The marquee regions of the wine world—from Napa to Burgundy—are rightfully applauded for their outstanding quality, but that recognition often carries a hefty price tag. Luckily, for value-minded drinkers, there are many thousands of terrific wines that don't get that level of attention.
Where are they? We asked seven somms and chefs from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners where they've been mining for hidden gems lately, from the south of Italy to the Southern Hemisphere to anywhere that grows Riesling. (Click through to the somm profiles for even more wine recommendations.)
Wine Spectator: What's an underappreciated or lesser-known region or style you like right now?
Jon McDaniel, wine director of Gage Hospitality Group in Chicago, including Best of Award of Excellence winner Acanto and Award of Excellence winners Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe and the Gage: I think "underappreciated" can mean so many things—"underappreciated" to a sommelier could be very popular with the mass consumer or vice versa.
I recently returned from a trip to New Zealand and got to taste a lot of fantastic wines from Marlborough that go beyond the $9.99 bottle of Sav that people are drinking. So many times Marlborough is pegged as a one-trick pony for Sauvignon Blanc, but there are some really fantastic wines from this area that are just dismissed because of where they come from. Take a wine like Wairau River Pinot Gris, which is like a lederhosen-wearing Alsatian yodeler frolicking through the vineyards of Riquewihr, and it's under $15 in a wineshop!
Alexis Blondel, head sommelier at Best of Award of Excellence winner Benoit in New York: Bergerac is one of the most underappreciated wine regions in France! This wine region is part of the southwest and is located right next to Bordeaux. Bergerac offers a selection of the same grapes as Bordeaux—amazing wine for great value.
Shelley Lindgren, owner and wine director of Best of Award of Excellence winner A16 and Award of Excellence winners SPQR and A16 Rockridge in the Bay Area: In Tramonti on the Amalfi coast, there’s a smattering of producers that have these almost 300-year-old vines of Tintore, and every once in a while we’ll pour one by the glass and think, "Well, this vine hardly produces any fruit and yet we’re here in San Francisco able to get this bottle and have it on the list." And of course most people haven’t tasted it, but that’s one of the fun things that we’re really passionate about, and then our guests learn it.
And that’s what happened with grapes like Fiano and Falanghina and Greco, because these wines, they go with our food and our style of cooking and our whole philosophy, so we realize how fortunate we are to have them. It’s a really great relationship, because we’re supporting [small wineries], and in the south of Italy, it’s a very humble, hardworking area. There’s a lot of great history in the glass when you’re drinking wines from the Aeolian Islands, for example, and you really feel like you’re in the place where some mythology started. It’s just an incredible thing to witness when you are coming from a comparatively new wine region like we have in California.
Cheryl Wakerhauser, owner and wine director of Best of Award of Excellence winner Pix Pâtisserie in Portland, Ore.: I try to look for things that are unique. You look at my list, and people are like, "Well, where's your Veuve Clicquot, where's your Perrier Jouët, where's your Dom Pérignon?" And I don't have them on my list, not because they're not excellent wines but because I see them on a lot of other lists. I try to look out for rare cuvées [of Champagne], a lot of small producers one might not hear about at other places.
I'm always a big fan of [sparkling] rosé. Especially saignée rosé, something like a René Geoffroy, which is very vinous and deep and concentrated, and actually can stand up to a lot of fruity desserts that we serve.
Ford Fry, chef and owner of Award of Excellence winners No. 246, Marcel, St. Cecilia and King + Duke in Atlanta, and State of Grace in Houston: The Gamay grape—I’ve really been diving into more cru Beaujolais. A lot of that is really from a lot of young winemakers doing [things] differently—and real interesting. That’s been my passion of the moment.
Another one that I’ve been learning about is the Jura region. Currently it's growing some of the best Chardonnay grapes, so I thought that was pretty interesting, to taste wines from little micro-regions like that.
Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director of Barteca Restaurant Group, including 13 Best of Award of Excellence–winning Barcelona Wine Bars: The south of Spain was really only known for Sherry and all the fortified, oxidized wines, which I love. [It’s] sort of under the radar, but making its way back into the conversation because of the cocktail world. The craft cocktail movement is embracing Sherry, and that's what's giving Sherry some new energy, I think. But outside of that, Andalusia has regions that make great organic red and white wines, and they're finally being exported to the U.S., so we've got some really tasty stuff from there.
Brahm Callahan, corporate beverage director of Boston-area Himmel Hospitality Group that includes Grand Award winner Grill 23 & Bar and Best of Award of Excellence winners Harvest and Post 390: I think the Loire is still an amazingly underappreciated region. There is so much diversity in the whites and reds that you can find a wine for any occasion or dish. And frankly, with a few notable exceptions, all the wines are extreme values.
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