It’s not at all uncommon these days to open a wine list and say, “Wha?” Gone are the days when menus were dominated by words like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and merlot. In their place you’ll find Peloponnese, Corsica, and hondarribi beltza. The trend toward obscure wines, regions, and varietals could be deemed pretentious, but as our restaurants have become more worldly with regard to the cuisines they serve, so, too, have their wine lists. Another reason for the increasing devotion to the relatively esoteric? While old-guard sommeliers might feel like they own the classic regions of California, such as Napa, and France, such as Bordeaux, a new, younger generation of oenophiles and wine directors want to stake their claim on less celebrated areas. Today, you’ll see wine lists with selections coming from places as far-flung as Lebanon, the Canary Islands, and even Tasmania.
Origin: Piedmont region, Italy
DETAILS: An ancient white grape
Tastes like: The answer to a hot, sunny afternoon—breezy, thirst-quenching citrus
Try it: Orsolani 2009 ($40) at Oenotri (1425 1st St., Napa, 707-252-1022). “It’s a unique alternative to pinot grigio,” says Oenotri sommelier Sur Lucero. “It goes with everything from crudo to charcuterie and offers great versatility for the price.”
Origin: Peloponnese, Greece
DETAILS: Also known as St. George, this is the principal grape of the Nemea region in southern Greece. Tastes like: A plush, red robe made out of cherries and blackberries
Try it: Skouras “Grande Cuvée” 2005 ($75) at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (1 Miramontes Point Rd., Half Moon Bay, 650-712-7000). Says sommelier Ian Cauble, “This is one of the greatest value wines in the world. It’s like the love child of nebbiolo and merlot with the elegance of burgundy. It ages beautifully.”
Origin: Corsica, France
DETAILS: Principal red grape of Corsica’s Patrimonio region. Also spelled nielluccio. Makes fantastic rosé.
Tastes like: Grilled, grass-fed syrah with a helping of ripe, black cherries
Try it: Antoine Arena “Carco” 2008 ($85) at Sons & Daughters (708 Bush St., S.F., 415-391-8311). “It’s a full-bodied, fruit-driven alternative to the syrahs and cabernets most people expect, with a lot of funk to it,” says the restaurant’s wine director, Carlin Karr. “This region doesn’t get enough attention.”
Origin: Basque region, Spain
DETAILS: A red grape used for red, rosé, or white wines in txakoli (CHA-coh-lee), the wine of Basque Spain. Hondarribi zuri is the white version.
Tastes like: A campfire doused with pinot noir, then sprinkled with black pepper
Try it: Doniene Gorrondona 2010 ($65) at Commonwealth (2224 Mission St., S.F., 415-355-1500). “Most of our menu lends itself to white wine, but for people who want a red that’s light-bodied enough to still go well with the menu, this is what we recommend,” says partner and manager Xelina Leyba.
Origin: Marche region, Italy
DETAILS: This white grape is from Italy’s mid-Adriatic coast. The principal regions are Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
and Verdicchio di Matelica.
Tastes like: Blue-collar sauvignon blanc: brilliant mineralogy with herbs, citrus, and bitter almonds
Try it: Colle Stefano 2010, Verdicchio di Matelica ($35) at Delfina (3621 18th St., S.F., 415-552-4055). “Italy isn’t known for its great whites, but verdicchio could change this,” Chris Wright, Delfina’s wine director, says. “It’s mineral, high acid, and perfect for warm weather.”