America’s lesser-known red wine varieties

Judith Papesh
Wine Education grey Dot Grape Varieties grey Dot

Meet some new red wines to pair with your favorite foods

There are between 5000 and 10,000 Vitis vinifera grapes, yet we hunker down to just 1300 or so for winemaking. Yes, it is easy to settle on a few favorite wines, exploring how they change with terroir and vintage. As fun as that is, let’s take a brief excursion into the world of less well-known red wines — you may even find a new favorite.

Uncommon grapes

These grapes are interesting and worth trying, especially as they find their way into new-world vineyards where they rise above their former supporting role as secondary blending grapes. 

Although not as common in the United States, these grapes are well–regarded and have been used in winemaking for centuries. Because they’ve primarily been treated as blending grapes, it’s a nod to the skill of those winemakers who’ve understood the limitations of their vineyards and how to make the best wines from their combined characteristics. However, in recent years, American winemakers have been shaking up the cast and giving starring roles to their underdogs.


Fans of Southern Rhone wines will recognize Carignan. Happiest growing in warm, dry locations, this Spain native has found a home in comparatively cooler California and Washington vineyards. Those slightly moderated temperatures help to highlight the bright red cherry, cranberry, licorice, spice, and herbal notes in the wines. While medium-bodied Carignan packs a substantial acid and tannic punch, everything stays balanced. 

All that balanced, bright fruit, acid, and tannin means Carignan should be your winter slow-cooked, umami-rich food and wine pair. It’s a star with anything from charcuterie to poultry, lamb, pork, and veal.


Considered a Rhone native with a similar trajectory in the US, Counoise is grown in hot areas with gravelly soils and is a noted blending grape for Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. Counoise brings explosive red berry flavors with plum, star anise, licorice, spices, and black pepper in a high-acid package. In contrast or complement to Carignan, Counoise has a very light pigment and low tannins. Studying just these two grapes, you can begin to understand the blender’s art – moderating aggressive qualities and layering flavors like a skilled chef.

The bright fruits and acid of Counoise make it a wine to pair with much of the slow-cooked winter fare as Carignan. Grilled meat and sausage, aged cheese, duck and chicken, lamb, goat, pork, and veal all pair well. Cassoulet anyone?


Alfred Hitchcock may have dialed M for murder, but you should dial M for Mourvèdre. Holding the “M” spot in GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) blends, Mourvèdre has a more prominent presence in the American west than our other red blend selections. Another Spanish native, thick-skinned Mourvèdre, thrives in hot, dry locations in France, California, and Washington. It’s drought tolerant and hangs in there for a late-season high Brix (a measure of grape sugar level) harvest.

Saying that Mourvèdre is a deeply colored, full-bodied, high alcohol, tannic red wine will not prepare you for that first taste. Buckle up. Taking its potency seriously, Mourvèdre begins with bold aromas of dark fruits, surprisingly delicate florals like violet and rose, Mediterranean herbs, spices, black pepper, and often grilled meat.

That same complex parade continues its mouth-filling extravaganza of dark fruits, herbs, and spices with black pepper and licorice on a tannic, medium plus acid base. Mourvèdre can enhance any blend, and with that broad flavor spectrum and deep color, it even makes a great rosé.

All that complex power means Mourvèdre pairs with more slow-cooked, umami-rich foods like porcini mushrooms with fatty meats like beef short rib or pork shoulder. Grilled or roasted mushrooms, chops, ribeye steaks, and rich cheeses like blue or camembert are excellent choices with this wine.

Chef Image

About Judith Papesh

Retired Winemaker, Winemaking Consultant, and Washington State Licensed Geologist. Bourgogne Master Level Certification, French, Italian, and Spanish Wine Scholar Certifications

In the first class to complete Washington State University (WSU) Extension Enology Certification, Judith opened her winery, crafting wines that garnered local and international acclaim before turning her attention to studying and educating about the world's wines. 

"Winemaking is very much an art as well as a science; it is a consuming passion that drives you during the day, keeps you up at night, and when the wine is right, simply leaves you breathless."