Sommelier Roundtable: 'Challenging' Wines You Recommend

From Australian Pinot Noir to Marsala to, well, Syrah, here are the lesser-known or underappreciated wines 9 somms want you to try
Sommelier Roundtable: 'Challenging' Wines You Recommend
Give Greece a chance! (And don't miss out on Chile, Israel, Washington or Australia either.) (iStockPhoto)
Mar 6, 2020

When it comes to wine sales, Cabernet and Chardonnay may keep the lights on at many restaurants, but there are few things sommeliers love more than turning drinkers on to unfamiliar or underappreciated treasures.

From sweet wines at steak houses to dry Sherries, and Carmenère to Syrah, here are the regions and styles nine wine pros from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners think drinkers should give a shot.

Wine Spectator: What's a "challenging" or unusual wine or wine style you recommend wine lovers try, and why?

Victoria James, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Cote Korean Steakhouse in New York

I think a lot of consumers have in their mind that sweetness in wine is a negative—but it isn't, inherently. One of my favorite off-dry wines to drink right now is Renardat-Fâche's Bugey Cerdon because it pairs well with all types of cheese and charcuterie. Don't be scared of sugar!

Angela Gargano, wine and spirits director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Mont.

I’m a big fan of dry Sherries in the fino or Manzanilla style. Although they are a bit of an acquired taste, once you learn to love them, they can be wonderful, versatile wines for pairing with food. A great one to start with is a fino Sherry from Delgado Zuleta in Jerez, Spain. It’s crisp, clean, dry and slightly salty, with complex aromas of dried herbs, and pairs perfectly with seafood, olives or Marcona almonds.

Richard Healy, wine director of the Sydney, Australia,–based Rockpool Dining Group

Sherry had its wave, Madeira had its moment, but I just cannot convince people to drink Marsala [from Sicily]. It may be due to people trying the lower-quality stuff and not really enjoying it. I guess it’s just a little too unknown and not on people's radars, but we’re all missing out on these wines.

Sandy Block, vice president of beverage operations of the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, with eight Restaurant Award winners

In a word, Syrah. In my opinion it’s the equal of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in terms of complexity of aroma and on the palate, in terroir reflection, in nuance, in food compatibility and in sheer drinking pleasure—and it’s a far better value in most cases. But it’s extremely challenging to sell. Why? Fashion.

Syrah [is] the No. 1 wine I’m on a mission to introduce at the table, whether it originates from Washington, the Rhône, Australia or elsewhere. I’ve had really, really good ones from Israel, Greece, Chile and other origins that just convince me its time will come, that the grape is too good to be shunned forever.

Kevin Bratt, wine director of Best of Award of Excellence–winning Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab locations in Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

A recent visit to Chile challenged my opinion regarding Carmenère, particularly a bottle of 2017 Antiyal Escorial Vineyard Carmenère from Maipo. At its core the wine has an abundance of dark fruit, with a finish that is clean and full of energy. I'd encourage anyone who has traditionally known Carmenère from Chile for its overtly herbaceous qualities to try this Carmenère to experience an entirely different expression of the grape.

James Bonner, sommelier at Award of Excellence winner Red Pump Kitchen in Charlottesville, Va.

Lambrusco can be a different wine even for the most experienced wine lovers. Not very often can you find a sparkling, cold and slightly sweet red wine at a great price and not be turned off by it.

Stephen Blevins, director of wine of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, with 69 Restaurant Award winners

I have found that most guests are afraid to take a chance on off-dry or slightly sweet white wines to pair with their meal. In a steak house, dry red wines from the Bordeaux varieties are king, but there are some truly perfect pairings to discover with sweet or off-dry wines.

Jonathan Adkisson, beverage director at the newly opened Riddler in New York, sibling to Award of Excellence winner the Riddler in San Francisco

Australian Pinot Noir is always a struggle for people to try. Due to the marketing of the early 2000s, people see it as Shiraz or big, bold, juicy, high-alcohol wines, or mass-produced. But in Victoria, for example, some of the best Pinot Noirs are being made and made well, everything from being hand-harvested to plantings being made by soil type. Some are pricier than others, but overall the quality is second to none.

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner RN74 in Seattle

Though it’s nothing new, I continue on a decades-long quest to convert people to loving Riesling in all its forms. A little sweetness is a good thing, don’t be scared. I dare you to find a better value than fine German Riesling, a more versatile food pairing, a wine more fun to drink young and more profound when substantially aged. I refuse to give up on the world falling in love with Riesling in all its styles.

Everyone needs to revisit Syrah. I cannot tell you how many people "don't like Syrah" only to be instantly converted to a Syrah lover. Syrah from the New World has never been better, and its birthplace in France's Northern Rhône Valley is in the midst of a renaissance. In the U.S., Washington State, in particular, is on fire.

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