When people are looking for something interesting in wine I commonly turn them on to a different varietal—a grape they never heard of—perhaps Friulano or Aglianico. It’s also fun to suggest wines from unexpected places—and some real treasures can be found.
Looking for bubbly? An obvious choice is one from New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico. Gilbert Gruet, a successful Champagne producer from France, was vacationing in the American Southwest with his family in 1983 when he happened on some European winemakers who had planted successful vineyards near the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He stayed, planted a vineyard at 4300 feet, and released his first bottle of Brut in 1989. The rest, as they say, is history. His sparkling wines rival those from California and France, often selling for a lot more. For about $15.00, you can enjoy his wide array of sparklers, and I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the quality.
Looking for an interesting white? If you are looking for a match to go with your asparagus soup and chicken with anchovies, it is not easy, as these foods release a chemical which can make wine taste a bit metallic. You’ll find your answer in the Austrian section. Gruner Veltliner is probably the most food friendly white wine on earth and goes with almost everything. Fresh and bright with beautiful minerality and acidity, these are wonderful wines. Nigl makes a really nice one for $21.99, but Berger makes a one liter bottle with a crown cap that is a really great value at $12.99.
There are a couple of really interesting whites that’ll make you look really smart when you bring them to dinner. Malvasia Bianco is a very aromatic, minerally dry white that is round and full bodied with wonderful flavors of stone fruits. You can find it in Italy, Greece, and various other countries, but one I really like comes from that other country you must be thinking of. Yes—Slovenia. Rojac Malvazija (Malvasia in Slovenian) is delicious at $18.99.
Now let’s do an exotic grape and an unusual place! The Royal Tokaji Company from Hungary is well known for its dessert wine, which I will describe in a few paragraphs. However, they make a mineral driven dry white from the Furmint grape that has aromas of lime and gooseberry and similar flavors on the palate with a little smoke and pear thrown in. It sells for $16.99.
Looking for a new red to go with that game bird, stew, or roast? Naturally, I would look at Lebanon. Chateau Musar was founded in 1930 in the Bekaa Valley where viniculture has flourished since biblical times. Fifty-odd vintages have been produced with the occasional interruption by gunfire and bombs (actually I’m not kidding here). The Hochar is a single vineyard wine that is an unusual blend of Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Grenache. There are wonderful flavors of sour cherry, plum, and earth supported by supple tannins in a medium body. It is a tasty wine that tells a great story priced at $30.00. There is another great wine made by Slovenia’s Rojac that would fit the bill. Refosco (Rofosk) is a rare grape found in parts of Italy and Slovenia that makes a medium-bodied, spicy, racy wine with lots of red fruit and earth for $18.99.
Finally, as winter approaches, dessert wines can become more interesting. Ice wines (Eisvein) are famous in Germany, where the grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine. They are then crushed, releasing the ice, resulting in extremely concentrated sweet wines. The other place these wines reach their zenith is, of all places, the Niagara Penninsula of Ontario, Canada. Here the grape varietal is Vidal, and the wines are extraordinary, with flavors of nuts, rich stone fruits, and caramel, with a beautiful underlying acidity. Inniskillin is probably the most famous, but a half bottle will set you back $55.00. Jackson-Triggs is a very good alternative at half the price. Probably the most famous dessert wines are the botrytized wines from Sauternes in Bordeaux. Here, sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes are infected with a fungus known as “noble rot” and they shrivel to look like raisins. The sugars and flavors become dramatically concentrated, and the resulting wines are incredibly sweet and complex with acidities to keep them from being cloying. Hungary’s famous Royal Tokaji Aszu is a great example of this type of wine and is not as pricey. The quality is measured in “puttonyos” and the three puttonyos costs about $22.99 while the six (highest) costs about $47.99 for 500 ml bottles. That may sound expensive, but this is about half the price of Sauternes.
Wine seems to be produced everywhere. I’ve enjoyed local wines in Zimbabwe, Morroco, Mexico, and Switzerland as well as many states in the U.S. Having barbecue tonight? How about a good Texas Zinfandel?