Although we’re seeing the results of an increasingly global wine world and the accompanying appreciation of grape varietals from Spain, Italy, Portugal, and other countries beyond France, there still remain some oddball Old World grapes that found miscellaneous pockets here and there and flourished, despite near-extinction in their home regions.
I’m going to leave out some obvious ones like Malbec and Tannat, which remain global grapes, albeit marginally so outside of Latin America. I’m also going to leave out hyper-local grapes like the Hondarrabi grapes of Basque Country and other grapes which remain ubiquitous in their homelands but never crossed the pond, so to speak.
- Petite Sirah. This inky, rich varietal is not, in fact, Petite Sirah, but rather the French grape Durif. It was discovered in France by botanist Francois Durif and is believed to be a natural cross-pollination between Peloursin and Syrah. It achieved some popularity in France due to its resistance to powdery mildew, but fell out of favor due to the poor quality of the wine. In warmer climes, however, the grape achieves higher ripeness levels and has found a comfortable home in warmer parts of California, Australia, and Israel.
- Zinfandel. Long-believed to be an indigenous California varietal, ZInfandel is in fact the Croatian grape Crljenak/Tribidrag and is also genetically identical to the Pugilan grape Primitivo, though it is possible that Primitivo is a later clone, parting ways with its Croatian cousin after Zinfandel had already gone on its way. Regardless of provenance, what has become known as Zinfandel in California is a far cry from either of its Old World fraternal twins and has become a uniquely singular stylistic benchmark for modern California wine.
- Pinotage. Alright, this is entirely in the same category as this is a grape that was actually developed in South Africa, which Pinot Noir was crossed with the hardier “Hermitage” (Cinsault) grape so as to make Pinot Noir easier to grow in South Africa. If made haphazardly, Pinotage results in a chemical pungency that is off-putting, but well-made wines from ripe fruit are quite good. They taste like an earthier, bramblier version of Pinot Noir with a bit more pronounced tannin. Its success in South Africa has resulted in test plantings in California, New Zealand, and Israel. I’ve only ever had Pinot Noir from South Africa and California, but the California examples I’ve had, from the warm Lodi region, have been delicious.