Developing a complete appreciation for the world of wine frequently requires stepping out of your comfort zone. And it’s hard to do, and rather expensive if you do it regularly.
But on every trip to the store, I try to buy one bottle that I am not familiar with, or a wine from a region I haven’t tried before. In doing that over many years, I’ve discovered a lot of wines I never knew that I would enjoy from areas I never would have expected.
Some are wines from small pockets of Rhone or tiny sub-regions in Italy that are still relatively in the mainstream. Others were varietals I didn’t know existed. Many others have been from countries few people talk about in the wine world.
They are produced in places that few people visit. They are wines that right now, might not be showing up on restaurant wine lists, but they might soon.
And more than anything, because they are yet to be discovered by the masses, you can acquire very high quality wine at super competitive prices. That’s what attracts me to them and the journey of discovering these wines is a never-ending game with rich rewards.
Here are seven countries that are a little off the beaten path, some more than others, but all of them are producing stellar wines, that bang for the buck, set a pretty high bar in terms of quality. In a blind taste test against wines of similar cost, it’d be hard to beat many of these.
Hungary produces excellent white, red and rosé wines. The Tokaj (pronounced toe-kay) region is among the more famous in the country and is known for sweet white wines made from native varietals that are super difficult to pronounce.
But while Tokaj wines are becoming more widely available, I’ve found favor more with wines from Hungary’s Villany region that produces tasty rosé along with dry reds comprised of Bordeaux varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot along with the local grapes Kekfrankos and Portugieser.
Villany benefits from a Mediterranean climate that is hot in the summer and mild in the winter, and is an area known for producing many of Hungary’s most award winning wines. Keep an eye out for these.
I’ve written extensively about Moldovan wine in the past, and I continue to find these wines to be very interesting across all their styles – red, white and rosé.
The local grape, Rara Neagra, is herbal on the nose, fruity, acidic, with sour cherry notes. It produces big strong red wines that are perfect to enjoy with red meat, or hearty red sauce cuisine. Rara Neagra is bottled on its own but can also be found with other Bordeaux varietals in red blends that are quite tasty.
In Austria, home of many awesome wines and unique varietals, a wine that is on the rise that you need to know about is Gruner Veltliner (pronounced GROO-ner Velt-leen-er), also known as Groovy or GruV. I imagine many people pass this one up on the wine list since the pronunciation can be a little tricky, but missing out on these wines is a big mistake.
Gruner Veltliner is often very affordably priced, in restaurants and retail (frequently under $15-$20 retail) and is an absolutely delicious varietal.
Gruners are typically dry, sometimes with a slight touch of effervescence, and are tangy and acidic with bell pepper, lime, citrus fruit and dill notes. They are food friendly and refreshing especially in warm weather.
South African wines are also on the rise and more readily accessible at restaurants and retail shops than ever before. The king grape of South Africa is Pinotage, which is a hybrid between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, resulting in wines that are rich, tannic, earthy and herbal with dark fruit flavor.
Pinotage is frequently blended with other popular Bordeaux varietals to create what’s become known as the “Cape Blend.” This usually includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot along with Shiraz and Cinsault.
But South African Chardonnay might be where it’s at right now. Chenin Blanc is a popular white, but more high quality Chardonnay seems to be coming from South Africa, and much of it can be scored under $25.
South African Chardonnay is often characterized by citrus fruit flavor, peach, apple, along with notes of spice and oak in a full bodied, creamy dry wine. (I interviewed the founders of South Africa’s House of Mandela Wines for HuffPost who shared their insights into the current state of wine in South Africa, as well as the leadership roles women play in the wine and spirits industries)
Greek wines aren’t super easy to find. Even at the Total Wine near me, there’s a category header for Greece but only a handful of bottles, one of which is the superb Skouras Saint George Nemea ($16), which is made from the Agiorgitiko grape.
This wine is an excellent value and a perfect expression of the varietal, which is the most popular grape variety in the country. Agiorgitiko is spicy, dry with red fruit flavor, sometimes slightly sweet and with lower acidity than similar grapes. It is frequently bottled on its own but can also be blended with other dry reds including Cabernet Sauvignon and it can also be used to make rosé wines.
Serbia isn’t the first country you think of when shopping for wine, but it’s a country with a rich history of winemaking and today, it is becoming more recognized globally for producing high quality wines.
A popular indigenous grape, Prokupac, is one to put on your radar. This is a popular grape used in Serbian rosé wines as well as dry red wines where it is frequently blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Prokupac is usually tannic with rich black cherry, plum and blackberry flavors and generally high sugar levels which increases the alcohol level in the wines.
Slovenian wine might be the most obscure on this list, but it’s a wine producing country we want to put on your radar in the event you have a chance to taste their wines.
Two important areas to note are Goriska Brda and Starjerska.
In Brda you’ll find wines made from most of the major varietals, red and white, to include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc along with the lesser known Rebula which is a popular white.
In Starjerska, just south of the Austrian border, you’ll also find popular white varietals and white blends that can include Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, resulting in wines with citrus, peach and mango flavors.
There you have it. Hopefully a few wines areas that you can make note of and keep your eyes out for next time you visit a restaurant with an eclectic list, or a wine shop that dares to think outside the norm.