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Alternative Reds, the first volume of the Planet of the Grapes series from author Jason Wilson, is a guide to off-the-beaten-path red wines that offers a wine lover — whether a newbie or an experienced connoisseur who’s stuck in a rut — a different path into the world of wine. In this excerpt, Wilson explores the fascinatingly rustic, somewhat obscure, great value wines of Southwest France. Get Alternative Reds today on Amazon, iTunes, or from Smart Set Press, and check out the rest of the Planet of the Grapes series.

Negrette. Mauzac. Fer servadou. Tannat. Loin de L’Oeil. No, I am not just making up gibberish words. These are the names of grapes used to produce some wines I’ve been drinking recently. Fronton. Madiran. Marcillac. Gaillac. No, these are not place names from The Lord of the Rings. These are the real designations of origin in Southwest France where those wines come from.

Ah, Mistress Wine…Once I think I have you all figured out, have all the grapes sorted in my mind, all those foreign pronunciations learned, and all the geographical hairsplitting committed to memory, you throw something new at me. Something I’ve never tasted before that makes me realize once again that I will never, ever know everything about you.

Over the past couple years, that something new has been wine from Southwest France. Even though it’s France’s fourth largest appellation in terms of volume, we see very little of the wine from this region in the U.S. That’s a shame, because most of what I’ve been drinking has offered tremendous value.

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It’s currently fashionable in the wine world to once again profess one’s admiration for grüner veltliner — just as six or seven years ago, it was de rigeur to dismiss grüner veltliner as a passing fad. But please believe me, because I’m being sincere when I tell you this: I have always loved grüner veltliner. Always. I’m not one of those wine writers who fell quickly in and out of love, only to now “reconsider ” things because I need a new story angle. I am true of heart. GV, I have never, ever stopped loving you.

I remember fondly the late 1990s and early aughts, when grüner veltliner was just becoming trendy. I was still a young man, but had passed through my flannel-shirt-grunge-failed-novelist days and had begun a semi-respectable career as a food writer. Grüner veltliner dominated the wine lists of the restaurants I was reviewing. “If viognier and sauvignon blanc had a baby,” we were told, “it would be grüner veltliner.” In many people’s minds, GV replaced both the New Zealand sauvignon blancs that were so popular and California viogniers that many were pushing. GV became a default white, perfect with all sorts of food, and reliable quality no matter how good or bad a wine list was.

Then, sometime around 2007, grüner veltliner ceased to be cool. People discovered Friuli or Jura or orange wines or rediscovered riesling or chenin blanc, or in any case moved on to other trends.

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You may have noticed that $8 malbec you’ve been buying for years just doesn’t taste as great as it used to. I’ve noticed, too.

Malbec used to be one of every wine drinker’s go-to bargain reds, a section in a wine store where great value was so easily found. You could pick almost any bottle under $10 off the shelf and chances are, you’d be relatively satisfied. But now, malbec is too often hit or miss. The same malbec I loved three years ago tastes too jammy, too oaky, and not at all complex. Finding an enjoyable one for under $10 has become mission impossible.

Of course, when we talk about malbec, we’re almost always talking about malbec from Argentina. The country capitalized on this lost French variety, which was brought over from France in the mid-19th century. It’s still the main grape grown in Cahors and is allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wines, but it was Argentina that finally put malbec on the map.

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying red wines made from the indigenous grapes of Greece. I’ve tasted mostly xinomavro from Naoussa, in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, and agiorgitiko from Nemea in the Peloponnese, but also little-known varieties such as limniona, mavrotragano, and mavrodaphne. While you can certainly find bottles of xinomavro and agiorgitiko on American shelves and wine lists, let’s just be clear: These are obscure wines.

Why would I recommend such obscure wines? A few weeks ago, I might have simply said: These obscure wines are fascinating and strange in the best way, and they repay an adventurous wine drinker by providing good value and deliciousness. But apparently, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, I’m all wrong.

Just the other week, while I was tasting these Greek reds, Mister Parker called out me and my kind as “Euro-elitists” and “absolutists” whose wine recommendations are “the epitome of cyber-group goose-stepping” and “Kim-Jung-unism.” Yes, seriously. He did. Right on his website, for anyone who paid $29 (for a 90-day subscription) to read.

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Beware: Using your favorite wine in cocktails is a surefire way to scandalize the “serious” wine snobs in your life. Which, of course, is always fun. Mix up your wine routine with more than 40 new recipes from top mixologists in Planet of the Grapes Volume 3: Wine Cocktails, available now on Amazon. In this excerpt, author Jason Wilson explores the ever-underappreciated sherry.

Everybody’s talking about sherry these days. At least everyone snugly inside the bubble where sommeliers, bartenders, wine educators, and drinks writers reside. It’s the same place where grower Champagne, mezcal, and white whiskey are really popular, and ambergris (otherwise known as whale excretion) is used in cocktails. The other 99 percent of the world usually doesn’t get the memo. Which is sometimes just as well.

In the case of sherry, however, this lack of awareness beyond the bubble is truly a shame. Sherry is one of the most versatile, and best value, wines in the world. You can almost always find high quality for under $20, and often for under $15. Taken by itself, sherry has always been the perfect wine to pair with many difficult-to-pair foods such as olives, artichokes, nuts, asparagus, cured meats, sushi, as well as wine-unfriendly Chinese food.

Behind the bar, sherry has been a staple since cocktails first appeared in the 19th century. The sherry cobbler (sherry, fruit, and ice) was the Appletini of its day, and early 20th century classics like the Duke of Marlborough, the Bamboo, the Adonis, and the East Indian — all of which are varying combinations of sherry, vermouth, and bitters — wonderfully showcase the wine.

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Italy is one country where sparkling wine cocktails are part of everyday life. Go into any Italian bar during happy hour and you’ll find a big bucket full of chilling bottles of prosecco, a rail full of Aperol, Campari, and vermouth, and bartenders churning out a steady stream of spritzes.

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When I think about port, I think of my earliest, clumsy attempts at seeming — with requisite air quotes — “sophisticated,” or at least “fancy.” Back then, in my 20s, port seemed like the fast track to connoisseurship. “I’ll take a glass of the ’85 Fonseca,” I’d say to a waiter as everyone else was simply ordering dessert.

I admit I was kind of insufferable. But I did grow fond of port, and it did end up being the first wine I truly came to know, from drinking a lot of it as well as making several visits to the famed port lodges in Porto, the Portuguese city from which the wine takes its name. Yet over time, my love for port waned. Like everyone else’s, it seemed.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Greatness in food and wine this year. Mostly about how overrated and irrelevant the idea of Greatness usually is when it comes to what we eat and drink. Take Thanksgiving dinner. If we look at the actual dishes served, Thanksgiving would rarely be considered a five-star meal. And who really cares?

The truth, in most families, is this: Thanksgiving is a team effort, prepared by cooks of varying abilities, and which appeals to a common denominator of taste. No matter how far in a foodie direction you want to push the meal, some relative is going to bring a green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup, or the sweet potatoes with the marshmallows, or the canned cranberry sauce. Deal with it. Thanksgiving is big and inclusive enough for everyone. With the Thanksgiving meal, as with so many other things in life, it is simply better to be good than great.

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I’ve always felt a little sorry for Beaujolais and the gamay grape from which it was made. Beaujolais sits just south of Burgundy, where the oh-so-popular pinot noir is king. If I think of gamay as a person, I picture someone who’s got the worst frenemy — the popular cheerleader, the star quarterback, the supermodel mom, the successful Internet billionaire — living right next door.

I mean, everyone loves their pinot noir, don’t they? Pinot noir is, like, the greatest wine ever! Remember that movie Sideways? If we’re being super honest, it was a pretty lame movie, but remember how much everyone started loving pinot noir after that? Boy, suddenly that pinot noir started to get really expensive, didn’t it? And there’s no better pinot noir than what comes from Burgundy, right? Growing Burgundy pinot noir must be like printing money! I picture gamay sighing heavily and her shoulders slumping when she thinks about pinot noir.

3 Bottles Under $10

Monastrell As Well

An under-the-radar Spanish grape to add to your bargain-hunting list


TM_WT_MONASTR_AP_001Tempranillo, garnacha and albariño. You’ve heard these bargain buzzwords whispered before. They’re the Spanish wines already synonymous with good value. But as their popularity continues to rise, they’re slowly disappearing from the bargain category. And finding an enjoyable one priced under $10 has become nearly impossible.

Luckily, there are still a few corners of Spain where you can easily discover pockets of great deals — like the places that grow monastrell. Although not exactly a household name like tempranilllo or garnacha, monastrell is quickly redefining what value means in Spain. Forget the Spanish wines you already know — it’s time for you and your wallet to get acquainted with this native grape.

You probably don’t even need a full introduction to monastrell. In countries outside of Spain, it wears another hat and goes by the better-known alias, mourvèdre. It’s with this different name that monastrell has achieved its greatest fame. The grape is most famously grown in France, where it’s used to make pretty rosés in Provence and powerful Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines in the Rhône Valley, home to the esteemed “GSM” blend. The prominent “M” part of the blend, winemakers in regions all over the world blend mourvèdre with grenache and syrah to make wines that are both juicy and savory.

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I am hopeful that Portuguese wines will take off in the United States one day and I eagerly await the meteoric rise of Portugal’s great-value reds, either from a famed region like the Douro Valley or from lesser-known regions such as the Alentejo or Dão or Setúbal. My wait has been very much in the vein of Waiting for Godot, and it has been going on two decades now. I remain patiently optimistic.

I’m always speaking with people who are fixated on a quixotic quest to find that “great bottle under $10.” I often get frustrated with this mythical idea of the under-$10 bottle, because it’s actually so rare to find one that offers quality and drinkability, let alone complexity. I’m almost always advocating that people bump up at least a few bucks into the $12 to $15 range. A $9.99 wine can just as easily offer bad value as a $29.99 wine can.

Portugal, however, is one big exception, one country that actually produces wines under $10 that offer honest-to-goodness value. Which is why their lack of presence in the U.S. continues to surprise me. MORE

Wine 101

The Sweet Spot

When a sweet wine is balanced, there's nothing like it


Sweet wines. Just hearing those two words being uttered is enough to prompt an obligatory eye roll from almost any wine drinker. Sweet wines? What kind of unsophisticated person drinks those?

Certainly not me. Well…I never used to, at least.

It wasn’t even that long ago that I rejected the idea of sipping on anything remotely sweet. One night my friend brought over a bottle of her new favorite wine, moscato, for me to try. I wasn’t too surprised. Almost every twenty-something I knew desired a glass of the sweet wine. But I was used to drinking the big, bold reds of Spain and affordable sparklers like prosecco, and sweet wines like moscato remained far off my radar.

“It’ll soon be one of your favorites, too,” she told me. I wasn’t so sure.

Now, I’m not one to ever turn down anything complimentary, especially if it’s wine, but I was disappointed in her latest obsession. At the time, we were in the middle of a moscato boom, the result of influential hip hop artists like Kanye West, Drake, and Lil’ Kim endorsing the slightly fizzy sweet wine. References of it in lyrics like “still over in Brazil sippin’ moscato,” and “lobster and shrimp and a glass of moscato,” caused its popularity to surge. According to a Nielson study, sales of moscato rose 73 percent in 2011. And that’s on top of the 100 percent spike the category saw in the year before.

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So this is how the Summer of Riesling ends: With the leading American importer of German wines scolding the Germans themselves over the type of riesling they prefer to drink in Germany.

Last month, in the New York Times, Terry Theise (the importer whom the Wall Street Journal referred to as “near the pinnacle” of wine “hipness”) expressed his displeasure that his beloved low-alcohol, sweet styles of riesling are being usurped in Germany by dry, or trocken, riesling — what Theise called “a highly invasive species that wants to swallow up every other style.”

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During my post-undergrad years in Boston, in the early 1990s, I drank a lot of New World red wine. Most of it was purchased in large bottles for very little money, and it was generally taken to the kind of dinner party where someone had made a bad vegetarian lasagna and someone else had tried to make tabouli, and we all crowded onto a musty couch and ate off mismatched plates. The host might have had to borrow a corkscrew, and it was inevitable that one person would have to sip wine from a coffee mug.

Wine 101

Pucker Up

How acidity makes wines drinkable, refreshing, and able to age


I teetered on top of the enormous tractor, careful not to lose my balance as it shook from side to side. The vibrating machine hovered over a single row of vines at a time, shaking their perfectly ripe grapes free into the large bins below. I turned around to glance into the dark rows of vineyards lit only by the moon above.

“Why are we harvesting the grapes in the middle of the night, again?” I asked over the roaring sound of the tractor. “Is everyone here just nocturnal?”

“No, not exactly,” said Juan de Benito Ozores, director of the Alvarez y Diez winery, who was seated beside me. “You see, the fresh juice from the grapes, it would oxidize too quickly in the heat. We don’t want them to lose the perfect sugar and acidity levels they have right now.”

It was just past midnight in Rueda, a small white wine-producing region just a two-hour drive from Madrid. Though the timing was a bit odd to me, I had ventured there to watch the winery’s annual grape harvest, which started at ten o’clock at night and would finish just before sunrise.