One of the biggest pitfalls of growing older is our tendency to retreat to what we find familiar, often at the expense of the adventures. And when it comes to wine, this can be egregious, indeed. We relish the bottles we know and like, excluding any diversity. But what’s great about wine is that for every popular one, there are endlessly satisfying alternatives—variations distinctive enough to satisfy your craving but not shock you. In that spirit, I tapped a few superior sommeliers to suggest ways to wander away from the classics, but not stray too far from what we love.
The most ascendant white in recent years has been Pinot Grigio; it’s wonderfully light, crisp, refreshing and easy to drink. If you’re looking for that high-acid and bright style, there are a few alternatives to explore. One is lighter-styled German Riesling called Kabinett. “I’ve never seen anyone unhappy when I offer a glass of Riesling as an apéritif, instead of Pinot Grigio,” says Paul Einbund, wine director of San Francisco’s hot new restaurant Frances (http://www.frances-sf.com/). While its flavors tend toward apricots and not Pinot Grigio’s citrus and herbs, Riesling hits many of the same notes, with vividly refreshing acidity and lightness.
Another option comes from Austria, says Dana Farner, wine director for Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse Cut in Beverly Hills (http://www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/3789). “People who like Italian Pinot Grigio because it’s crisp and light are often shocked by how much they love the Grüner Veltliner I offer them,” she says. When Farner uses the crisper style of Grüner—federspiel over the richer style called smaragd—the Austrian white hits the mark, she says. “It’s light, zingy and has a little bit of refreshing herbal dryness you find in Pinot Grigio.” And it works with all the same foods, including pasta primavera, olives, fish, spring and summer vegetables, and Asian food.
Sauvignon Blanc has been popular for decades; so popular, in fact, that drinkers are now seeking variations. Sauvignon Blanc is marked by bright (sometimes blindingly bright) acidity, which makes it a refreshing apéritif sipper. It also has distinctive flavors of grass, herbs and vegetables. Given that profile, variations are not easy to come by. One wine that’s a nice stand-in for Sauvignon Blanc is the Spanish wine Rueda. Made from the Verdejo grape, Ruedas tend to have the same weight and zest of Sauvignon Blanc, and some of its fruit characteristics without being as herbaceous and vegetal. If a greenish character is what you’re after, however, it would be wise to try Vermentino from Sardinia, which is not “green in the asparagus way, more in the herbal, grassy side,” says Einbund. “But it hits the same spot as Sauvignon Blanc, going well with green vegetables and seafood.”
White wines, too, have intriguing doppelgängers. Sommeliers told me that one of the most frequent requests they hear is for alternatives for Chardonnay. Of course, Chardonnay can take on different forms. There’s the Chablis model, which is lean, tight and mineral.. There’s a white Burgundy—high acid, citrusy, round, complex, cheesy, and California—rich with pear, cream and toast notes.
When it comes to Chablis, substitutes are easy. Just find wines that go with oysters. The best are Albariño from Spain and Muscadet from the Loire. Neither have the complexity or ageability of high-end Chablis, but both have similarly refreshing acidity, a streak of minerality and can admirably wash down an oyster.
White Burgundy clones are harder to find, but other Loire whites, Savenièrres and dry Vouvray, can do the trick. Medium-bodied with earthy notes and exotic flavors, both wines pair well with white Burgundy and best match cheese.
For the richer, woodier style of Chardonnay made famous in California, sommeliers were practically unanimous in picking whites from France’s Rhône Valley, particularly Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “They’re using quite a bit of oak, so there’s a real softness to them,” says Cut’s Farner. “The fruit characteristic is less apple, more stone fruit, but I feel like a lot of times when people want a really toasty Chardonnay, they’re most interested really in the softness, smoothness and oak and white Rhônes always work for them.”
For such an elusive concept, typicity—how faithfully a wine represents its variety—can certainly stir up controversy and affect real wine-making decisions.
Pinot Noir has become popular in recent years in part because of its versatility (it can go with everything from salmon to steak). With a lighter body, more acidity and bright fruit, this grape makes earthier wines in Burgundy and Oregon, and more fruit-forward versions in California. But this incredible limberness doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives. Robert Bohr, a New York-based wine consultant who just stepped down as wine director of Cru, the fine wine mecca in New York City, said his first choice for getting beyond Pinot Noir is from a region not far from Burgundy: Beaujolais. Made from the Gamay grape, “Beaujolais has a lot of the same characteristics as Pinot,” he says. “But without the deep tannin structure and with a simpler matrix of fruit flavors. It’s also got lovely earthy characteristics and is likewise easy to drink.” As for versatility, he says that a lighter Beaujolais—say, a villages or a lighter cru like Fleurie—can work with fish and poultry, while a heavier one—from the village of Morgon, for instance—has enough heft and concentration to be great with pork chops and steaks.
For people who are more into California Pinot Noir, a little bigger and rounder than its Burgundy counterpart, Chris Deegan, whose wine list at San Francisco’s Nopa (http://www.nopasf.com/is) a fascinating compendium of genre alternatives, often recommends Grenache, which has some of Pinot’s light-colored characteristics, but tends toward higher alcohol and more structure. He also will recommend wines from the rather esoteric Spanish grape Mencia. “I choose wines not from Bierzo (where the wines are most famously from) but from the Ribeira Sacra. The wines are high-toned, earthy and mineral—things you’d want from a good Pinot.”
Merlot is Cabernet Sauvignon’s compadre on Bordeaux’s left bank, softening Cab’s structure and tannins to make more approachable wines. Not really seen much on its own in France (on the right bank it’s blended with Cab Franc), Merlot became a big hit in California and Washington as a solo variety. Plummy, silky and round, it was the easy-drinking recourse to Cabernet Sauvignon. So how do you come up with alternatives for a grape that was itself an alternative? Easy.
If you started drinking Merlot for its softness, but are ready to venture into something with a little more structure, there’s one supreme answer to this dilemma: Malbec from Argentina. A world-beater the last few years, especially in the value end of the price spectrum, Malbec has dark fruit that runs from blackberry and cassis to plums, a hint of minerality and good structure from soft tannins that are more linen to Merlot’s satin. Because of those textured tannins, though, Malbec is better than Merlot for grilled meat, which is one reason why it’s so successful in Argentina where grass-fed beef is a staple.
Another Merlot alternative, according to Nopa’s Deegan, is Tempranillo from Spain, especially modern versions from Rioja and Toro, where, he notes, “the wines have this ripe, dark fruit, really polished tannins and that hint of oaky vanilla that some Merlot drinkers like.”
The most popular red wine in the U.S. is Cabernet Sauvignon, a red wine grape that has it all—massive fruit, structure, tannin, natural complexity, ageability, and it even blends well with others. It makes great wine around the world, from Chile to Washington State, though its two major axes are France and California. “If someone wants an alternative to Cab, I usually break it down with them,” says Deegan of Nopa. “Do they mean a Cab blend from Bordeaux, which will be more tannic and earthy, or a Cab from California, which will be round, juicy and softer?” If it’s an earthier wine they’re after, Deegan says, he will take them to Aglianico from Southern Italy. “It’s got that same dusty fruit and is also a fairly stout wine with lots of tannins. But it’s a little more earthy and has a different structure, with a sort of in-your-face acidity and flatter tannins.” For those reasons the great red grape of Campania would pair well with red meat, as Cabernet does, especially less regal cuts like a hanger steak or T-bone. “The Cabernet alternative I like to champion is Syrah,” says Farner of the steakhouse Cut. She specializes in pairing wine with meat. “A lot of people order Cabernet Sauvignon, but they don’t want it too dry—and what I take that to mean is that they don’t like tannins. So Syrah is a dark, intense red wine like Cabernet, but with fewer tannins.” She carries Syrahs from cooler climates like France’s Northern Rhône that will taste like smoke, meat and olives, as well as warmer climate versions from Australia with big slushy fruit and black pepper.
90 Johannishof 2008 V. Kabinett Riesling (Rheingau); $23. A mineral backdrop sets the stage for a powerful expression of apricot and pear fruit. Mouthwatering acidity masks residual sugar, resulting in a lingering finish that seems dry. Imported by Valckenberg International. —W.E.
89 Winzer Krems 2009 Kellermeister
Privat Kremser Goldberg Grüner Veltliner (Niederösterreich); $16. A smooth style of Grüner Veltliner. It floats easily with pear and green plum flavors topped with a serving of cream. Imported by Total Wine & More. —R.V.
87 Agricola Castellana 2009 Azumbre Vinedos Centenarios [Verdejo] (Rueda); $18. Nice and prickly, with aromas of nettles, citrus and minerals. The palate is fresh and acidic, while the flavors of green apple, scallion, pineapple, lemon and grapefruit come together well. Imported by the Artisan Collection. —M.S.
87 Cantina Santadi 2008 Cala Silente
(Vermentino di Sardegna); $17. Delivers warm and filling aromas of passion and exotic fruits, peach and pear. The wine is smooth and generous in the mouth with balanced acidity. Imported by Empson (USA). —M.L.
88 Condes de Alberei 2008 Salneval Albariño (Rías Baixas); $10. Oceanic aromas and a spritz of lime make the nose just right, and the lively palate of lemon, melon and banana is charged up. Tight on the finish, with citrus and almond skins, and then a lasting impression of pineapple. Imported by CIV/USA. Best Buy. —M.S.
88 Laurent Kraft 2008 Sec [Chenin Blanc] (Vouvray); $18. This is bone-dry Chenin. It does have enough richness to bring a fine balance, with crisp apples, a mineral and steel character, and a taut-as-a-string texture. Imported by Robert Kacher Imports.—R.V.
91 Georges Duboeuef 2008 Domaine des Quatres Vents (Fleurie); $17. Opulent and generous with layers of red fruits. It is the richness allied to a velvet texture that makes it so attractive. Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons. —R.V.
90 Cameron Hughes 2007 Lot 129 Garnacha (Campo de Borja); $15. Inky and floral, with blueberry and wild raspberry flavors. It’s smooth, fresh, bold and finishes with mint and chocolate. Best Buy. —M.S.
91 Trapiche 2007 Broquel Malbec (Mendoza); $17. A stacked wine with deep fruit on the nose as well as notes of orange peel and graham cracker. With its lush palate of sweet blackberry and plum flavors, this pours on the stoutness. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons. —M.S.
92 Teso La Monja 2007 Almirez [Tempranillo] (Toro); $22. Expect dark, intense black-fruit aromas and flavors mixed with heat, tannin, cola and spice. Some oak creeps out on the finish. Imported by Fine Estates from Spain. —M.S.
88 Feudi di San Gregorio 2006 Rubrato Aglianico (Campania); $21. Soft vanilla-like nuances lavished over black fruit, plum cake, spice and cola. The wine is dense and thick with toasted notes and fresh blackberry flavors. Imported by Palm Bay International. Editor’s Choice. —M.L.
88 Substance 2008 Sy Syrah (Washington); $15. This shows not only the fruit (raspberry and boysenberry) but also the fragrances (earth, herb) and the nuances (rock, compost) that make these wines so complex and interesting. —P.G.
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