Written by John Kerr
How to find a premium holiday wine at a not so premium price.
We are all creatures of habit, relying on routines to get us through the day. Most of us are showered, dressed, and halfway to work before we’re fully awake. Our habits guide us through the day like an old friend.
It’s not very different when it comes to wine selection. Once we move beyond the Bartels & Jaymes stage, most of us stick with a small collection of grapes through much of our adult lives. We have a pretty good idea what we’re getting when we stick with what we know. We grab the trusty bottle of cabernet sauvignon from the grocery store aisle that partners easily with a pleasurable (if predictable) Tuesday night dinner.
Creatures of habit get bored, however, and despite the staying power of these fan favorites, I’ll bet you’ve changed your go-to grape more than once. Over the years, Americans have moved (largely en masse) among white wines, like pinot grigio and prosecco, to merlots and malbecs, for lovers of reds. At some point we all make changes, but do you ever wonder why so many of us seem to have collectively decided to move to a particular variety, like prosecco, at roughly the same time? You can chalk it up to the multi-million dollar promotional campaigns sponsored by the wine industry.
Trends at Your Table
So what’s wrong with the industry letting you know about a great new wine? The paradox is that, inevitably, the wine becomes a victim of its own success and you pay the price. The industry’s advertising campaigns build demand globally. The result is that everyone wants to enjoy what you thought was your new favorite wine simultaneously. To compensate for bigger demand, the industry must increase its output tenfold or more. Unfortunately, there are only so many vineyards in the best locations to grow the grapes. Demand prompts growers to begin planting the grape in less than ideal places, or to simply buy a different one, from somewhere else, to put in your favorite bottle. If your new pinot grigio tastes a bit thinner than the last time you enjoyed it, odds are that it contains a bulk blend of grapes from a region that isn’t ideal for creating that particular wine.
Now you’re paying a premium price for a popular wine that doesn’t have the same flavor that made it famous in the first place. Maybe it’s time to buck trends and seek out a few new wines you love that are off the beaten path. Once you leave chardonnay and malbec behind, there’s a world of wine waiting for you. In Italy alone there are over 1,200 official grapes! And France has far more available than you might think. If you love a wine that isn’t the world’s darling, that’s okay. You’re paying for the quality of what’s in the bottle, not the price of its popularity.
Inspired yet? If you’re ready to make a change, here are a few safe, but deliciously adventurous departures from the familiar flavors in your wine rack.
1.Pull the pinot noir and instead serve a bottle of mencia. Mencia is a grape from the Bierzo region of Northwest Spain. Without a big marketing push to thrust it into America’s limelight, mencia remains in the shadows of Spain’s two most famous red grapes, tempranillo and garnacha. Mencia is somewhat like a heavy pinot noir, but a bit more rustic and often with notes of smoke. But unlike a fine pinot noir that can cost you $50 or more, the best mencia can be yours for $29 or less. Try Godelia Mencia 2010, at about $26, which was voted #68 in Wine Spectator’s list of top 100 wines. Or, for the more budget conscious, pour the beautiful Luna Beberide 2013, at $18 per bottle.
2. For those who can’t imagine a holiday meal without a lush, monster zinfandel, I say it’s time to broaden your palate with the monastrell grape. If you like Spanish wines, try Juan Gil Monastrell. It has the same opulent fruit you find in the better zinfandels, but unlike a quality zinfandel that can set you back $25 to $50, Juan Gil should be less than $17 at your favorite wine shop.
3. If you prefer the French style, this same monastrell grape can be found in bandol, France’s heaviest wine. Bandol is deep and brooding, making it perfect for a winter stew. But its cult following has driven its cost into the $30 to $50 range. You can skirt the big price tag by asking for Domaine Antiane 2014, which should set you back less than $20. The lower price is due to the fact that the vines are younger than 15 years old, producing a wine that, while less complex, yields 90% of the joy for less than half of the cost.
4. Like Champagne, riesling seems to appear only at holiday meals and celebrations. It’s a great holiday white wine because it pairs with just about any dish on the table. Chenin blanc is just as versatile as riesling, but because of its great taste, you’re likely to serve it year-round. Chenin blanc was once California’s most popular white wine, but producers uprooted it in favor of chardonnay as it grew in popularity. Only in the past few years has the public’s palate moved back to chenin blanc. Now winemakers are scrambling to lock in the fruit from the few remaining vineyards. One of my personal favorites is Merriman Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2012, at about $24. If it were a chardonnay, it would sell for around $50 a bottle. A far more economical choice is Man Chenin Blanc 2015, which received 90 points from the critics, yet sells for about $11 a bottle.
5. End the meal with a dessert wine to accompany your pumpkin pies or chocolate truffles. Port seems to be the go-to choice, but prices for a good Port start at $18 a bottle and go as high as $120 or more. You’ll find dessert wines from the world over, but one of my favorites is a sweet wine made from the sherry grape, Pedro Ximenez. El Maestro Sierra, at about $17 for a half bottle, is a good example. This unctuous sweet wine is slowly aged in oak barrels, adding a unique bouquet and elegant style to the last course of your meal.
Now that you’ve survived the gathering of extended family at Thanksgiving, it’s time to plan the rest of the holiday season’s menus. Sure, you have to keep with tradition to a degree. No one is crazy enough to change grandma’s recipe for the holiday feast. Instead, make this year the beginning of your own tradition. Branch out and offer a different wine or two during this season of celebration. You’ll have a built-in panel of taste testers around the table who (I’m sure) will be happy to share their opinions – and a glass.
John Kerr is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.