Lesser-Known Varietals Revised

Rebecca Germolus on Feb 15, 2024

The joys of wine appreciation include checking out unusual or lesser-known varietals. This means varietals that aren’t the standard Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, etc.

When wine tasting Along the Wine Road or elsewhere, I find most wineries have some of the standard classic varietals, but I’m seeing more lesser-known varietals popping up. I love the classics, but also enjoy expanding my knowledge of what else might be available to sip with friends or pair with an upcoming meal.


Lesser-Known Varietals, Italian Style

Italian immigrants planted vineyards in Northern Sonoma County more than a century ago. Some of the grapes they grew were traditional Italian varieties, but others were not. In the 1990s, there was a resurgence in Italian varietals like Barbera and Sangiovese, making them more mainstream. But the Italian varietal wines I recently encountered during the Wine Road’s Winter Wineland event are definitely in the category of lesser known. Maybe these wineries are paying homage to their ancestors, maybe they just really love Italian varietals, or both.

(A note of clarification: when referring to a grape type it’s called a variety, but when it’s produced into a wine, it’s referred to as a varietal. Yes, this can seem confusing when reading about wine.)

Idlewild Wines owner and winemaker Sam Bilbro only produces wines made from grape varieties that originated in Italy’s Piedmont region. Some of the white varietals you’ll discover at Idlewild include Arneis, Cortese (my favorite), Timorasso, Favorita and Erbaluce. The red wines include Nebbiolo, Brachetto, Barbera, Dolcetto, Grignolino and Freisa. There are a few delicious blends as well. Tasting through these wines was definitely a palate-pleasing learning curve.

Man pouring wine into a glass being held by an unknown person. Sign reads Brachetto in the background.
Sam Bilbro pouring his Brachetto at 2024 Winter Wineland.


Another Winter Wineland stop was at Colagrossi Wines, where owner and winemaker Craig Colagrossi’s passion for Italian varietals is reflected in his wines and his enthusiasm for sharing them. The tasting room has a map of Italy so as you taste through the wines, Craig will show you the region of that grape’s origin. He might even show you where his family was originally from.

Colagrossi’s Italian varietals include Ribolla Gialla (white), Aglianico, Barbera, Montepulciano and Sangiovese, which is available as a still red wine and a sparkling Rosé. Colagrossi Wines also offers other classic varietals like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Rosé of Grenache, Sparkling Rosé of Grenache and Grenache.

Bottle of Colagrossi Wines Ribolla Gialla surrounded by peach colored roses; the map of Italy on the wall behind a woman sitting behind a row of open wine bottles.


Just outside Healdsburg and not far from the Idlewild Wines tasting room, Orsi Family Vineyards also embraces Italian varietals, along with standard varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italian white wines include Fiano, Biancolella d’Ischia and a sparkling Biancolella. The list of Italian reds is much longer — Montepulciano, Barbera, Sagrantino, Nergo Amaro, Schioppettino, Aglianico and Sangiovese. The Orsi tasting room offers a large back deck and expansive lawn, both with plenty of seating, along with corn hole and bocce ball.

Three bottles of wine from Orsi Family Vineyards with a mosaic plate between two of the bottles.


Lesser-Known Rhône Varietals

As we enjoy the aromas and flavors of wine, we don’t often consider where the grapes that produced that wine originated. Most of the commonly grown grapes in California originated in France or Italy. France’s Rhône region gave us Syrah, Viognier, Carignane and Muscat, which have been available for many decades in California. However, in the past 20-plus years, more and more lesser-known Rhône varietals have appeared on winery tasting lists. And I’m happy this evolution is taking place as I enjoy them all.

Frick is a one-man winery and vineyard operation that focuses exclusively on Rhône grape varieties. Bill Frick is the grapegrower, winemaker, cellar staff a.k.a. cellar rat, tasting room personnel and everything else, too. During a visit to the Frick tasting room, which is only open on weekends by appointment, Bill will pour and tell you about his Rhône-style wines. The list includes Carignane, Cinsaut, Counoise, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Viognier & a few Rhône blends.

up close image of four wine bottle from Frick Winery


On a visit to Mounts Family Winery during a Wine Road Wine Trail event, I tasted several wines from their second label, Verah, developed for their Rhône varietals and blends. The current Verah white blend is Clairette Blanche, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc. If you’re a white wine fan, it’s worth checking out. The current Verah red blend, also delicious, is Grenache, Counoise, Mourvèdre, Vaccarese, Syrah and Terret Noir. In addition to the Rhône blends, Mounts also bottles single Rhône varietals of Viognier, Counoise and Grenache, plus several non-Rhône and well-known varietals like Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

All the Mounts wines are estate grown. There are 14 Rhône varieties planted on their property: Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanc, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Cinsault, Terret Noir and Carignane. Not all these varieties go into a bottled varietal, as some are used only as blending wines.

Four bottles of wine on top of a wooden logo wine box with an outdoor background.


To Help in Your Search

In addition to Frick and Mounts Family Winery, many other wineries along the Wine Road produce Rhône varietals. Using the Wine Road website Winery Search tool, I did a search for Rhône Style Blends and got over 25 wineries in my results list. A search of Rhône Style Red Blends came up with 12 wineries, and the search of Rhône Style White Blends listed out four wineries. You can also use the Winery Search Tool to search by specific wine types, like Mourvèdre to get a list of every winery along the Wine Road that produces a Mourvèdre. If you’re looking for lesser-known, more esoteric varietals, this tool will save you a lot of time.


A Selection of Lesser-Known Varietals

The Wine Road has many winery members who love to offer something different to their customers. By growing and producing lesser-known grape varieties, they can share their joy in discovering new wine varietals.

Sunce Winery & Vineyard grows and produces 43 varietal wines plus makes several blends. When you visit their Our Wine page, you get a list that allows you to shop by regions, like Bordeauxs, Burgundies, Italians, Rhônes, Spanish, Croatia and more. If you’re looking for the gourmet international smorgasbord of tastings, look no further.

Screen shot of a website page listing wine regions, vintage and mood. Background shows a man in front of barrels in a wine cellar.


David Coffaro loves to grow any grape that does well in Dry Creek Valley, and offers many interesting blends at his eponymous winery. Although the blends will change from year to year, here are two examples of what you might find:
Italiano Style (yes, that’s the wine’s name) – a blend of Sagrantino, Legrein, Aglianico, Barbera and Montepulciano
Terre Melange – a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Peloursin

Like Sunce, Coffaro offers more wines than I wanted to count, including many lesser-known single varietals like Aglianico, Escuro, Lagrein and more.

Bottles of David Coffaro wines with a glass of red wine in the middle of the photo.


Amphora Wines also offers several lesser-known Italian and Rhône varietals that I’ve already listed, and they also make Tannat, Tempranillo and Vermentino.

Three wine labels from Amphora


Amphora’s neighbor, Peterson Winery, also make several Rhône and Italian wines, plus an unusual white blend they call 3V for its three-varietal composition: Vermentino, Verdelho and Vernaccia. This refreshing wine is one of my favorite summer sippers, and sometimes it’s also available in a 3L box! Perfect for big gatherings, camping trips or just to have in the refrigerator as it keeps for weeks after opening.

Close up of a bottle of Peterson Winery 3V wine with a white egret on the label


Just a Few More

There are a few more lesser-known varietals that deserve a shout out. They’re listed below with a link that shows the wineries that produce them.
Alicante Bouschet

Multiple sources claim there are now more than 10,000 different grape varieties worldwide. Considering this fact, I’ll predict that in the coming years the list of lesser-known varietals along the Wine Road will continue to grow. Enjoy exploring and expanding your palate preferences to include these new delicious discoveries.

Happy Sipping!

Posted by Rebecca Germolus

Rebecca Germolus, co-owner of Maximum Value Marketing, loves Sonoma County and playing along the Wine Road. Rebecca daily immerses herself in wine country by providing cost-effective marketing and writing solutions to wineries and restaurants.

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