domestic vintners are capturing the adventurous spirit of the modern wine drinker and creating off-the-beaten-path wines. istock

American winemakers embrace Old World grapes

It’s time to switch off your wine-shopping autopilot, skip the chardonnay, and set your sights on a new cluster of European grapes that have put down roots in the United States.

Four lesser-known white varietals from Spain, Austria and France are flourishing in the vineyards of the Northwest and New York’s Finger Lakes region, offering a pleasant yet accessible departure from your go-to bottle. While our Continental counterparts have long quaffed albariño, grüner veltliner, chenin blanc and sémillon, American growers have seen the most success with big, oaky chardonnay and easy-drinking riesling. Now, however, domestic vintners are capturing the adventurous spirit of the modern wine drinker and creating off-the-beaten-path wines for an audience thirsty for something new.

“It’s a whole different generation of wine drinkers,” said Patricia Wamhoff, advanced sommelier and certified wine educator. “They’re more knowledgeable and open to trying new things.”

To give this new breed of vino-wise imbibers a glass of something different, winemakers are also trying new things and taking advantage of their land and weather.

“The third-wave producers in California are super exciting,” said Juliette Dottle, sommelier and assistant general manager at Elmwood. “It’s a swing to a local focus. They’re working with their microclimates, and [California] has every soil type, so they’re not constrained.”

This quartet of grapes is not commonly aged, so they all boast a young, fresh quality. They also pair well with food due to higher acidity.

From the shores of Saranac Lake in New York to the hills of Lodi, California, winemakers are putting a new crop of white wines in the spotlight.

“The nose is deceiving,” Wamhoff said. “[The nose] is of just-ripe peaches, but the taste is crisp and tart with green apple and citrus.”

This high-acidity varietal thrives in cool, breezy locales. Without the warm, buttery notes of oak (which it rarely touches), albariño is bright, fruity and dry.

“It is versatile and can pair with almost everything,” said Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, certified sommelier at Elaia.

European Roots // Spain, Portugal (alvarhino in that neck of the woods)
On American Soil // California, Oregon
Sommelier Swap // If you like pinot grigio, try albariño.
Vineyard of Note // Bokisch Vineyards, Lodi, California

“It has this green, vegetal quality that comes off as tender pea shoots,” Blackwell-Calvert said. “It is unique but has qualities you find in regular varietals.”

It has mineral underpinnings but is soft and juicy with a touch of spiciness. Grüner veltliner may be Austria’s grape, but you don’t have to climb every mountain to find this food-friendly wine that can also stand on its own.

European Roots // Nearly one-third of all grapes grown in Austria are grüner veltliner.
On American Soil // New York, California, Oregon
Sommelier Swap // If you like sauvignon blanc, give grüner veltliner a go.
Vineyard of Note // Hermann J. Wiemer, Himrod, New York

“Chenin blanc is one of my favorite French grapes grown domestically,” Blackwell-Calvert said. “When it’s grown in California, it’s riper with fresh apple and more floral flavors [than French-grown grapes].”

This highly acidic wine is rooted in the Loire Valley in France but, as it turns out, is equally suited to the Napa Valley.

“It’s food friendly and has this crunchy, green apple note and a lanolin texture,” Dottle said.

European Roots // France
On American Soil // California
Sommelier Swap // If you like unoaked chardonnay, trade it out for chenin blanc.
Vineyard of Note // Peter Franus, Napa, California

“It’s peachy with candied citrus [notes],” said Dottle. “It has a nice texture that makes it food friendly.”

Sémillon is a golden-skinned, full-bodied white that ages well, and you can often find it blended with sauvignon blanc. Its neutral character and clean flavor make it an excellent companion to most dishes.

European Roots // France
On American Soil // California
Sommelier Swap
// If you like sauvignon blanc, shake it up with sémillon.
Vineyard of Note
// Little Frances, Lake County, California

Kristin Schultz is a longtime contributor to Sauce Magazine.