ENJOYING YOUR FAVORITE WINES WITH your favorite foods is one of life’s true pleasures. You can count on the wines you like to stimulate all of your senses, to provide a focus for a great meal with friends or family, or when you’re grabbing a quick bite on your own. But let’s be honest; even though you may like what you’re drinking, when it comes to the universe of wine you may also be thinking, “What am I missing?”
The fact is, there is life beyond Chardonnay and Cabernet, and there is excitement beyond Merlot-wines produced from grapes you may have never heard of, from wine regions you’ve never considered. The really good news about these wines is that they are often great values too All it takes to get started on this enological journey is a sense of adventure, a desire to go off the beaten path.
We can start our exploration close to home, by tasting some fine Hudson Valley wines made from what might be considered unusual grapes. Millbrook Vineyards makes a lovely, estate-bottled Tocai Friulano, a white grape native to Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Italy. Try this wine with grilled or seared scallops, fish or chicken tacos, Chinese takeout, or lighter foods with a touch of spice or smoke. Or try the Gamay Noir from Whitecliff Vineyard in Gardiner, a red made from the only grape that is allowed in Beaujolais, France. This wine is great with a rare burger, filet mignon, roasted chicken or grilled salmon, as well as with many Hudson Valley artisan cheeses. And don’t forget Eaten by Bears, produced at Cereghino Smith Winery in Bloomington, a non-traditional red wine made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc. The same folks produce a killer Rock n Roll Red–a blend of Sangiovese, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc. These full-bodied wines exhibit structure and depth tempered by refreshing acidity, and will marry well with hearty dishes such as stews made from local beef, lamb, or veal.
Leaving home to go farther afield, consider some of these wines next time you want to try something new, different, and good.
Try Torrontes, a floral, spicy white-an excellent wine for fish dishes, as well as mushroom risotto, or just some fresh veggies sauteed or roasted in good olive oil. Of course, Argentina is already well known for its flagship red, Malbec, a medium- to full-bodied wine made to pair with the Argentine love affair with beef.
Cabernet Sauvignon is Chile’s most popular red varietal in export markets, but if you like medium-bodied, juicy red wine, sip a good Carmenere. Somewhat lighter in body and extremely food friendly, this wine is great with white meats and is an incredible bargain. If you haven’t tried Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Casablanca Valley, you’re missing out on a great white: fruit-forward, with refreshing citrus-like acidity-just the thing for poached salmon with a tomatillo salsa.
Uruguay (that’s right, Uruguay)
I’m betting most readers haven’t had the pleasure of tasting this country’s Tannat, a full-bodied but balanced red that, true to its name, features some serious, mouth-puckering tannins. This is a wine for red meats and intense cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano or moderately sharp Cheddar.
Sure, you know about Shiraz, but have you tried a dry to semi-dry Riesling from Down Under? Refreshing, citrusy and clean, this white is just the thing for spicy Asian food or smoked fish. The red grape that Australia does a bang-up job with is Grenache, especially old-vine Grenache from the McLaren Vale region. Redolent of black and red fruits, with a complex finish, this full-bodied red pairs beautifully with cassoulet, game or hard cheeses.
Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is ubiquitous these days, but lesser-known are its great Pinot Noir wines, especially from the Central Otago and Martinborough regions. As with all fine Pinot Noir, these wines pair beautifully with a wide variety of foods, from grilled fish, to any white meats, to the leaner cuts of red meats, as well as “meatier” vegetarian dishes featuring beans and grains.
I’m a big fan of South African Sauvignon Blanc, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend this country’s Chenin Blanc wines. Crisp, fruity, with a touch of peach on the palate, this white is sure to please with ceviche or poached fish dishes. (South Africa is also known for its own red wine grape, Pinotage, but its quality is inconsistent).
Two whites, two reds are worth exploring here. Definitely try Gruner Veltliner, a white that is light-bodied, crisp and refreshing, with an underlying hint of orange zest. Gruner Veltliner has been “discovered,” but the wine is still a good bargain. More expensive, but usually worth it, are Austria’s dry Rieslings. Both of these whites are perfect accompaniments to spicy fish dishes, and smoked fish and white meats. For reds, try Blaufrankisch, a medium-bodied wine that pairs nicely with red meats and stews, and Zweigelt, a light-bodied red that is perfect for fish or white meats cooked en plein air, on the outdoor grill. (By the way, Zweigelt is the same grape as Lemberger, a cult classic worth a sip from Washington State.)
There are hundreds of grape types in Italy, so the question becomes where to begin? Let’s start in Sardinia with Cannonau, which is actually the Grenache grape. Full-bodied red Cannonau wines are wonderful with rustic, rare meat dishes. From Puglia, try Primitivo (which has the same DNA as Zinfandel), a very satisfying red and, like its California twin, it is bursting with black fruits and spice. It’s terrific for white and red meats, but also for hearty knife-and-fork soups, such as black bean. Vermentino, grown primarily in Sardinia and Tuscany, produces a wonderful white, with bracing acidity and notes of citrus and green melon on the palate; serve it with fish, seafood or mollusks. The same foods create a perfect pairing with Falanghina, a delicious, mouth-watering white from Campania.
Portugal’s premier white grape is Alvarinho, which often finds its way into blended Vinho Verde, but look for pure Alvarinho from the Moncao wine region-another wonderful wine for fish. Touriga Nacional, an important constituent of fine Port, is the most heralded red grape in Portugal. These days, Touriga Nacional from the Douro region is making an international name for itself as a great table wine. If you like “big” reds and “big” food, then Touriga Nacional is for you.
Albarino is the Spanish name for Alvarinho. Albarino from Rias Baixas, in the province of Galicia on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast, produces a delicious medium- to full-bodied white, made to marry with that region’s seafood. Godello, from Valdeorras (also in Galicia), is a light- to medium-bodied, juicy, refreshing white wine, also a perfect pairing with fish and seafood. Spain is a treasure chest of reds. If you like Merlot, but want to take a walk on the wild side, try a Mencia from the Bierzo denominacion–it’s a beautiful red wine that will successfully accompany roasted white meats.
The Loire Valley is known throughout the world for its tasty white wines such as Muscadet, Vouvray and Sancerre, but lesser-known are the terrific red wines from the Central Loire: Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny, each based on the Cabernet Franc grape. These are not blockbuster reds, but rather medium-bodied wines of great finesse and subtlety, perfect for white meats and game.
In Greece, the joys of degustation are much more important than the challenges of pronunciation. One of my favorite white wines in the world is Moschofilero, from Mantinia on the Peloponnese peninsula. Moschofilero is crisp and refreshing, tastes a bit like a cross between Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, and will pair incredibly well with subtly spicy, salty and smoked foods; it’s a dream when paired with grilled sardines. Another exciting Greek grape is Assyrtiko, which produces extraordinary white wines on the island of Santorini. These wines are all about fish dishes in the Mediterranean tradition-try it with a bouillabaisse or other fish stew. For assertive red wines from Greece, look for Nemea (made from the Agiorgitiko grape) and the Barolo-like Naoussa (made from the Xynomavro grape-a personal favorite).
This journey for new and exciting wines could go on and on-we’ve just scratched the surface-but where better than to end this trip than at the home of the oldest continuously produced wine in the world? First produced in the twelfth century, Commandaria, from the Limassol region, is a sweet, fortified wine perfect for cheeses or dark chocolates at the end of a meal, and a perfect wine to relax with at the end of our journey.