Pushing the Palate
Once you’ve grown beyond quaffing generic jug wines, it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of routinely ordering and drinking the same varietals. The most popular are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the premium varietals of France and most other grape-growing areas of the world. Thanks to the global expansion of vineyards and improved winemaking techniques, we now have the opportunity to push our palates—the organoleptic equivalent of pushing the envelope—in sampling fine wines made from plantings of lesser-known varietals.
The following offers a quick introduction to six wine grapes that flourish on multiple continents. The wineries generally have good distribution throughout Southern California. Prices for this palate-expanding experience start as low as $8.
This bright white wine with a distinct spicy aroma originated in the Pfalz region of Germany, gained fame in Alsace and grew somewhat in popularity when planted successfully in California.
Perfect as an aperitif on warmer spring and summer afternoons, a wonderful picnic wine and a match with Chinese or other spicier cuisine. Wineries with consistent quality are Adler Fels, Husch, Gundlach Bundschu, Geyser Peak, Kendall-Jackson and Mill Creek.
Another white wine that originated in Alsace, Pinot Blanc is sometimes made in a Chardonnay style, with oak aging. It is better when the varietal character shines through. The wine can be fruitier, more balanced and a better match with food in its youth than Chardonnay.
Domestic versions come from California, Oregon and Washington, including the wines of Arrowood, Au Bon Climat, Amity, Chalone, Mirassou, Tualitin and WillaKenzie. Canada does well with Pinot Blanc, too; wineries include Mission Hill, Summerhill, Hester Creek and Sumac Ridge.
From the Rhone Valley, best known for the wines of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, Viognier is succeeding in Oregon, Washington and California. The wines typically have a combination of fruits in the aroma (pear, melon, fig) and are ripe and rich on the palate. Great with shellfish, pasta and dishes with lighter sauces.
Names to search for: Williamette Valley, Bonterra, Mount Palomar, Cambria, Joseph Phelps, Calera, Arrowood, Pride, Beringer, Iron Horse and Hogue.
This red-wine grape is an important part of the wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion in France (Cheval Blanc uses up to 75 percent Cabernet Franc in its blend; Ausone up to 25 percent) and 100 percent of the wines of Chinon in the Loire area. The wines are similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, although generally lower in tannins and lighter in body. A good Cabernet Franc will have an excellent structure, fruity aroma and a flavor well suited to veal and meat dishes with more subtle sauces.
Try a Chinon from France or domestic wines, including those from St. Francis, Chateau St. Jean, Trefethen, Geyser Peak and Beringer.
From Tuscany, this red-wine grape is the principal grape in Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and, in the Brunello clone, the sole varietal in Brunello di Montalcino. Some critics feel a 100 percent Sangiovese can be a little thin in lesser vintages. The Super Tuscans (Solaia, Sassacaia, Montevertine, etc.) of Italy blend Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon for added power and depth, creating expensive wines that can be the equivalent of great Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.
Domestic offerings to try include Showket, Swanson, Altamura, Atlas Peak, Martin Brothers, Bonterra, Venezia and Flora Springs. Serve with Northern Italian cuisine, dishes with red sauces and cheeses with character.
The star red-wine grape of the Rhone Valley of France, in Côte Rôtie and Hermitage in particular, it is producing wonderful wines from Australia under the Shiraz name and in California as Syrah (Petite Sirah is a lesser grape called Durif in France). Syrah wines are deep in color and rich in body and can be among the finest wines in the world, such as the Penfold’s Shiraz South Australia Grange, for $180 a bottle (Penfold’s offers a Cabernet-Shiraz blend, as do many Aussie wineries, for $20 to $25; Rosemount has a tasty blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre for about $22).
Names to look for from California include Marietta, Hidden Cellars, Kendall-Jackson, Qupe, Bonterra, Orfila (San Pasqual Valley), Benziger, Clos du Bois, McDowell, Cline and Echelon. Joseph Phelps also has a wonderful blend of Rhone varieties (Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache) called Mistral. Recommended food combinations include lamb, prime rib, steak au poivre and other heartier meat dishes.