I've said it before and I don't mind saying it again: Whoever first quoted the line "familiarity breeds contempt" must have had tinnitus or excessive earwax. I say this because I'm certain that what he or she actually heard was "familiarity breeds content."
I'm certain about this because of a long involvement with wine. Never mind comfort food—it's wine that has people rushing to the reassurance of the known and the familiar. And who can blame them? Wine is expensive and exasperatingly complicated, what with all those grape varieties, regions, districts, producers and vintages. Why take a chance?
So allow me to say at the outset, I understand. I sympathize. I'm with you, baby.
Now get over it. The absolutely worst thing that you can do today—at least if you insist to yourself and others that you really love wine—is to reach for the familiar.
Yes, there's a risk in reaching for the unknown and the unfamiliar. Personally, I hate spending real money, i.e., more than 20 bucks, on a wine that I discover I dislike or, worse, loathe. It makes me feel like a chump. (Note to "natural" wine producers: Clean up your winemaking act! I'm sick of forking out money on "natural" wines—with which I'm more than sympathetic—only to discover yet another example that's grossly underripe, excessively oxidized, funk-infected, unnecessarily cloudy or just plain badly made. Nothing about "natural" has to mean incompetent.)
With that acknowledged, let me also say that there's a world of wonderful, well-made wines just waiting, like puppies up for adoption, to be taken home and loved. Maybe you're familiar with some of the wines below, and if you are, then I can only say, as the Aussies do, "Good on ya, mate."
If you really love wine—and you guiltily know that you reach a little too often for the familiar—allow me to suggest the following wines as "paths of enlightenment." For what it's worth, my own money (and palate) has found these categories to be both pretty good deals, i.e., they don't cost a fortune, and reliably well-made across the board.
You're not likely to get burned, never mind scorched. And the upside is the very real possibility of candidates for the "new familiar" in your wine repertoire.
Mencía: If there's a no-brainer choice for an "unfamiliar" red grape variety, my vote goes to the Spanish grape called Mencía. Now, it's hardly unknown among wine fanciers, yet it's still nowhere near as sought-after as it deserves to be.
The short story on Mencía is that it's found mostly in the regions of Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, as well as Valdeorras. All are in the region of Galicia in northwest Spain. Mencía's origins are murky, but it's thought to have arrived with the Cistercian monks who settled in the area after making their pilgrimage to nearby Santiago de Compostela. (Some say it's even older, dating to Roman legionnaires. No one really knows.)
What happened next was that, what with phylloxera in the late 1800s and then various political upheavals in Spain, the Mencía grape descended into obscurity. It was only in the 1990s that it was "rediscovered" by the locals and treated with the winemaking respect and competence that it deserves. Today, Mencía is a Spanish star.
What does it taste like? Think pumped-up Pinot Noir (in a good way), and you'll be pretty close. A good Mencía delivers Pinot Noir-ish notes of black cherry and often a slatey soil element. But it's more broad-shouldered than most Pinots, with a touch more tannins. Most Mencía wines cost between $18 and $40 a bottle, and it's rare to find one that isn't at least rewarding; some can be revelatory.
Godello: While I'm on the subject of Spanish grapes, let me put in a word of praise for the Spanish white grape called Godello (pronounced go-day-yoh).
Like Mencía, the Godello grape goes back into the murky mists of time, was "lost," and then "rediscovered" in the 1970s, with production ramping up in the 1990s. And if Mencía is Pinot Noir-ish, then Godello can plausibly be said to be Chardonnay-ish, which is a shorthand way of saying that Godello delivers a lovely, mouthcoating texture; some melon notes; and, very much like Chardonnay, is amenable to a variety of winemaking techniques involving small oak barrels, lees-stirring and the like.
Bottom line: It's a rare Godello that I personally haven't found entirely enjoyable. Always dry, pretty much consistently well-made (some a little oaky; others not at all) and, not least, a terrific deal, as prices only rarely top $20 a bottle, although more expensive versions, especially from Ribeira Sacra, can be impressive. It's hard to go wrong with Godello, in my experience.
California Syrah: Yes, I know that saying "California Syrah" is an awfully broad brushstroke. But hear me out. Most wine lovers know by now that Syrah in California lost out big time to Pinot Noir. OK, that did happen and we all know that Syrah has been in eclipse.
But Syrah’s life in the shadows hasn't been all bad, especially for us consumers. Quite the opposite. The producers who stayed with Syrah have not only been a stalwart bunch, but they haven't been sitting on their laurels (if only because they weren't awarded any). Remember the old Avis car rental advertising slogan? "We're only No. 2. We try harder." Swap in California Syrah and you've got it. These wines are better today than ever before and—here's a word you don't hear often with California wines—are underpriced for their quality.
The choices are considerable and, this being California, you can always spend more than you have to. But in the $20 to $40 range, the offerings are many and the overall quality is nothing less than eye-opening. And the very best California Syrahs (such as cool-climate Peay Vineyard, to name but one) are as good as the world's greatest Syrahs. If you rediscover one California wine this year, it should be Syrah. It's the Cinderella red.
Austrian Blaufränkisch: Here's the deal: You walk into a good wine shop and say to the salesperson, "I'd like the best Austrian Blaufränkisch you've got for no more than $25." I can virtually guarantee that you'll take home a well-made red wine with a deep color and an entrancingly spicy scent that will make your grilled steak practically yodel.
True, the grape variety name Blaufränkisch doesn't roll off the tongue the way, say, Pinot Grigio does. But that's a minor detail. Blaufränkisch is a lovely red grape, and Austrian producers have mended their ways after a misguided love affair with small new oak barrels and are now much more judicious in their winemaking techniques. More important yet, they now are viewing Blaufränkisch as a seriously fine wine.
By the way, if you discover that you like Blaufränkisch, you should head on over to Washington state and sample what they call Lemberger. It's the same grape (and yet another less-than-euphonious name). Look especially for Lembergers from the tiny Red Mountain AVA.
Well, that's a start anyway. If you've got nominations for yet other wines that deserve to become the "new familiar"—and surely there are many more—the microphone is open. Go for it.