky minerality. On the palate, it has pronounced acidity with a long and crisp finish. Makarounas' example is sourced from organic, ungrafted vines grown at 500m altitude and is aged in acacia wood barrels. Green tobacco leaf, bay leaf, elderflower and apples characterise this Cypriot bottling. A multi-award winning winery at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards with their ultra rare white, Spourtiko, achieving Gold. Both producers offer interesting wines using red and white native, indigenous grapes. Check out the wines of Cyprus if you are a long-time, committed member of the "ABC" club. Pleasure awaits.
Weissburgunder ~ The name used in both Austria and Germany for Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco. Alsace (France) produces very underrated Pinot Blanc wines which taste great at a bargain price. Frazier's has the Dopff & Irion wine with aromas of nectarine, pineapple, fresh almond, white acacia flowers and white pepper, with flavours of honey, spicy cardamom and citrus fruit. Fantastic at under £15/bottle. In Italy, the alpine coolness of the Alto Adige (Sud Tyrol) is king for Pinot Bianco with the Cantina Terlano's "Vorberg Riserva" showing perfumed peach, apple, a touch of camomile, iodine and mineral hints. A rich peach and white fruit palate is beautifully balanced by its acidity and the fermentation in large oak (with lees ageing) is also subtle, making for an irresistible wine capable of an easy 10 years' ageing and development. From 50 year old vines, grown on very calcareous soils, one of the greatest WB bottles from Austria is the "Der Wein Vom Stein" by Ludwig Neumayer. This critically acclaimed wine is described by Tamlyn Currin as having: "Pear, very ripe, poached quince, Golden Delicious apple, with soft but mouth-filling, almost luminous acidity that tastes of white grapefruit. Gentle chamomile cream. Silky weight to the texture. Generous. As it warms, it develops this wonderful grilled-almond nuttiness." Score: 17/20 points. Another winner, this time hailing from Germany, is the certified biodynamic V.D.P. Pfalz estate Rebholz with their impressive "Im Sonnenschein" Grosses Gewachs (Grand Cru) Weissburgunder. Steely and concentrated, with rich pear and Meyer-lemon flavours, brilliantly stony on the palate with a creamy texture & vibrant acidity. Finishing with a savoury twist. Another wine I'd love to have in my collection. Pity it's only sold by the case "In bond" in the UK. Pricing equivalent to around £70 each, retail per bottle.
Xarel-lo ~ Catalan grape widely used in sparkling Cava blends. If you want to experience this grape without bubbles the Spanish, Penedes DO wines often use this variety which gives green apple and floral aromas with a balsamic note of fennel and aniseed. Can Sumoi make a "natural", low-sulphur wine with a textural, nutty palate from high altitude vines.. Also in Penedes, Celler Credo makes the "Can Credo" biodynamic Xarel-lo which has dried flowers, herbs, stone fruits and spices along with limestone derived minerality. As for Cava, Juvé & Camps make their highly rated Brut Nature Gran Reserva Selección Xarello Viña la Capella wholly from Xarelo-lo, rather than including the usual Parellada and Macabeo. With eight years in bottle you get a complex nose of smoke, yeast, bread dough, fennel and liquorice, and a touch of honey showing age. Baked apple pie flavours with small bubbles contributing to the soft and smooth feel.
Y ~ Surely there must be one?
Zibibbo ~ And finally, we reach "Z" in our lexicon of white grapes! Zibibbo, as it is known locally in Sicily, is the synonym for Muscat of Alexandria. Sometimes made sweet, sometimes dry, you'll get succulent white peach and a real taste of fresh table grapes combined with soft floral aromatics of orange blossom and jasmine. Elegant and perfumed with a long, zesty citrus finish. Colomba Bianca Zibibbo "Vitese" is a good example of the drier style. To complete this list of grapes, the most famous wine using Zibibbo is probably the Donnafugata "Ben Rye" Passito di Pantelleria. A fantastic, organic dessert wine made on the eponymous island using dried grapes, you'll want to sip this delight very slowly for maximum appreciation. Intense and inviting nose with notes of orange zest and bergamot, lots of dried apricot, some fig. On the palate, great play between sweetness and fresh acidity, notes of apricot, orange blossom and figs, long and clear finish. A wine which truly deserves its icon status!
So, there's no excuse for failing the next pub quiz if you're asked to name something other than Chardonnay.
If you want some names of reds, do your own research!
Okay, I'll be nice.
Here's your first "A" grape to get you started: Agiorgitiko from Greece's Nemea region, in the Peloponnese, west of Athens.
Look out for the "Driopi Reserve" from Domaine Tselepos. One of my favourite wines from Greece. Beautiful, rich fruit with a lightly caressing coating of new French oak. If you take a trip up into the hills for a visit, bring a coat, as even in mid October it gets very chilly and misty out in the vineyards. The cool microclimate imparts fresh acidity in the grapes, unlike those from lower down, nearer the coast. The 2017 vintage was a Decanter 97 point "Platinum" award winner.