While soaring over the beautiful Mid-Atlantic seacoast on a recent flight from Providence to Baltimore, Pat was admiring the view while other passengers had closed their shades, oblivious to the spectacle unfolding five miles below them. Have Americans, numbed by the cacophony of stimuli that bombard them every day, lost their curiosity and sense of adventure?
Then, he wondered, have we also lost our curiosity in wine? Do we fall back on chardonnay and merlot at the expense of discovering godello, gruner veltliner, and the like?
Out of an estimated 1,200 grape varietals in the world, 65 percent of the wine sold in the United States is limited to seven categories -- chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio, moscato, pinot noir, and white zinfandel. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon account for 35 percent of total consumption, according to the Wine Institute.
The numbers are hardly a matter of availability. As we visit wine shops around the country, we have noticed more grape varietals that are new to the marketplace. From Sicily, we have enjoyed the inzolia grape, which traditionally was used in fortified marsala wine production, but also makes an inexpensive, refreshing white table wine. Ruche from the Piedmont region makes a medium-bodied, food-friendly red table wine with berry elements and floral notes.
For years, only a sweet version of Hungary's Tokaji was available. Today, a dry version of furmint, one of six grapes used in Tokaji, is capturing consumer attention with its crisp acidity and delicious citrus and pear flavors.
Winemaking in Greece began more than 6,000 years ago, yet only recently could you find something besides the repulsive retsina -- a resin-flavored table wine that was the butt of jokes for its mouth-puckering, acrid flavors. Today, it’s hard to find retsina, but in its place are well-crafted, Greek table wines with tongue-twisting names like moschofilero, assyrtiko and agiorgitiko.
So, with all of this variety, why do we stick with California chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, and the other popular wines? Comfort, most likely. We are afraid of investing $15 in a wine we may not like. Maybe we stubbornly cling to the notion that only one wine works for us. But succumbing to tired conventions denies us the opportunity to rethink our tired positions or discover another wine we may come to call a favorite.
The other day, a friend who said she liked nothing but Oregon pinot noir made a new year’s resolution to try new wines. She confessed she once felt the need to identify with one wine just to narrow the choice when she visited a wine shop. Maybe that’s you, too.
With that, we offer you some exciting wines we recently discovered that deliver a lot of unique and delicious flavors from different grapes or at least different regions.
Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco 2016 ($20). The Mastroberardino family revived the wine industry in Campania, Italy, with its indigenous grapes. We have followed them for decades and admire their dedication to the region and its unusual grapes grown in volcanic soil. The Radici is an extraordinary, ageworthy red wine and this white – meaning "tears of Christ" -- has white peach and licorice flavors with crisp acidity and mineral. It is made from coda di volpe grapes.
Paolo Manzone Dolcetto d'Alba Magna 2015 ($18). We loved this opulent and fruit forward wine made entirely of dolcetto grapes grown in the Piedmont. With more complexity than we expect from dolcetto, it sports bright raspberry and cherry notes with great palate length.
Cartuxa Evora Tinto Colheita 2013 ($25). We tried this on a group of friends recently and people were taking photos of the label so they could find it later. It was the star of the night. It is a blend of aragonez, alicante bouschet, trincadeira and cabernet sauvignon. Sturdy tannins and packed with dense red fruit, it is a wine to serve with beef or to age for several years. Complex floral and herb aromas, plum and blackberry flavors.
Passi di Orma Bolgheri Rosso 2013 ($38). Bolgheri has only recently been getting noticed for its wine and this one from the village of Castagneto Carducci is a gem. Blended with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, it has broad flavors that reflect the unique terroir of this region.
Chateau de Caladroy “Cuvee Les Schistes” 2013 ($16). From an historic village atop a knoll in the Roussillon region of southern France, this exotic blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre from low-yielding vines combines structure and finesse. Deeply concentrated dark fruit, cassis and kirsch flavors with floral aromas. Excellent value.
Chateau Ollieux Romanis Cuvee Classique Corbieres 2016 ($17). If you like your French wine with a little garrigue – minty and herbal notes reminscent of the wild plant life along the Med – you'll enjoy this gem from Corbieres. There is a little pungency on the nose and the flavors explode with ripe raspberries and blackberries with a dash of tobacco. It is a delicious blend of carignan, grenache and syrah.
Hacienda de Arinzano Red 2012 ($20). Located in northeast Spain between Rioja and Bordeaux in Navarra, Hacienda de Arinzano Vinos de Pago is making some excellent blends. This one – full of lush, ripe black cherry flavors – is a blend of tempranillo, merlot, cabernet sauvignon. It is a great value for the depth of character.
Qupé Marsanne 2015 ($20). The 25 percent roussanne in this blend is just enough to give the marsanne more dimension. Qupé's owner and winemaker Bob Lindquist is one of the original Rhone Rangers and has staked his career on Rhone varietals. His wines represent many of the best made with these grape varieties. This bright and racy marsanne from Santa Barbara County shows off peach and lime flavors with a dash of coconut and mineral on the finish. Very refreshing acidity.
Feast Red Semeli Winery Agiorgitiko Peloponnese 2015 ($13). If you want to get a sense of the quality and value of some Greek wine, try this excellent example. Made from agiorgitiko grapes -- sometimes referred to as St. George -- this lighter red wine is somewhat reminiscent of a well-crafted pinot noir. Cherries mixed with herbs and spicy notes make a splendid wine to pair with chicken and salmon.
Abbazia Di Novacella Stiftskellerei Neustift Schiava DOC 2016 ($19). This unusual Italian grape makes a red wine somewhat similar in style to pinot noir but with a little more oomph. Spicy cherry elements with a distinctive whiff of violets, this delightful wine would pair beautifully with tuna or salmon.