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Underdog Varieties – Wines that deserve a second chance

ProWein 2018 Specialist Article:

By Gregory Dal Piaz

PiazThere are many ways to think of wines as underdogs, limited by their region, name, or flavor profile for example, though the biggest challenge for the true underdog is of course it’s being underestimated. In some case the wine underdogs are all too well known, though they have been dismissed based upon limited exposure and preconceived notions.


In order to be a true underdog a variety has to have the potential to hit it big, so while we’ll all be pulling for Pelaverga, Pais, and Poulsard, they are not really underdogs, but rather are the obscure gems that make the exploration of niche wine so rewarding.



A true underdog is a wine like Zinfandel, damaged as it is by the “White” Zinfandel phenomenon. Consider that today Zinfandel is the third most commonly planted variety in California, and yet the vast majority of that acreage remains dedicated to the production of blush wines.(1) It is a wine misunderstood by a wide audience, poorly represented in the marketplace, and yet with great potential for capturing more market share. If only the influencers of the world would forget what they “know” of Zinfandel and taste widely of it; through the various terroirs of California which it reveals so distinctly, and through the Primitivos of Puglia and the Tribidrag of Croatia.


Zinfandel is the only successful red wine grape variety to suffer such the indignity of being mostly used for the production of blush wines, and while the vineyards used for the production of these wines may not produce great red wines, the vineyards that do in fact produce the great examples of Zinfandel are burdened by the variety’s reputation. This indignity and this alone puts Zin firmly in the underdog camp. But this sad fact is not the only factor limiting Zinfandel’s appeal.  Consider also the diversity of names Zinfandel goes by. In addition to its American iteration there is Primitivo in Italy and either Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag in Croatia, perhaps the greatest underdogs of the Zinfandel family!


For such a great wine, and some argue that Zinfandel is California’s greatest red, the simple fact is that the international market has not been particularly receptive. Reasons cited for this rather less than stellar international presence are myriad: high alcohol, very bold fruit, and a bit of sweetness, though none of these are unique to Zinfandel, and in general these have proven to be advantages where they are found. Something else, more fundamental has been keeping Zinfandel back, but it is poised for wider praise once people taste it again with an open mind and consider the variety of expression and value that these wines offer.


Naming confusion is not the dominion of Zinfandel alone, though in the case of Carmenere it was a case of mistaken identity that left the variety in relative obscurity until recently.  Known as ‘early’ Merlot in Chile, and planted as Cabernet Franc in northern Italy, Carmenere has been living in the shadows of its more famous Bordeaux brethren for well over a century. Ampelographic studies only over the past three decades (2)(3) have revealed the true identity of Carmenere, and explains the unique nature of wines being produced where it was widely planted.


Once considered simply weedy and rustic clones of Merlot or Cabernet Franc, this lighter styled Bordeaux variety is finally coming into its own. Producing wines that recall days gone by, less tannic, lighter bodied, and with complex herbal notes accenting a red fruity character; the timing is perfect for the reemergence of Carmenere as the public’s tastes diversify while Bordeaux blends tend towards a singular expression based on fruit rather than the classic array of herbal, fruity, and earthy flavors that are the heritage of Bordeaux


Most commonly associated with Chile, Carmenere remains a small player in France where it is being resurrected as a component of Bordeaux, and is fairly widely planted throughout Italy’s northeastern provinces. With such a short track record on its own it’s no surprise that Carmenere is not better known, though wherever it is grown it has emerged as a grape capable of producing compelling and distinctive wines; an underdog on the cusp of greatness?



While Zweigelt has conquered the Austrian wine world, being the most widely planted red variety in the country,(4) its global popularity has lagged that found at home. Slowly, Zweigelt is finding a new receptive market with younger drinkers; medium weight, fresh, and zesty even in warmer vintages, it’s an everyday wine that is making moves on the upper end of the market as it spreads throughout central Europe. Plantings are now found in the Czech Republic, Hungary, much of Slovakia, and in the newest vineyard regions of Belgium and Poland. There are even toehold plantings in the new world with vineyards recently having been established in Washington state and Australia.  Ease of cultivation and consistent yields due to late budding and early ripening are working in Zweigelt’s favor as it slowly develops a cadre of global advocates


Both the most obscure of these red varieties and yet perhaps the one with the most potential, Zweigelt has all the attributes of a more successful varietal wine. It is easy to understand and easy to enjoy while being relatively easy to farm, and ideally suited to many wine producing regions that are themselves coming out of the doldrums, or regions that are no longer simply marginal due to climate change. The real advantage that Zweigelt has, and will take it forward, is that it has the potential to be the flagship grape for a multiple of admittedly small regions, but with their fame goes the fame, and future of Zweigelt. Today its only real impediment is a lack of exposure.

This lack of exposure, limiting the presence of so many wines in the marketplace is of course, mostly logistical. Wine professionals, the gatekeepers of the wine world, need to stay informed about the best of Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, leaving discussions of other grapes for the times on the margins; when one is not able to taste broadly of a variety it is easy to pigeonhole, and to ultimately destine those varieties to a life on the margins.


This is why broad tasting is so important, and while the opportunities to taste broadly are often limited, and expensive, some are simply indispensable. An ideal venue for broad tasting and discovering new and underdog wines is ProWein, International Trade Fair for Wines and Spirits, held annually in March in Düsseldorf, Germany (next: March 18 – 20, 2017). This trade only event is where business gets done! In 10 halls, ProWein brings together over 6,600 producers from virtually all the world’s wine producing nations to provide the rare opportunity to taste extensively and efficiently.


It’s easy to taste and compare Zinfandel from California, Croatia, and Italy or Zweigelt from Austria, the Czech Republic and other emerging regions in order to gain a deeper understanding of these often misunderstood varieties. In addition to the wine creations presented by the exhibitors, ProWein features an extensive ancillary program with over 500 tastings and seminars, the ProWein Forum, the Champagne Lounge, the fizzz craft lounge and the tasting zone of the Mundus Vini award winning wines.


That is the way forward for not only these underdog grape varieties, but also for the wine industry. By broadening our knowledge, and thus our offerings, we can continue to build a better-informed clientele. A clientele more at ease outside of their comfort zone, and one more willing support today’s underdogs, and discover tomorrows!








Gregory Dal Piaz has been part of the NYC wine world for two decades, sharing his passion for wine through restaurant, retail, and educational experiences. His writings can now be found at