Mission: Try one new wine every month this year.
You are a 2020 visionary. You have set yourself up with a New Year’s resolution that can only be successful, because you found a way to underwrite a worthy cause—trying new things—with an object that easily reconciles it with your natural, hedonistic, self-indulgent tendencies. Wine. Let 2020 be the year that you drink AND you know things. About the things you drink.
French inheritance laws. Much to my own chagrin, this does not tend to make one the life of the party. An easy way, however, to expand the palate of your mouth and your mind is a simple commitment to going beyond your garden variety varietals and giving new grapes or styles a chance to show you what they’re about. Once a month. Easy!Wine can be an unwieldy subject in that what begins with an innocent “I’d like to know more about that” premise can quickly lead you down a rabbit hole of archaic
So in support of your 2020 thirst for wine—I mean, knowledge—here are 12 under-the-radar wines, with a handful of sommeliers chiming in on their merits, that deserve a go-around toward achieving New Year’s Resolution success this year.
January is made for Netflix-and-chill on constant repeat while a large pot of something savory simmers on the stovetop; a bottle of a big red upended into the braise with a second bottle upended into your glass. You don’t need to go for broke on a pricey Bordeaux or over-blown Napa Cabernet, though; Mourvèdre’s got you covered. It’s a lush, plush, bold red from Provence that doesn’t require all the fanfare. It just knows it’s good. Look for red selections labeled with the region called Bandol.
There are wines named for their grape; there are wines named for their region, and then there are wines mysteriously named for a characteristic that the wine itself doesn’t necessarily possess. Enter: Muscadet. Made in western France from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, Muscadet is a light, bright, and briny white that comes from soils littered with seashells that will have you dreaming of your next beach vacation, or the oysters you plan to dip into your lover’s throat, come Valentine’s Day. (Or both.)
Louis Metaireau Black Label Muscadet Sur Lie Loire, price and availability varies on Saucey
Oysters sold separately.
Pinotage is here to remind you that even when things don’t go as you expect them to, sometimes the outcome is still worth it. Or that children will always try at some point to defy their parents. Born of an experiment to create a fresh, light-bodied red wine that could thrive in South Africa’s climate, the result was a grape that possessed none of its desired attributes. A brooding, intense red with dark fruit, smoke, and herbs, try Pinotage on a March day that is more lion than lamb.
April: Grüner Veltliner
Just when you think winter will never end, the first bits of green start to push up from the earth, and Austria’s Grüner Veltliner is just the grape to mirror the moment. “Grüner Veltliner comes in a range of styles starting like spring with flowers and blossoms…” offers Daniel Ford, certified Sommelier and General Manager of Peppercorn Events. With bathing suit season around the corner, Grüner is also a specifically excellent pairing for vegetables. “Lighter styles are very refreshing with a light spritz and a delicate vegetal undertone of radish, asparagus, sweet herbs, and white pepper.” If I’m gonna have to eat salad all month long, it might as well be in the form of wine.
Forstreiter Gruner Veltliner, price and availability varies on Drizly
Because you always strive to eat (or drink) your vegetables.
May: Crémant de Limoux
Listen, I think rosé is as delicious as the next person, but perhaps we can consider adulting a little harder this year and not letting all of our spring wine choices be hashtag-driven. Crémant is a term used in France for sparkling wines made in a Champagne way, but outside of the region of Champagne. Limoux is one such region that’s been nailing the bubbles game since before the time of Dom Perignon. So what you get is an extremely classy sparkler without the classy price tag. More bubbles for your buck. I’ll drink to that.
“Odds are you’ve drank much more Cinsualt than you realize…” says one D.C.-based sommelier who wishes to remain anonymous, “whether it be as southern French rosé, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an old vine South African red, or from Chateau Musar in Lebanon.” I can only speculate on the security clearance levels of wine professionals in our nation’s capital, but it’s a fitting metaphor for a worldwide grape that always delivers, over-delivers even, but rarely takes any label credit. Cinsault is all about the chase. A heady dance partner that “tends to add a soft red fruit character and perfume” and then disappears into the background leaving behind a whiff of smoke and mystery. To taste it on its own, look for old-vine bottles from Australia, South Africa, or even Chile that are “fruit-driven and intensely aromatic.”
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July: Finger Lakes Riesling
Riesling is perhaps more capable of fireworks than any other grape, not only for its dynamite tension between sweetness and acidity, but also for the passion with which people either love it or (think they) hate it. Riesling is a grape that thrives in cold weather areas, resulting in grapes that are decidedly tart, so some sweetness is often desirable in the winemaking process to produce the balance that exceptional riesling has in abundance. But dry styles are still widely available, and equally dynamic, and are especially easy to spot in domestic selections without any knowledge of German, as they are simply labeled “dry.” New York’s Finger Lakes region produces excellent examples, plus it’s July, so, drink American. Patriotism!
“If you have one bottle of white you need to pick up,” says Barbara Wong, sommelier at Le Bernardin, “an Assyrtiko would be the winner.” To help pronounce Assyrtiko, just think “assertive,” which also helpfully describes the ability of this Greek white to endear itself to you. “Especially if you want one bottle to do it all,” says Wong. “It can be the Muscadet to your oysters, your mineral and powerful white to hold up to heartier dishes, can be for someone who likes something crisp and clean, and can also just be a bottle to sit with and enjoy. Price point is also super friendly.”
September: Nerello Mascalese
The odds of you finding a Nerello Mascalese in your local wine store are maybe slim, but when you next find yourself in an Italian wine bar, perhaps on a crisp night in the early fall when the thought of drinking red again seems appealing, give a chance to the things that seem unpronounceable, before you default to ordering Chianti. Even if it means mumbling and pointing at the menu. What you get in return for your bravery is a surprisingly light, tight, mineral-driven red that veritably tastes like it grew on the slopes of a volcano. Because it did.
Viognier (VEE-own-yay) is the grape you need for pumpkin spice latte season, precisely because it’s the kind of ripe, lush, perfumey white that could pair beautifully with pumpkin-this and butternut squash-that. Its spirit region is in Condrieu, in the Northern Rhone region in France, but new world selections are also available including some stellar options from California and even Virginia.
Stag's Leap 2013 Viognier, check price and availability on Drizly
A rich and robust white from a California icon.
“Mencia is definitely a red wine to look out for,” says Jamie Schwartz, sommelier at one of New York City’s most prestigious restaurants. “Think dark fruit and pepper notes of Syrah with a lighter body, almost like Pinot Noir. Plus it has a lot of things going for it: incredible vineyard sites and some of the most talented/up-and-coming winemakers in Spain working with the varietal.” Taste, cachet, and the opportunity to flex your Barcelonian lisp? Call me converted.
During the holidays, consider the parable of Carménѐre. All but cast out of its ancestral home of France, Carménѐre is a grape that found refuge on the other side of the globe, becoming one of the most widely planted grapes of Chile. A story of generosity for a generous grape, whose bold flavors include blackberry, chocolate, and pepper. Equally good with impressive roasts as with giving up cooking altogether during the holidays and ordering pizza.
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