5 Alternative Varieties
We asked sommeliers to suggest pinch hitters for the most imbibed varieties.
Out with the old, in with the new—now that’s a New Year’s resolution that will finally get you to swap your favorite bottle of wine for something a little different. Here are five sommelier-suggested alternatives for the most imbibed varieties.
Grape: Pinot Grigio
Draw: “It’s neutral and refreshing, easy to pronounce, accessible and affordable,” says Julie Dalton, sommelier at Michael Mina’s Wit & Wisdom Tavern in Baltimore, Maryland. No wonder it’s a white-wine favorite.
Substitutes: Melon de Bourgogne is used to make Loire Valley’s Muscadet: a neutral and affordable wine, with refreshing notes of green apple, lemon and lime. In northwestern Spain, Godello, Albariño and Treixadura, offer easy-drinking, aromatic wines, featuring hints of salinity.
Draw: Rich and complex, with a zing of acidity, it’s easy to see why this grape is a go to, says Master Sommelier Keith Goldston, wine director at Range in Washington, D.C. “It’s textural weight gives Chardonnay the ability to hang in there with most cuisines, and predominate citrus flavors work like a squeeze of lemon.”
Substitutes: Viognier, with its notes of peach and apricot, “drinks like Chardonnay’s exotic aunt who just returned from a Hawaiian vacation,” says Goldston. Garganega, from Italy’s Soave Classico region, can also rival the world’s most complex Chardonnays.
Grape: Pinot Noir
Draw: “Pinot’s uniqueness stems from its ability to produce tremendous depth of flavor while simultaneously staying very light on its feet,” says Bobby Conroy, sommelier at San Francisco’s Benu. Red Burgundy in particular, he says, “has haunting aromatics, racy acidity and seemingly endless length of flavor.”
Substitutes: Conroy claims that aromatic Valdiguié from southwest France shares Pinot Noir’s cherry, plum and red currant fruit, moderate alcohol levels and low tannins. Austrian Blaufränkisch, too, attracts Pinot lovers because of its dark- and red-fruit notes, and its herbaceous quality.
Draw: “Merlot is that warm, fuzzy variety that isn’t challenging to buy or order, and it delivers consistency among producers and regions,” says John Mitchell, wine director at New Orleans’s Restaurant Stella! It’s all in the grape’s rich black fruit, well-integrated tannins and acidity.
Substitutes: “When balanced, Sicily’s Nero d’Avola can exude sweet tannin, plum, spice and blackberry,” says Mitchell. Another alternative is Prieto Picudo, from Spain’s northwest Tierra de Léon. It’s hard to find, but worth seeking out because of its Bordeaux-like qualities of black fruit and rounded tannins.
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon
Draw: Lovers of big reds are drawn to Cabernet’s ample tannins, blackcurrant aromas and great structure. “It is truly an exceptional grape,” concurs Dusty Frierson, general manager and wine director of the New South Restaurant Group in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Substitutes: Tannat-based wines from southwest France’s Madiran region are big and bold, with great tannic structure. Dry reds from Portugal’s Douro Valley—particularly those made with Touriga National and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo)—give “rich depth of flavor, acidic backbone and tannin.”