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Off the Beaten Vine: Bargain Hunting for Lesser Known Varietals 



Oenophiles (and wine lovers to be) rejoice and prepare to expand your palate without shrinking your wallet. Yes, you can still spend thousands of dollars on some of the exclusive Bordeaux reds from 2000, but there have never been more bargains available for the lovers of fermented grape juice. Vines now flourish all over the planet (except for possibly in the polar regions), and the result is that the world wine market is flooded. This has driven down prices across the board as quality has risen - in other words, it's a buyers delight. So if you are tired of being locked into the Chardonnay/Merlot grind, there is hope for your bored tongue as long as you are open minded when choosing wine for your annual summer barbeque. Instead of picking up a Pinot Grigio from Italy for the post-volleyball bottle, try a crisp Pinot Gris from the Monarchia vineyard in Hungary and impress your guests when you tell them, 'It's only seven dollars a bottle, for now!" And for that steak on the grill, instead of a staid California Cabernet try a bold Aglianico, an up-and-coming power grape from the Vulcan region in southern Italy and a steal for under $15.

I stopped by Kevin Zraly's chateau in the woods outside New Paltz to interview the founder of Windows on the World Wine School and author of the book Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. A world-renowned expert on wine with an engaging personality, he was recently hired as vice president for the Smith and Wollensky restaurant group, which has 17 fine-dining restaurants across the US. I was lucky to catch up with him as he attempted to beat back the mounds of paperwork on his desk, and we immediately started talking about one of his favorite themes. "The important thing to look for are great values," he said. "A wine for twenty dollars that tastes like a fifty-dollar bottle is a great value. The three main areas for what I would call inexpensive wines outside of the classics would be Chilean cabernet sauvignon; Australia, which is famous for shiraz; and then I would have to say that I would still be looking at varietal wines, whether they are Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, whatever, out of California, because of the glut of wines in California right now. A lot of wines that used to sell for twenty dollars are now selling for ten dollars and will be for the next six months to a year."

I asked him to recommend some easy drinking summer wines. He told me, "I play a lot of sports, so the last thing I would want is a heavily oaked chardonnay or any red wine after playing tennis or softball. Sauvignon blanc's acidity makes it refreshing, like lemonade. Or a Riesling. I know they aren't the greatest values, but the German Kabinetts are really great. Or a New York Riesling." He thought for a moment before he continued. "For summer reds, I have to say Beaujolais-Village. You can chill it, drink it, not think about it. Pinot Noirs are great in the summer, and you can also chill them."

In an e-mail interview with Steven Kolpan, the Endowed Chair in Wine and Spirits at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and the co-author of the book Exploring Wine, he commented on trends he saw coming to the wine industry. "Without a doubt there is an appreciation for wines made from Syrah and Shiraz blends, especially from Australia. True brawny, earthy zinfandel from California is seeing a surge in popularity." For whites he pointed out that "sauvignon blanc from New Zealand is experiencing great success with wine lovers, who enjoy its refreshing, lime-driven acidity and rich texture."

Ken Maguire teaches a class at In Good Taste in New Paltz, and he took me on a trip around the world of wine with vintages from Argentina to Hungary to Greece. Finally, I inquired for a suggestion of a white that's off the beaten vine. "One grape getting good press - and I think it is wonderful for chardonnay drinkers - is Viognier, a grape they grow in Southern France," he told me. "It's very floral and full bodied and it really coats your mouth. They don't usually age them in oak; they use stainless steel, which gives it a natural flavor. Australia and New Zealand are messing around with it. It's a really fun grape."

Everyone had positive things to say about Rieslings. "I think Riesling is a much maligned grape in America," Maguire said. "The American palate now is finally understanding that Riesling is not just sweet. The 2001 vintage in Germany was a fabulous vintage - great acid, great balance...They hold up to spicy foods. The Kabinetts are especially wonderful. They have fruit, they have acid, they have depth. And I think as far as New York State wines go, Riesling is the grape to go with."

Kolpan agreed with Maguire's theory. "Some of the best Rieslings outside of Germany come from the vineyards of New York's Finger Lakes region. Riesling is often misunderstood as strictly sweet, and is perhaps the most food-friendly of all the white grapes, especially for lighter food such as fish or salads."

Zraly also was excited about the grape that flourishes in the Pfalz region of Germany. "The Kabinnets are low in alcohol, below ten percent. 2001 and 2002, which are out now, are just great vintages. A good Riesling Kabinnet is great for people just walking into a party." He paused and launched into another of his favorite topics. "And let's not forget sparkling wine either...Any French champagne is a great value for thirty-five dollars. The process it has to go through, the fact it is aged a year and a half, and the crispness, the high acidity, goes great with light food, or spicy Thai food, or Indian food."

As far as reds to go with that fat sirloin cooking on the grill, Kolpan recommended going Mediterranean. "The red wines of Southern Italy, especially Sicily, Puglia, and the islands of Sardinia, are making some great medium- to full-bodied fruit-driven wines at affordable prices. Look for Nero d'Avola from Sicily, Primitivo from Puglia (the same as Zinfandel), and Cannonau from Sardinia (the same grape as Grenache)." For a hot summer afternoon he recommends Vinho Verde from Portugal, which is literally a green wine from prematurely harvested grapes, and Muscadet de Serve et Maine Sur Lie for its crisp apple flavor.

Talking about reds, Maguire said, "I think Spain has one of the best values, dollar for dollar, in the world...Spain has been putting out some really great juice. You can get great values with a lot of Spanish wines selling for around seven dollars. We have this Reserva that's been aged for five years, and we sell it for fifteen dollars a bottle," he said gravely. "Staggering. How they afford their prices, I don't know." He picked up another bottle and said, "A lot more people are familiar with Chilean wine, but in Argentina they have had a lot of success with the Malbec, a grape that they used to grow in Bordeaux. It takes center stage down there. We sell this one for nine dollars and it's an amazing bottle of wine."

So be bold while saving cash, and teach your tongue a thing or two. There are classes everywhere, from your local wine store to New York City to CIA classes for credit. In addition, stores that are serious about selling wine will almost always have tastings to promote their product. There has never been a more affordable time to educate your palate. And people who like wine love to share their knowledge about it - everyone I talked to was very enthusiastic. So take some chances and ask some questions and drink some wine, because if you don't try things, you don't learn things. As Kevin Zraly told me, "You can read all the books in the world about wine, but until you get out there and taste for yourself, you won't know anything."

  • Jonathan King seeks out some lesser-known varietals.


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