Erik Neilson on February 10, 2017 3 Comments The popularity of certain grapes speaks for itself. Take Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, which has grown to be one of the major plantings around the world. Why? It’s rich, seductive and impossibly complex. The same can be said for Malbec, with its smoky undertones and rich, fruity palate. Malbec has understandably become a “go-to” wine for many people, most of whom love the fact that it not only drinks exceptionally well on its own, but also when paired with food. One of the problems with always ordering Malbec, however, is that it shuts people off from the rest of the wine world. Indeed, there are countless incredible reds that need to be experienced, regardless of how delicious Malbec happens to be. The good news is that Malbec actually has quite a few analogs, which means there are plenty of grapes that share similar characteristics with it. Not sure which direction to branch off into? Here’s a primer to help you move on from Malbec…but never leave this grape behind! 1. Syrah Syrah is an excellent starting point for those who haven’t quite yet determined which reds to branch out to from Malbec. Why? Simply because it’s one of the most similar varieties you can expect to find in wine. Syrah is darker in color and in flavor than many examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, which lends it a spellbinding air of mystery that carries all the way through to the finish. Though slightly more tannic and acidic than Malbec, these elements aren’t at all overpowering and never get in the way of where the wine wants to go. Open up a bottle of Syrah, and you’ll most likely get hit with fruit aromas right off the bat. Blackberry tends to be up front, with jammy accents surrounding it. One reason why many people love pairing Syrah with food is because of how savory it can be. Think flavors like olive, pepper and even meaty, bacon-like flavors, and you’ll have a close idea as to what you’ll get out of a glass of Syrah. There’s usually a fair amount of oak presence in Syrah, so you may want to warn anyone you’re planning on sharing a bottle with to be sure they know what they’re getting into. 2. Carménère Carménère is a slightly overlooked grape variety, which is a true shame considering how delicious a wine it can create. The French word for “crimson,” Carménère is a member of the Cabernet family of grapes, which is now rarely found in France and is instead grown in Chile. Chilean Carménère has a lot going for it, especially for those who have a thing for Malbec. Medium in body, this grape generally leads to a wine that is slightly less tannic than, say, Cabernet, yet still has enough grip to warrant slow sipping. When ripe, the grape imparts a cherry-like flavor to the wines it’s incorporated into. It tends to be earthy across the board, full of cedar notes and hints of spice box, tobacco and leather. A sumptuous red if there ever was one, Carménère is currently making a comeback and is ending up on wine lists across the world. 3. Merlot Merlot shares quite a few characteristics with Malbec, one of them being the fact that — like Malbec — many people only drink Merlot. It’s not because it’s the only wine they like, but possibly because they know they like it and don’t want to take a risk with another wine. At color alone, you’ll notice that Merlot is quite a bit more red in hue than Malbec, which borders on an inky purple. This being said, it shares the same levels of acidity and tannin presence as Malbec, not to mention a very similar oak presence. Merlot typically spends between 8-12 months in oak barrels before being bottled, which lends it a fair bit of vanilla and clove characteristics. Flavors of black cherry dominate the palate, as well as raspberry, plum and mocha. Look deeper, and a graphite-like minerality typically shows itself. Merlot often needs a lift (Syrah is often blended with Merlot to accomplish this), but single-varietal bottles can be truly incredible when crafted with care. 4. Nero d’Avola For a period of time, Nero d’Avola was a forgotten grape — one that almost succumbed to extinction before a few producers brought it back and it began to rise once again in popularity. Nero d’Avola, in many ways, is Sicily’s Malbec. It’s superbly fruit-forward, showing flavors such as black cherry, plums and even slight hints of boysenberry. Fruit isn’t the entire picture, however, as licorice, tobacco and even chilies enter into the equation to create an astoundingly unique wine. While not as tannic as Barolo, the tannins are certainly on par with those found in Malbec, and acidity doesn’t stray far, either. A hallmark of Nero d’Avola is the fact that it’s meant to be consumed without fretting or overthinking things, which means some of the best bottles in the world can be had for as low as $20. This is the perfect wine for those who want to see what’s outside of Malbec without having to spend a great deal of money, as there are a number of good examples out there that represent excellent value. 5. Petit Verdot Another variety that gets less attention than it perhaps should is Petit Verdot. Grown and produced across the world, Petit Verdot originated in France, though the grape is currently most prominently found in Spain. With huge body, lots of fruit-forward characteristics and scraping tannins, it’s about as “big” a wine as you’ll find without stepping into Rioja territory. Petit Verdot can range in flavor depending upon the bottling, but you can expect notes of violet, black cherry, lilac and dried herbs. The oak presence that is typical of Petit Verdot does a lot to soften the aggressive grape, lending qualities such as vanilla and mocha. For something different, try a bottle from Australia, or even South Africa, where Petit Verdot shines. Malbec is an excellent grape to enjoy, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Start branching out, and you’ll soon encounter a whole new world of wines to discover.