By John Kerr
They may be more grown-up than you.
I’ll bet that you haven’t given one thought to the wines you enjoyed as a young adult. Most of us started off with wines that were almost as sweet as the soft drinks we grew up on. If you’re over 50, you were probably enticed by the ad campaigns for Boone’s Farm or Bartles & Jaymes. They were fun wines, but as the years passed, many of us leaned towards drier or more complex wines.
You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. America was in love with sweeter wines back then. And it wasn’t just the cheaper stuff—California winemakers left a hint of sugar even in a number of their better wines. Robert Mondavi was among the first to break from this trend by releasing “Fumé Blanc.” Before this, most domestic Sauvignon Blanc was decidedly sweet. Mondavi used this name to signal the public that his Sauvignon Blanc had a hint of smoke and no sugar. Mondavi still produces this wine to this day. If you’re a bit of a history buff, you can pour this ground breaking wine at your next meal for about $18.
Yes, those wines of your youth are long forgotten. But while you weren’t looking, several of these wines grew up, too. And they deserve a second chance, not only because they are delicious, but because they are a great value. When you buy a Chardonnay or a wine from Napa Valley, you’re often paying something for the wine’s popularity beyond its actual worth. Great value can be found in relatively unloved wines, which nearly always sell for a price far lower than their surprising quality. If you’re feeling adventurous, here are five second chance wines worthy of your consideration.
We’ll start with possibly your worst nightmare: Lambrusco. During the 1970s and 1980s, commercials for Riunute on ice (That’s nice!) were everywhere. Many of today’s versions still show some sweetness, but it drops off just before the finish so that you’re ready for the next sip or bite of food. Last year, the new style of Lambrusco was the hot wine in Manhattan for pairing with pizza or charcuterie. And we’ve seen its popularity picking up here, too. One great example is Monte Locco Lambrusco Emilia, at about $13. You’ll see it in several of the better restaurants and wine shops in Western North Carolina.
If you want to try something really different, uncork a bottle of Opera ’02 Secco Lambrusco. This is not soda pop, but a dry, earthy wine with a long finish that shows a hint of bitterness only found in the best Italian reds. The vintner created this well-structured wine by making it predominantly Grasparossa, a tannic, full-bodied grape, and including just enough of the fruity Sorbara to add the high note. Our importer calls it Lambrusco for adults. You can’t go wrong pairing this wine with creamy or oily foods, such as a mayonnaise-laden sandwich, cream pasta dishes, or antipasto like prosciutto. You’ll find it around town for about $21.
Be honest, your first thoughts about Spumante are not good. Like Lambrusco, Spumante endured a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign. To achieve popularity, the Spumante backed by this campaign had to meet the lowest common denominator. So mass-produced Spumante became a sweet, over-bubbled concoction.
Spumante enjoyed outside this country still has a little sweetness, but the sweetness is light and balanced with the wine’s acidity. Spumante such as the Col Mesian Cuvée meets these standards, and you’ll find the accolades for this crowd pleaser on European websites. The white sparkler shows flavors of peach and pear wrapped in a round, full texture. The label says it’s extra dry, which actually means it’s slightly off dry. The French created the categories so ask them to explain. Enjoy this Spumante alongside light snacks, such as vegetables and dip. And at about $13, you can pour this as a well-priced alternative to toast your wedding or the New Year.
Back in college, the Chianti we bought usually came in a bottle with a wicker basket weaved around the bottom half. The wine was barely drinkable, but it did taste Italian and got the job done. The old Chianti’s most redeeming quality was that the bottle made a great candle holder for romantic nights.
As an aside, the bottle and wicker basket are called a fiasco. The name has nothing to do with the quality of the wine inside. Fiasco originally meant bottle. It was Italian theater slang that changed its meaning. Much like the phrase “break a leg” came to mean “good luck” in American theater, “make a bottle” or “far Fiasco” came to mean a performance flop in Italian. The word “fiasco” is now associated with a disaster of any kind.
The Chianti of today is no fiasco. The dip in quality largely occurred around World War II. At that time, the Italian government banished a lingering form of feudalism, decimating the vineyard workforce. We endured low-quality Italian wines for decades until this problem was resolved and Italy began exporting quality wines again. One of our favorite examples of a great, well priced Chianti is Vallone di Cecione Chianti Classico, at about $19. This Chianti pays homage to the old school style with a bit more fruit to meet international tastes.
Arguably the most ubiquitous wine of youthful bad choices was the Portuguese rosé in a ceramic bottle. It became so popular that at least one rock album cover showed a bottle in the background and one second tier airline offered it complimentary with every meal. Its presence was so pervasive that to this day, people regularly decline rosé, saying that they don’t like sweet wines.
Today’s rosé is anything but sweet, and increasing sales indicate that the popularity of rosé is about to explode. If you want to be among the first to try the new Portuguese rosé, you can pick up a bottle of Nunes Barata rosé for about $12. The wine is great for an afternoon on the porch, but is so versatile that it will pair with just about any meal you serve through New Year’s Eve.
Our last second chance wine is probably one you didn’t even know you enjoyed. After Prohibition, Charbono was the work horse red grape blended into California bulk wines like the infamous jug “Burgundy.” But several years of vintner abuse led to its decline. Now, less than 100 acres are left in the United States. Domestic Charbono has achieved cult status, and the wineries which give it the care it deserves sell out each vintage within weeks.
Like Malbec, Argentina put Charbono back on the map. For some reason, Argentina named the Charbono grape Bonarda. Multiple names for grapes are common in the wine world, but we’ll save the reasons for this confusion for another day. Argentinians drink almost as much Bonarda as they do Malbec and don’t understand why this grape hasn’t caught on in the United States.
If you’d like to try one of Argentina’s favorite reds, one good example of Bonarda is made by a woman winemaker at the Zolo winery. Her Bonarda is a fleshy, fruity wine bursting with brambly fruit and a note of toasty vanilla from oak. Best to serve this Bonarda with foods like a dry Jack cheese, lamb with rosemary cream, or any meat dish with a bit of fat. You’ll find this value wine in shops, at about $14.
If you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, you can return to your old wine choices, if only for one night. One of our more inspired friends decided to throw a “then and now” party. Each guest had to bring a bottle of their favorite wine from their youth, as well as its counterpart they drink today. The party brought back a flood of memories. But the most common comment was, “How did we ever drink this stuff?”. Throw your own party to see how much your old wine and you have changed over the years. And give the new version a second chance.
is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.
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