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Breaking Out of Your Wine Rut

The wines you love can lead you to a whole world of exciting new varietals

Fine Cooking Issue 83
Photo: Scott Phillips
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When you find a wine variety you like, it’s all too easy to fall into a comfortable rut, opening bottles of Chardonnay, say, or Pinot Noir over and over again. But the fact is, it’s almost just as easy to break out of your rut—because your favorite wines can help you discover new varietals that you’ll like as much if not more than ones you usually drink. Here’s a rundown of six popular wine varietals and some delicious alternatives to them.

If you like Chardonnay, you may love Viognier

Chardonnay is still the most popular white wine and for good reason: The combination of ripe apple/pear fruit with notes of butter, spice, and oak make Chardonnay a pleasant sipping wine that’s also tasty with a range of foods, from hearty grilled chicken and fish to lighter pasta dishes. Viognier (vee-oh-NYAY), a grape that originated in France’s northern Rhône Valley, delivers exotic floral aromas and delicious peachy fruit flavors that are often highlighted by a touch of spicy oak, much like Chardonnay. The wine is a good accompaniment to any food with which you drink Chardonnay. Look for Viognier from California and Australia.

Bottles to try:

  • D’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Marsanne Viognier, McLaren Vale, Australia
  • Cold Heaven Viognier, Santa Rita Hills, California

If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, you may love Malbec

Cabernet, the king of red wines, is beloved for its concentrated black cherry/currant fruit with notes of green olives and herbs and its firm, slightly bitter tannins. Like Cabernet, Malbec grapes originated in Bordeaux, France, but these days, the best Malbec wines hail from Argentina, where the mild climate, long growing season, and high altitude yield wines with ripe fruit, soft tannins, and high natural acidity. If you’re a fan of California Cab, you’ll be delighted to learn that Argentine Malbec is often aged in American oak barrels and offers the same spicy flavors and texture at a fraction of the price. And like Cabernet, Malbec is a perfect mate for red meat, especially beef and lamb.

Bottles to try:

  • Ñandú Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina
  • Alamos Selección Malbec, Argentina

If you like Merlot, you may love Tempranillo

Merlot is the comfort food of red wines; its lush, plummy fruit flavor, herbal notes, and soft, velvety texture pair well with foods like burgers and meatloaf, barbecued chicken, even macaroni and cheese. Tempranillo is an important Spanish grape varietal and the primary grape in wines from Spain’s Rioja region. Wines from this region are often referred to as “Riojas,” and they’re known for their ripe cherry/plum fruit, herbal notes, and soft, dusty tannins. And best of all, they’re just as easy as Merlot to pair with food.

Bottles to try:

  • Campo Viejo Rioja, Spain
  • La Rioja Alta Alberdi, Spain

If you like Red Zinfandel, you may love Shiraz

California Zinfandel and Australian Shiraz are like twins separated by an ocean. With its unbridled ripe, jammy fruits and pepper/spice notes, Zinfandel (red, not white) is the ultimate barbecue wine. You’ll find a very similar combination of flavors and textures in Australian Shiraz but with added brightness and nuances of flowers and green fruits. Like Zin, Aussie Shiraz is deliciously fruity and easy to drink.

Bottles to try:

  • Penfolds Thomas Hyland, Australia
  • Peter Lehmann Shiraz, Barossa, Australia

If you like Sauvignon Blanc, you may love Albariño

Sauvignon Blanc’s vibrant citrus fruits, herbal notes, and mouth-watering acidity make it one of the most versatile and food-friendly white wines to be found. Like Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño from the Rias Baixas region of northwestern Spain is all about vibrant grapefruit/lime fruit, with green herb notes and tart acidity. You’ll find these wines to be just as food friendly as your favorite Sauvignon Blanc.

Bottles to try:

  • Vionta Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain
  • Valminor Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain

If you like Pinot Noir, you may love Cabernet Franc

With its bright red fruits, spice notes, and soft tannins, Pinot Noir pairs easily with either grilled fish or meats and is also a delight on its own. If you’re a big fan of Pinot Noir, chances are you’ll enjoy Cabernet Franc wines from France’s Loire Valley, especially those from the village of Chinon. (Wines labeled Chinon are generally made with the Cabernet Franc grape; your wine merchant can help you confirm this.) These wines offer the bright red fruits and soft tannins that you love in Pinot but with an added herbal element.

Bottles to try:

  • Pierre Ferrand Château de Ligré, Chinon, France
  • Domaine de la Noblaie Les Chiens- Chiens, Chinon, France

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