By the glass, we have a delightful cherry red, berry-scented wine from Sicily; a zippy, lemon-spiked Assyrtiko from Santorini, and a pet’nat if you are looking for fizz.” Sound like the exchange you had with a sommelier last night?”
In the last 10 years, we’ve witnessed a complete transformation of the restaurant wine list. Spearheaded by an influx of eager young wine professionals who now fill the roles of head sommelier and wine director in many of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants, the result has been an explosion of new varieties in the mainstream wine community.
This is a momentous development, especially considering that not so long ago sommeliers were primarily old white men who filled volumes of books with little more than the classic four Bs and one C (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Brunello and Champagne).
European. Pedigreed. Expensive.
Now that white cloths have been ripped off the reclaimed wood tables, and sommeliers with tats guard the wine vaults, vinous offerings tread into exhilarating far-flung territory.
Classics will always have a place, as they serve as benchmarks and are undeniably divine to drink. But many of us can neither afford them nor desire such a narrow range of imbibing experiences. To do so would be like swaddling oneself in the luxury of the Hamptons, Aspen, and Palm Springs while never peregrinating to the less familiar areas of Brooklyn, Portland or Berkeley.
Accusations, usually from old guard wine writers, have been flung at these sommeliers for listing esoteric wines for the sake of eccentricity or trying to “out-grape” one another while
ignoring the needs of their clientele.
In reality, most wine lists still carry plenty of traditional selections, but they’ve been expanded to include selections the somm finds intriguing and that open-minded drinkers are keen to explore.
There’s no shortage of regions rife with indigenous varieties or high-quality, low-priced versions of classic grapes. Here’s a breakdown of a few of those being dusted off and plundered for their local goodies.
Southern Style: Sicily, Italy
This southern Italian island, once known primarily for its mafia leanings and contribution to the massive wine lake of Italy, has since scaled back production in the name of quality over quantity. Terroir hunters have taken to the slopes of Mt. Etna to sniff out old vines and indigenous grapes.
Nero d’Avola was the island’s first grape to grab global attention, earning the south-eastern corner of the island the Eloro DOC for its rich, brightly red-fruited blends of Frappato and Pignatello. Frappato also partners with Nero in the more prestigious Cerasuolo di Vittoria blend, the island’s only (and underappreciated) DOCG. The Nero d’Avola brings tannins and earth while Frappato provides florals, fruit and juicy acidity.
Sicilian wines continue to beguile as one ascends the slopes of the volcano; ambitious vine-growers literally brave potential eruptions to plant at the edge of viability on the magma-laced soils. The area has a mix of centenarian vines (really, really old) and fascinating local grapes including Nerello Cappuccio, Nerello Mascalese, and Nocera, all being finessed into sought after bottles by producers such as Frank Cornelissen, the ultra-naturalist winemaker, rising star Arianna Occhipinti, and COS, one the island’s most prominent producers who ages select wines in terra-cotta amphorae.
Honeymoon Vine-Land: Santorini, Greece
A full-scale revival of the Greek wine industry is underway, making it a great spot for value as it lacks the cache of better known regions (at least for now). Despite its ancient vinous history, Greece has only in the last couple decades modernized its winemaking practices in the embracing of its characterful native grapes (think hygiene and stainless steel temperature control).
Ease into learning about the hard to pronounce varieties (Xinomavro, Rhoditis, Agiorgitiko) by first tasting a wine from honeymooners’ favorite island Santorini, where the indigenous grape Assyrtiko (A seer’ tee ko) makes a dry, crisp, lemon and mineral-driven white.
You’d never guess serious wine was made here, given all the cruise ships and lovers flocking to photograph sunsets over the caldera, but Assyrtiko has a long history on Santorini. Made possible by a unique growing technique that trains the vines to nest low to the ground to protect them from the harsh island winds (grapevines are typically trained skyward for sun access), this is truly a wine culture that does things differently.
Unfortunately, like animal species, vines also face extinction. Tourism pressure has pushed Santorini land prices higher, meaning these vineyards may one day disappear. Look for producers Sigalas, Hatzidakis, and Gaia for fine examples, and hope that sommelier and consumer demand keeps them in production.
“I Think, Therefore I Drink”: Savennieres (Loire Valley), France
Another treasure trove of underrated wines is the Loire Valley. The region that spans the Loire River from central France to the Atlantic crafts a broad range of offerings. Crisp Muscadet, herbaceous Sancerre and earthy Cabernet Franc from the Touraine are all exceptional, but the Chenin Blanc finds one of the most soulful expressions in the Savennieres AOP in Anjou, west of Angers.
A grape capable of a diversity of styles (fully dry, off-dry, sweet to sparkling), Chenin Blanc has been dubbed the thinking person’s wine (twice) by Eric Asimov in the NY Times. Wine critic Jancis Robinson even went so far as to call it “wine for intellectuals, not neophytes.”
With this it’s no wonder sommeliers and wine geeks have chosen to deem it the Sudoku of wine challenges. But is Savennieres so demanding of your concentration that it is too exhausting to drink? The short and long answer is no. So if you find yourself overthinking it, don’t let such highfalutin’ critique intimidate you from ordering.
The Chenin vines of Savennieres have a choice location on one of the rare south facing banks above the river. The optimal conditions create lush ripeness, which when fermented fully dry (no sugar left in the wine), results in body and character that is rich and layered. This, combined with great concentration and acidity, gives the wine the ability to age for years in the bottle, turning the tart acidity
and waxy, green apple and hay flavors into golden honeyed richness.
Two vineyards have earned their own appellations: Las Roche aux Moines and La Coulee de Serrant, emanating from a mere 15 biodynamic acres of which several are worked by famed winemaker Nicolas Joly. He may be the most notable and thus expensive producer, but others are pumping fresh energy into the region and making wines at lower prices with greater approachability.
These also require your concentration, but only because they are too delicious not to pay attention to. Look for Chateau Soucherie or Chateau D’epiré, both imported by Kermit Lynch
Beaujolain’t Nouveau: Beaujolais (Burgundy), France
The enduring misperception of Gamay as a fruity, simple quaffer to be drunk as a liquid picnic is sadly pervasive among
American wine drinkers. But the crusade to redeem this misunderstood grape’s image wages on in the pages of wine lists.
Beaujolais Nouveau, released on the third Thursday in November of each year, is a largely PR-driven event that showcases light-bodied, entry level wines that often use carbonic maceration. The grape has never been given the opportunity to prove that she too can be aged like a Burgundy or any other serious red wine.
Fortunately the ten Grand Cru villages are finally getting recognition. Grapes from the northern or “haut” area thrive on the granite and clay soil, producing wines of elegance, density and interest.
Although there are ten, here are a few specific Crus to consider:
• St. Amour combines minerality with fruit as alluring as its name
• Fleurie trends towards feminine finesse
• Moulin-a-Vent is the sturdiest and longest lived of the Cru
• Morgon, famous for volcanic soils, produces wines of spice, warmth and strength
Quality producers in Morgon include the “Gang of Four,” who are all protégés of natural wine pioneer Jules Chauvet. These include Jean-Paul Thevenet, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard and Guy Breton. Within Moulin-a-Vent, Diochon makes consistently top quality wine.
The list of worthy “new” grapes to explore of course goes on. There’s Fer from France, Thermenregion’s Rotgipfler from Austria, the indigenous black Feteasca Neagra from Romania and many, many more.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough room in this article to detail them all … nor time in life to consume them.
So goes the ever-evolving journey that is wine.