Whatever happened to viognier becoming “the next chardonnay”?
That’s what they told us back in the 1990s, when I was a young man first stumbling into wine. I drank a lot of viognier back then. You couldn’t avoid it. Viognier was found on nearly every wine list you’d encounter. Now? I almost never see it, and I don’t know a single person that says, “Boy, I’d really love me some viognier tonight.” Viognier feels like a vestige of an era when Microsoft might hire Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston to show people how to use Windows 95.
Sometimes, no matter how hard the marketing people and the sommeliers and the wine writers push, a grape just never catches fire. Remember in the not-so-distant past, when torrontés was going to be “the next pinot grigio”? Last year, I heard a lot of chatter about chenin blanc being “the next riesling.” I guess we’ll see about that one.
By the way, how’s that whole sherry renaissance thing working out?
Wine books almost always begin with a light-hearted tale of the author’s initiation into the world of wine via some crappy bottle of plonk. This is where you’ll normally read an anecdote of misguided youth involving, say, Thunderbird, Sutter Home white zinfandel, Boone’s Farm, Lancers, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or — for the generation of wine books soon to be written by millennials — boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law of wine writing.
So let me begin by saying I went through a period during my senior year of high school when I was very enthusiastic about Mogen David’s flavored and fortified wine MD 20/20, otherwise known as “Mad Dog.” MD 20/20’s Orange Jubilee was my particular tipple of choice, and the reason had more to do with how much easier it was to hide in the woods than a six-pack of beer. I vaguely remember it tasting like a a mix of chalky, watered-down SunnyD and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with other, numerous suburban New Jersey public school rites of passage.
My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in the big city. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my floor. After gagging and spitting out the MD 20/20, my new friends laughed and gave me the ironic nickname “Mad Dog,” which stuck until I transferred schools at the end of my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference. It was also a lesson in how it feels it to have one’s taste disapprovingly assessed.
“I’m ombibulous,” H.L. Mencken famously wrote. “I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken wrote this, of course, during simpler times: Namely, Prohibition. In those dark days, a drink was a drink was a drink. Still, I’ve always appreciated Mencken’s notion of the “ombibulous” person as an ideal drinking companion, someone with an open mind and an open heart.
Nearly a century after Prohibition, we could really use more self-identified ombibulous drinkers. That’s because our era has become the domain of the specialist, the narrow-focused, the geek. In my years of writing about drinks, I have learned one bedrock truth: There are Wine People and there are Cocktail People. And the chasm between the two is wide and deep, with only a shaky rope bridge spanning the divide.
I will never forget, for example, being at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. I’d been chosen as a fellow and I was anxiously awaiting my first book to be released within months. On the first day, I met one of the well-established wine writers after a panel he’d just led. Someone introduced me to this guy by referring to my book, which was about spirits and cocktails. “Cocktails?” said the esteemed wine writer, with a sniff. “I don’t drink cocktails. I’ve never had a good cocktail in my life. I stick with wine.” He literally waved away the idea of cocktails, banishing it from conversation.
Summer in the world of wine has become the oh-so-cool Summer of Riesling, in which the cognescenti try to convince the average drinker to welcome riesling into their lives. That may seem a tall order, but I am undertaking an even more difficult — and significantly less hip — task: I am going to suggest that you make this summer the Summer of Lambrusco, and pop open the classic fizzy red wine.
I can hear you now: Lambrusco?! Whaaat? Didn’t we leave lambrusco behind in the 1980s, along with those cheesy Riunite commercials — with the jingle “Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice!” and with mustachioed Tom Selleck lookalikes courting bleach blonde Cheryl Tiegs lookalikes over chilled lambrusco?
I grew up in New Jersey. Like most guys who grow up in Jersey, I had that one buddy who was, you know, a little too much. You may know the type: He’s loud, wears a little too much cologne, shows a little too much chest hair, wears a flashy watch and gold chain, and tips people from a wad of dollar bills. When you’re out with this guy, he can be cringe-inducing, and he’s difficult to mix with certain friends, some of whom despise him. However — and it never ceases to amaze me — he still manages to charm over a surprising number of people with his overbearing act. Plenty of people simply love the guy.
I often think of gewürztraminer as sort of like this buddy. After all, one of the biggest clichés in wine is, “Gewürztraminer…People love it or hate it!”
My family lived in the Caribbean for several years when I was young. Our house was just a short walk from a local beach. Often, my sister and I would spend our afternoons snorkeling instead of practicing soccer or playing with our American Girl dolls. I loved living on an island, having a little corner of paradise as my backyard and never being too far from the sea.
I now live in a tiny studio apartment in the city, in a neighborhood with high-rise apartment buildings instead of sandcastles, more than an hour’s drive away from the nearest shoreline. Sometimes, I wish I lived closer to the beach. I miss how salty the water makes my lips taste and how refreshed I feel after a long swim. And even more so, I miss being able to access it at any given moment.
Surely, I’m not the only city dweller that aches for a taste of the ocean during sweltering summers. Over the years, though, I’ve found ways to cope with my urban beach drought. Lately, it’s been with glasses of Greek white wine. They’re an especially perfect cure around this time of year — refreshingly crisp, full of minerality, with telltale hints of salinity. A few have even come close to offering a vacation in a bottle — but they’re also much more than that.
It was a hot September evening in Valladolid. I was seated outside a café on the Plaza Mayor, sipping on a glass of verdejo from the nearby Rueda alongside several plates of tapas, surrounded by crowds of people doing the same. In Spain, this time of year feels more like late summer than early autumn, and drinking a crisp white wine was a far more pleasant option than yet another glass of the big, bold Spanish reds I had tasted all day.
I remember the wine being tropical, vibrant, and totally gulpable. It wasn’t the most intellectual or complex wine I had ever tasted. It didn’t change my life forever. But that was more than okay. Sometimes you don’t need a wine that does either of those things. My chilled verdejo was exactly what I needed at the moment, and it was downright cheap — only two euros for a glass. As soon as I finished my first glass, I ordered another.
Who knew that expressing a warm affection for lovely, drinkable Austrian red wines could be construed as a revolutionary act that threatened civilized wine culture? Or that someone who champions Austrian grape varieties might be viewed as a wild-eyed radical, intent on casting the world of wine into a state of chaos “to the detriment of the wine consumer”?
Well, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, wine writers who enjoy and advocate lesser-known grape varieties are “Euro-elitists” and may as well be espousing ideas comparable to “Kim-Jung-unism.” Blaufränkisch, otherwise known as lemberger and grown mostly in Austria, was singled out by Parker as “virtually unknown” and one of those “godforsaken grapes, that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest.” Recommending that people drink blaufränkisch, according to Parker, was something akin to the “propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes.”
If I say “wine” and “cocktail,” most Americans will jump immediately to one thing: Sangria. In fact, they might even exclaim something like this: “Woohooo, sangria!” No discussion of wine cocktails can truly begin until we discuss sangria. So I may as well start with a full confession: I do not like sangria.
In fact, I do not like it so much that I actually may have put together an ebook on wine cocktails simply in order to convince people to leave their lame old sangria behind. But soon enough, I realized this was silly on my part. I mean, who am I to tell you not to drink sangria? If you happen to like soggy fruit soaked in cheap wine, by all means, enjoy yourself.
My problem with sangria is two-fold. First, it’s almost always made incorrectly. For the record, sangria is not simply chopped fruit dumped into wine. No, true sangria should always have a significant portion of brandy and also possibly a small amount of liqueur. Ask what they put in your sangria at your local happy hour and most likely it will make you sad.
Wine can be a complicated language to understand. Forget about the difficulties of tasting and describing it for just a second. When you first set out to learn a thing or two about wine, the first obstacle is getting past the complicated names listed on a label.
I first learned this lesson in a winery’s tasting room in Asti, which lies at the heart of the Italian Piedmont wine region. As I stared at the many bottles before me, I was admittedly a bit confused. Only a few of the names made any sense at all. The one with chardonnay listed on its label was easy enough to understand — my parents had similar looking ones from Napa Valley in their wine rack at home. And I recognized the word Barolo as a nearby town I had seen earlier on my Google Maps app. I wasn’t entirely sure about the moscato d’Asti and was only able to translate half of its meaning, figuring it was somehow related to the sweet moscato wine that was popular at home.
That’s when Roberto Bava, the winery’s manager and winemaker, noticed the puzzled look on my face. “Ah, you are a bit overwhelmed by all of the different names?” he asked.
“What are you, a girl? Is this Girls’ Night Out?” That’s what a friend, an investment banker, shouted at me, on a steamy summer night a couple years back, when the waitress brought my cool, refreshing glass of Corte Gardoni Bardolino Chiaretto.
I didn’t flinch. As an American male who happens to enjoy drinking rosé wine, I’d heard worse. He continued: “Seriously, dude. Blush wine?”
I considered my friend, sweating through his pink tailored shirt, and finally said: “Yes. At this stage of my life, I’m comfortable enough in my manhood to drink pink wine.” And then I ordered another, adding: “Your mom called it ‘blush’ wine. Grow up.”
Apparently, plenty more people like me have risen up — or manned up, as the case may be — and declared our affection for rosé wines. Because right now, rosé is one of the wine world’s fastest-growing categories.
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.
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. MORE
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.
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.