Bagrationi 1882 Brut, Classic, Georgia NV
You’ve heard of “anything but chardonnay” wine drinkers? Back in 2010, I was an “anything but any wine anyone’s ever heard of” drinker, which made for some tense monthly sales meetings at my wine shop. That tension was worth it, though, because that’s when I stumbled across the haunting, historic wines of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. A friend told me he wanted me to try this Georgian wine, and like nearly anyone else at the time I thought he meant the state of Georgia and couldn’t imagine anything drinkable coming from that state (and now that I live in Atlanta, I can confirm that). I was quickly corrected and then involuntarily shut up when I tasted it.
Its citrus and fleshy fruits common to sparkling wines, and persistent but not obnoxious mousse, are familiar enough. What isn’t familiar is everything else, and thus is an ideal entry to Georgian wine. The first difference you’ll notice is the structure; most inexpensive sparklers have none, but this is a firm little number. The other obvious twist is that the fruit is clean, more bright green lime and melon than the usual apple or berry fruit. There’s also a subtle woodsy, rustic earthiness here that’s outside most reference points for wine in general, let alone pretty fizz like this. Just because the grapes in here are tsitska, chinebuli, and mtsvane instead of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier doesn’t mean you throw all the reliable pairings out the window –fried chicken, oysters, popcorn or (cheap) caviar (with cream cheese, on a cracker; don’t knock it ‘til you try it) still work – but the structure and earth open this up to more exotic possibilities. Game birds and offal are stunning with this, but one of the best pairings is Everything Bagel Roasted Squash (recipe on the back page).
Domaine Touzot Mâcon-Villages 2014
The good thing about chardonnay being so popular, aside from it being arguably the finest white wine grape on earth, is that with so much of it around you’d have to work hard to avoid running into beautiful, classic examples even at the most affordable end of the price range. What you don’t find are old vine examples like this that have that extra little something going on. Not just minerally and crisp with apple and lemon – though it certainly is that as well – but there’s chalk and wet stone, perfumed pears, and even some citrus blossom and warm spice in there. Throw in the dream vintage of 2014 and you’ve now got something rare: An everyday wine with soul. Sure, seafood’s a safe bet with chardonnay, and nobody’s going to blame you for washing down crab with it, but this has the guts to go with more complex dishes like delicate curries, smoked fish pâtés, and herbed chèvre pasta.
Domaine le Couroulu Vin de Pays de Vaucluse 2013
The idea of terroir is multi-layered and hard to explain, so let me brutally oversimplify it: A wine with terroir tastes as much or more like the place it is grown than the particular grapes from which it is made. And if there’s a kind of wine that best illustrates the concept, it’s stuff like this. Domaine le Couroulu has been around for nearly a century, right next to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône’s esteemed Vacqueyras appellation, where they make some very serious (and not exactly inexpensive) wine from the region’s usual grapes: Grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre. It’s dark, spicy, robust, and full-bodied. They also make this, with the same whole cluster, native fermentation they use on their Vacqueyras, from 50% syrah and 50% merlot. Cool, damp climate loving merlot is, to say the least, not common in the hot, arid southern Rhône. So what does this decidedly oddball blend taste like? Uh, it’s dark, spicy, robust, and full-bodied. That is, it tastes not like merlot, but like the southern Rhône…and there’s your terroir. The tannins here are a little softer, and the dark fruit is a little juicier, but there’s no mistaking the mouthful of plums, raspberry, pepper, and smoke as coming from anywhere else. I know I’ll be mocked, and rightfully so, for recommending this with chili, but I’m going to because damn it, it works really well. More typical French bistro fare like steak frites, frisée salad with lardons and a poached egg, or cassoulet all work great too of course, but I’m telling ya…
Cascina Cà Gialla Barbera d’Alba DOC 2016
Another good illustration of terroir is comparing Italy’s two best known barbera growing regions, Alba and Asti. Though grown not even twenty miles apart up in the Piedmont, the wines are clearly distinct from each other, and in this case it’s obviously not because of vast differences in soil types and climate between these essentially neighboring towns. Asti is where the barbera grape originated, and thus gets planted on the best land in the area, producing lighter but dazzling and detailed wines that can age for years. Nearby Alba is better known for nebbiolo, the grape used for Barolo and Barbaresco, which are generally seen as the finest wines in Italy and among the best from anywhere in the world. Because of this, nebbiolo is a considerably more profitable to grow, and gets planted on Alba’s best vineyards, while barbera usually gets planted on lesser property that can’t properly handle finicky nebbiolo.
So while Barbera d’Alba may not bear such close scrutiny (and, thus, pricing) as Barbera d’Asti, it’s got one huge advantage this season: It’s bigger. I’m not talking old vine zinfandel big, but relative to Asti’s rose-laced beauty, this Alba’s rich black cherry and spice and fuller body is better suited to winter weather. Drink it like the Piemontese drink it, which is with everything, but it does favor foods suited to meat-intensive Piedmont cuisine, so break out the braised lamb shanks or pappardelle with wild mushrooms if you’re feeling fancy. If not, Barbera d’Alba is maybe the best pepperoni pizza wine there is, so you’re covered.
Château Terre-Blanque Côtes de Bordeaux Blaye 2011
Predicting wine trends is nearly always foolish at best, but there’s one I feel very confident in making: Bordeaux is coming back in a big way. Wild price inflation and the “Sideways effect” that scared everybody away from merlot for years resulted in a glut of top quality Bordeaux that’s now selling for far less than it should, and people are starting to notice. I’d strongly suggest you take advantage of this buyers’ market for Bordeaux before the comeback hits full swing, focusing in particular on the newly officially defined Côtes de Bordeaux. This area, previously lumped in with the massive generic Bordeaux appellation, consists of five areas (Cadillac, Castillon, Francs, Sainte-Foy, and Blaye) on riverbank hillsides, which means better sun, soil, drainage, and all the other things that produce superior wines to the ordinary flatland plonk. If you see any of those five names on a Bordeaux bottle, grab it, because you cannot go wrong.
This one from Château Terre-Blanque is not only a demonstration of the appellation’s supremacy, it’s also got some age on it and is drinking at peak, which is the true measure of worthy Bordeaux. 80% currants-and-spice merlot with 20% blackberries-and-power cabernet sauvignon and a little oak to give it a toasty warmth, this is the kind of balanced, earthy Bordeaux that made the region famous and would’ve been upwards of $30 just a few years ago. It will be $30 again before long, but in the meantime, hoard all you can and drink it with beef stews, roast leg of lamb, pungent cheeses, and all those other comforting dishes.
Domaines Astruc Viognier, Pays d’Oc 2015
Viognier may be chardonnay’s only rival for the title of Most Abused Wine Grape, which is the only reason it’s not more popular. Much like chardonnay, it can tolerate hot climates, but that weather tends to dull the finer points of viognier that distinguish it from the oceans of cheap, sweet, and flabby white wine out there. Properly grown on sunny but cooler sites and made with restraint, viognier smells like flowers and rocks, tastes like peaches and honey, and would wipe cheap buttery chardonnay off the face of the earth if the good stuff wasn’t usually close to $80 a bottle.
That’s why I’ve kept a supply of this around for well over a decade. While they are located in the sweltering Languedoc in southern France, they’re close to the Mediterranean, whose cooling influence keeps this nimble and fresh. Hey, it’s still brawny, bold viognier, but this is creamy and packed with peach, pear, and honey flavors instead of their weight and sweetness, and has a sultry floral lift that keeps you coming back. It’s hard to think of drinking this without a chunk of roast pork in front of me, but this is good enough to allow some latitude in this regard: Carnitas, char siu, or even arista would be fantastic with this. That said, it’s a frequent and lovely companion to Indian takeout around our house.