We've all been there. I've sure been there—more than I'd like to admit. It's the famous "wine rut.” "Drink what you like,” say the wine sages. That's precisely the problem. Pretty soon, that's all one winds up drinking.
Why should I (or you) push away a preferred Pinot Noir or that siren-song Cabernet? I'll tell you why: because such unvarying consumption can make us "wine stupid.”
Now, I grant you that's an unflattering way of putting it. But it's true all the same. After a while, we don't even notice what we're drinking, so familiar (and comforting) is our preferred tipple. I write this as someone who has gone through just such phases of wine stupidity, contentedly—blissfully!—luxuriating in the catnip of repeated red Burgundy or unending Barbera, only to emerge with a dulled palate and an incurious brain.
Sound familiar? Been there, dumbed that? Then you know what I'm talking about. And you also know how energizing, even essential, it is to conquer the quicksand of wine complacency.
Persuaded? I hope so. I am one with you, my brothers and sisters in contentment. I know the siren call of the repetitive rhythm of the same sort of wine. ("Hi, my name is Matt and I'm a Wine Complacent.")
Everyone who struggles with wine complacency has his or her own solutions to the problem. As for me, here's what I've been drinking of late, wines that have lured me to the invigoration of diversity. For example:
Pallagrello Bianco—Never heard of Pallagrello Bianco? Me neither. I came upon it courtesy of Shelley Lindgren, owner and wine director of A16 in San Francisco, which specializes in the food and wines of southern Italy. If there's a better, more insightful list of southern Italian wines in this country than that of A16, I haven't come across it.
Anyway, Ms. Lindgren comes by with a (well-shaped) glass of a dry white wine and a smile and says, "Try this." Then she heads off to another table. I'm left with a wine I know nothing about save that it's very likely from southern Italy.
So I go through the usual sniff, swirl and taste routine and find myself rocked by a dry white wine that's a bit soft from moderately low acidity but suffused with—it's the only word—a Burgundian degree of minerality allied with a rich, soft, enveloping lemon curd taste and attractive tropical fruit notes. Think Meursault moved to Malibu and you've got it.
Ms. Lindgren returns with an expectant look. For my part, I am agog. "This is remarkable,” I exclaim. "What the hell is it?"
"It's Pallagrello Bianco 2010 from Vestini Campagnano in northern Campania," she replies.
I confessed that I'd never even heard of Pallagrello Bianco (it turns out that there's a Pallagrello Nero as well), let alone tasted one. The short version of the story is that it's an ancient variety (what isn't in Italy?) that slipped into obscurity and has only recently been revived. It's now featured by several wineries in the zone, including Terre del Principe and Alois, among others. If you see one, grab it.
Blaufränkisch—While hiking in the Austrian Alps last May I was reminded yet again (I seem to keep forgetting) just how rewarding and just plain delicious the Blaufränkisch grape variety is.
A red variety with a deep, blackish hue, refreshing acidity and a spicy scent, it's an Austrian specialty, but actually more widely grown than might be imagined. For example, the Hungarians grow the same grape, calling it Kékfrankos. It's also grown in Germany (where it's called Lemberger), Washington state (Lemberger again), New York's Finger Lakes region, Michigan, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, among other locales.
I've always had a soft spot for so-called "lesser" reds such as Blaufränkisch, Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch and Zweigelt (a delectable cross between Blaufränkisch and a Pinot Noir–like red called St. Laurent). All four of these varieties can be genuinely fine and anything but "lesser" when grown in the right places by respectful producers who keep the yields reasonably low. (Remember when wine lovers used to refer to Barbera as lesser?)
If you see any of these varieties, especially Blaufränkisch, scoop them up. Prices can vary from downright cheap to pricey, and often there's little correspondence between (low) price and quality so don't make the usual money assumption here.
Vin Santo—Can I put a word in here for Vin Santo? It's what I call a "time capsule" wine. It's a way of making wine that very likely dates back thousands of years.
A specialty of Tuscany, Vin Santo (literally, saint wine or holy wine) is made by letting bunches of grapes dry for several months on straw or plastic mats to near-raisins. These shriveled grapes are pressed, and the juice is transferred to very small barrels. Remember, there's not much juice left in such grapes so the typical container used for Vin Santo is just 50 liters, or 13 gallons (a standard barrel or barrique is 225 liters, or 60 gallons.)
Here's the best part: Instead of the wine being stored in a cool cellar, these small barrels are stored in the attic of a house or winery building, exposed to the oxidizing heat of summer and the cold of winter. What's more, once sealed, the barrels are never opened until the producer is ready to bottle, which can be anywhere from two to five years. It's an apprehensive moment, as you don't really know what you'll discover. The wine could be wonderful. Or it could be spoiled by a microbial infection.
A good Vin Santo is a wonderment. You'd think that it would be oxidized like a Sherry, and there is some of that, but not as much as you might expect. Instead, you get an amber-hued wine that offers scents of nuts, apples, raisins, caramel or toffee, honey, and intriguing salty mineral notes. It can be completely dry or retain some sweetness. The texture can be like that of table wine or it can be almost viscous. Served with plain cookies or the biscotti so loved by the Tuscans, it's a wine like no other.
Here, price tends to matter. The best versions of Vin Santo, I'm sorry to say, often are also the most expensive. The two best that I know are Avignonesi and Massa Vecchia. You can find the former with only a little looking; the latter is almost unobtainable. One of the best moderately priced Vin Santo bottlings—also, happily, not too hard to locate—is from the great Chianti producer Fèlsina.
Why should you pursue Vin Santo? Simply because it's a wake-up call. The lesson is simple yet worthwhile: Wine doesn't have to be made only one way to be truly great. (The same lesson is available with the increasing number of so-called skin-contact whites, where the skins of white grapes are included with the juice, in defiance of modern convention.)
I can think of yet more wines and grapes that You Should Be Drinking Now, such as Cabernet Franc, Nerello Mascalese, Vermentino, Lagrein and Tokaji, among others.
My question for you is this: Have you found yourself in a wine rut? And if so, what did you do (or drink) to get out of it?