The answer is grapes of course, but “which varietal” is an increasingly interesting question. One of the strongest continuing trends in the wine business is that more people everywhere are making better wine, quite often from varietals not named Chardonnay, Pinot or Cabernet, and more importers are discovering these wines and bringing them here. Combine this with a promiscuously mutable vine that has been cultivated for a few thousand years and the result is a cornucopia of local names that designate different examples of our old friend, vitis vinifera. From Aglianico to Zwiegelt, with stops at Cesanese, Hondarrabi Zuri, Irsai Oliver, Pelaverga and many others, hardly a month goes by without us saying “well, that was the best _________ I’ve ever had and now I have a benchmark when I taste that varietal again.” On top of that, California growers and winemakers are branching out from the usual suspects, planting and vinifying an increasing number of varietals.
So if you’re looking to take a break from the usual and try something different, these are happy days. Of course, trying something different should be enjoyable and need not be that far removed from the wines you know. If you can’t figure out which varietal a wine is made from, or can and have no idea what it might taste like, ask us and we can make a comparison. We can give you an idea of what to expect and set you up with something new and interesting.
If your usual is a dry white, try the Berroia Txakolina ($17.99)which is 90% Hondarrabi Zuri and a delicious example of the primary white wine of the Basque region of Spain. Light-bodied and crisp, it has a refreshing character accented by just enough spritz to tickle your tongue. From the Monterey area, try the Cambiata Albariño ($17.99), a varietal originally from further west in Spain and into Portugal that enjoys being planted in California as well. Still light-bodied but with a bit more texture than the Txakolina and dry but not as crisp on the finish, it has established a fan base with us that will readily admit new members.
For whites that are fragrant but not heavy, enjoy the aforementioned Irsai Oliver ($10.99) from Matyas Szoke in Hungary. It is delightfully fragrant, the parent grapes are Gewurztraminer and Muskat after all, and there is texture as well as weight with a lingering finish. A little less fragrant but possessing textbook old-vine texture and depth is the Albert Mann Auxerrois ($17.99), an organic wine from Alsace. Domaine Albert Mann was recently selected Winemakers of the Year by the Revue du Vin de France and this bottling is one of very, very few that I’ve seen of this cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir. Another stunning old-vine white is the Scala Dei “Les Brugueres” ($29.99) from the Priorat region near Barcelona. This is made from very old Grenache Blanc vines grown on steep “soil” that is a delight and education to sit down with and follow as it evolves in the glass. For a wine with such texture to have its intrigue outweigh its unctuous is remarkable and worth much more than the price of admission.
For red drinkers Italy is a playground these days, there are the hundreds of native varietals and more and more they are being made into serious wines rather than the carafe of Vino Rosso that used to be their destination. Two medium-bodied examples are the Colle Ticchio Cesanese ($15.99) from the Lazio region, a perfect match for the hearty pasta dishes we’re eating in mid-winter, and the Vestini Campagnano “Kajanero” ($15.99), which is due an award for quality and for combining Pallagrello, Casavecchia, Pizzutella and Aglianico. Both of these wines have the classic Italian combination of food-wine weight, spice and acidity that enable them to cozy up to a range of dishes and hold your attention if the food is not equally detailed. One of the few, if only, bottlings of Charbono ($19.99) that you’ll ever see comes from Summers Estate in Calistoga. Summers has preserved this vineyard and makes a fruit-driven, subtly spicy red that is food-versatile and thoroughly enjoyable to sip on its own.
Those of you seeking reds with more structure can look into the Aglianico by Bisceglia ($14.99) or the Zweigelt by Beck ($15.99). These wines both offer more structure and a core of fruit but have smooth, polished tannins and the core is not dense, they are drinkable now and inexpensive to boot! The Bisceglia ($14.99) comes from the lower slopes of an extinct volcano and has a typical Aglianico minerality overlaid with fruit that is unobstructed by oak. The Beck Zweigelt ($15.99) is an affordable look at the high quality of Austria’s red wines. The Beck has the structure but not the density of a Cabernet, with brighter, more red-tone fruit and just a touch of blueberry that is reminiscent of Australian Shiraz without the jammy texture.
So if you’re looking for a change of pace, try these and then ask us to set some more aside. Or tell us what you liked about your new varietal and we’ll give you a couple more to try.
Matt S., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant