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Red Grape Varieties of the Mediterranean Deserving More Attention

Ever wondered why the same small bunch of grape varieties bobs up so frequently from wine regions around the world?

There are many hundreds of different grapes out there, but only a small handful of them have managed to become widely grown and internationally known. Mostly grapes have to settle for limited local fame on their home turf.

As far as red wines and black grapes are concerned the core range of grapes grown worldwide is really only Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir. I know some of you will take issue and say that I have ignored Malbec, Zinfandel or Pinotage – or something else that is dear to your heart, but really apart from the four I list none have truly found their way onto the world stage.

Looking at all the famous international grapes I am always struck by how French the list is, all those grapes originate in France. The only true internationally grown grape that is not French in origin is Riesling, which is of course originally from the Germanic world.

From my perspective in the UK it is clear that French wines have enjoyed a preeminence over all others for centuries. French wines were famous and highly praised long before most other wines were even known about outside their local area.

Even when I joined the UK wine trade some 28 years ago the general view was that wine was something exotic and principally French. It was widely believed that you only drank something from Spain or Italy if you couldn’t afford the real thing – from France.

I well remember a customer telling me that he didn’t drink wine because he ‘wasn’t French’!

It seems to me that this preeminence, deserved or not, was what caused the French grapes to become so important around the world. If you wanted to plant a vineyard in the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries, the only role model most people could see for quality wines was France. So when seeking grapes for the vineyards of the New World, those from France must have seemed the right choice and they have served us well.

The world has changed though. The very success of those French grapes in places like Australia, California and Chile has weakened the long held view that French wines are the best. Pretty much reversed it in fact. In the UK there is huge resistance to French wine with many consumers claiming to mainly dislike and avoid it. I think that is because most new drinkers and younger drinkers have wine without food and the generous, ripe New World styles are much softer and easier to drink on their own.

This all gives us a real opportunity to present the consumer with new choices. If they no longer believe French wines are the best, then perhaps their faith in purely French grape varieties can be questioned too. Although we have to be careful, we can often over estimate how much people understand even basic ideas about wine.

I am crossing my fingers and hoping that consumers and producers will become more adventurous, so tastes will change and the range of grapes enjoyed will broaden. If they do then the greatest source of new grape varieties and flavours is surely the Mediterranean world? Not only do many of the varieties from here make delicious wines with soft tannins and rich fruit, but if we can just break the stranglehold that Cabernet et al. they will surely suit the growing conditions in many of the wine regions outside Europe, which often enjoy Mediterranean climates.

Here is my current list of red grapes that I wish were grown more widely and were more available and I encourage people to try. Some are well known and some less so, but all will reward greater exploration:

OK, you already know it, but it is not yet truly international. As the main Rioja grape it enjoys a huge amount of fame and consumer recognition. It can produce elegantly structured wines that also have good fruit, so how can all those producers in Chile resist growing it? It would surely be an easy sell worldwide if they got it right? There is a little in Argentina and elsewhere, but it is hardly given the star treatment anywhere except Iberia.

Tempranillo is Spain’s greatest gift to the world of wine, but has not really managed to become an international grape. It is grown throughout Spain but sometimes appears under a number of different names such as Cencibel, Tinto Fino, Tinto del País, Tinta de Toro and the rather poetic Ull De Llebre. It is also one of the best grapes in Portugal where it is called Tinto Roriz and Aragones.

I hope that someday soon growers in Chile and California will realise the potential in this grape and give us seductive fruity examples to enjoy. In the meantime there’s always the Spanish originals and even one from Italy.

Carineña / Carignan
Known as Carignan in France this grape is easily written off as unimportant and downright tricky to grow. Some people regard it as a poor grape that makes rough tannic wine, but that need not be the case as I have discovered over the last couple of years. When used properly it is responsible for some great wines from Cataluña’s Priorat, Montsant and Conca de Barberà regions. In Rioja it is called Mazuelo and it makes a few top end varietals, but is most often used instead of Garnacha to soften and flesh out some of that region’s finest wines.

Carignan is also an important component of the blend in all the major wines of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon including Minervois, Corbières and Fitou and it is still widely planted in the hot vineyards of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. I have also had some excellent examples from Sardinia, where it is called Carignano and is a hangover from the Aragon and Catalonian conquest of the island in the Middle Ages.

Outside of Europe it is widely grown in California, where it is called Carignane, but it is hardly ever used in for quality wine. However I have recently enjoyed a clutch of really good Carignan wines and Carignan based blends from Chile, some were just delicious everyday wines, but some were much more than that. Contary to its old reputation, modern winemakers seem able to produce Carignan in a soft and seductively fruity style.

Another black grape from Spain that I have really come to love. It seems capable of making almost any style, historically they were often very dry and dusty, which led to the incorrect belief that it related to Cabernet Franc. Things have changed dramatically though and modern viticultural practices and winemaking seems to have given us two distinct styles of Mencia; dry and elegant like a Burgundian Pinot Noir or concentrated and richly fruity with a touch of Shiraz about it.

I have not had a bad one yet and it seems capable of making not only the finest galician reds, but also the most accessible. Mencia, as far as I know, only grows in the North west of Spain – although as the uninspiring Jaen it is used in Portugal as well – and is the main black grape of Galicia’s Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra regions as well as neighbouring Bierzo and the tiny Cantabrian area of Liébana.

For me this could easily become as important as Tempranillo if it carries on making wines with elegance and finesse like some of the examples I have tasted from the dramatic hillside vineyards of Ribeira Sacra. One to watch I think and perhaps it could adapt quite nicely to somewhere coolish like New Zealand or Canada.

Another Iberian grape that many of you will know, but if you don’t then you have a treat in store. It is native to Portugal where it most famously makes the delightfully plump and juicy red wines of Palmela to the south of Lisbon and used to be more commonly known as Periquita, but has seemingly now reverted to its proper name.

I always think of it as a happy grape as it is grown in the south of the country and you can really taste the sunshine. All my old books describe it as having rustic tannins, but that is not what I have experienced, all the modern examples I have tasted are soft, juicy and so ripe they seem to have a touch of sweetness. I am certain Castelão would appeal to many who enjoy the soft, richly fruity red wines from outside Europe – if they could just take the plunge and try it. What’s more as the grape is at home in the searing heat of Alentejo I am sure that there are many other places it would thrive far away from Portugal.

My last choice is a grape that I have loved for over 25 years, but hardly ever had the chance to drink. Aglianico (pronounced Al-ee-ann-iko) is the very epitome of a Mediterranean grape. Nowadays it clings to southern Italy, but it was taken there by the ancient Greeks and it has been farmed in Basilicata and Campania ever since.

It is the grape that makes two of southern Italy’s most respected reds, Aglianico del Vulture and Taurasi and I love the sheer depth and power it brings. It is always full-bodied with high tannins and acidity, but the best ones manage to balance those with concentrated black fruit too. It isn’t always pretty, but when it is Aglianico is magnificent and I just wish the world would make more of it, both in the wider Mediterranean area and further afield – I understand there are some small scale plantings in Australia, Texas and California, so perhaps I will get my wish.

There you have it, my current list of candidates for international stardom in the future. I could have carried on too with Fer Servadou, Aghiorghitiko and Graciano among many others, but you have to know when to stop. If I mention too many grape varieties during my classes I often see the student’s eyes glaze over.

I don’t really mind what wins through just as long as we persuade consumers to broaden the range of grapes and wines they drink and enjoy – there is so much out there that it is a shame to limit yourself to the usual suspects.


Quentin Sadler

Top 2 photos courtesy of Ryan Opaz. 2 landscape photos by Quentin Sadler.

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