We all get into ruts when it comes to ordering wine in a restaurant. Whether it’s because we already know what we like, what we can pronounce, or what we can afford, coupled with the fact that we hate to make a mistake – especially in front of our guests – a lot of us just order the same sort of wine no matter what. There’s nothing wrong with having an old standby or two to always fall back on; after all, crisp Pinot Grigios, big, buttery Chardonnays and even bigger Cabernets got popular for a reason. But the world is full of fantastic wines that are not only delicious in their own right, but have been bringing out the best in certain foods for (in some cases) hundreds of years. Why close the door on that party?
With the idea of broadening horizons without breaking the bank, sounding foolish or getting something that won’t be a good match with food, I offer ten of my favorite slightly-off-the-beaten-path wines to order in a restaurant.
Moscato d’Asti Nothing makes the point that wine doesn’t need to be serious to be worth drinking better than Piedmont’s Moscato d’Asti, a slightly sweet, slightly guilty sparkling pleasure. Moscato d’Asti is the higher quality version of what was until recently called Asti Spumante. It’s made from the Moscato grape in and around the town of Asti, and is fruity, clean, light and totally pleasant. It’s the perfect low-cost, unexpected way to kick off a fun meal on a hot day. (Price: $30-40/bottle.)
Sancerre For those who love Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, from the Loire Valley in France, is the old-world version of what it’s all about. The wines exhibit a bracing acidity, are oak-free, slightly herbaceous, and present a simple, straightforward expression of citrus that sometimes comes across as the world’s best grapefruit juice. They are the antithesis of an oakey-dokey Chardonnay. Sancerre is also one of the most food-friendly wines you can order. (Price: $40-80/bottle.)
Albariño Albariño is a white varietal grown mostly in the Rias Baixas Zone of Spain. It produces wines that are very aromatic, full-bodied and flavorful, and are a perfect choice for those who like major-league Chardonnays but want to try something a little different. Although they can be big wines, they are typically well balanced. They have a lot of everything: alcohol, acidity, body and flavor. What frequently distinguishes them are their agreeable, peachy undertones. (Price: $40-65/bottle.)
Chablis Some of us can remember when “chablis” was what a woman of a certain vintage would order for lunch because it was white, cold, alcoholic and cheap, and perhaps reminded her of her ex-husband. The namesake of the generic, characterless wines that have been besmirching its fine name for years bares no resemblance to them and, in fact, is one of the world’s great interpretations of Chardonnay. It is produced in the northernmost and coolest part of Burgundy. At their best, they have little or no oak, but instead have a unique, steely acidity, flinty minerality and clear expression of fruit. It is one of the nicest wines to enjoy with shellfish or fish, whether prepared simply or in a rich sauce. There’s nothing better with raw oysters. Quality and price vary, but these wines are absolutely worth exploring. (Price: $45 and up/bottle.)
Tavel Not all Rosé is created equal. For those secure enough in their masculinity (if applicable), Tavel (tah-VEL) is a bone-dry, high-alcohol, high-acid pink wine from the Southern Rhône in France. It’s served chilled, and is a perfect option for Houston’s long, hot summers. With its high minerality and concentration of fruit, it’s refreshing and interesting at the same time. It goes as well with seafood as it does a ham sandwich. I especially like it with crawfish étouffée. (Price: $35-55/bottle.)
Cru Beaujolais Besides the well known, light, very fruity and juicy Beaujolais we all love (or hate), there are ten Beaujolais Crus, which are considered special and unique enough to each merit their own appellation. These wines are more complex and serious than their more generic brethren. They are denser, more focused and more concentrated, sometimes with floral overtones. They can come across as more like a Pinot Noir than the Gamay that they are. They are also a viable alternative to a Pinot, if you can’t find one that you like at a price you’re willing to pay. Some of my favorite Crus Beaujolais are: Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, Fleurie and Juliénas. (Price: $45-70/bottle.)
Ripasso della Valpolicella Veneto, in Italy’s northwest corner, produces mainly light, uncomplicated red and white wines that are perfect for everyday consumption. It also produces one of Italy’s finest, most luscious, complex, full-bodied wines: Amarone. Somewhere in between is Ripasso della Valpolicella. While Amarone is made from grapes that have been dried for several months until very concentrated, Ripasso della Valpolicella has some dried grapes added during its fermentation, resulting in a more complex wine with more flavor, body, color and alcohol than a normal Valpolicella. It’s kind of an Amarone-light, and is a usually one of the best deals on a very pleasant bottle on any wine list. You’ll find soft but concentrated fruit, friendly tannins and good acidity that will pair will with almost anything. (Price: $45-55/bottle.)
St. Joseph The great Syrahs of the Northern Rhône in France are Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. St. Joseph (san-joe-SEPH) is a simpler, lighter, but delicious example of old-world Syrah, and is often a great bargain on many lists. With them you will typically find ripe, concentrated dark red fruit, spiciness and good acidity, all wrapped up in a fairly full, round-bodied wine. If you like Merlot or Australian Shiraz, try a St. Joseph. (Price: $45-65/bottle.)
Nero d’Avola Although Sicily has a very long and noble history of wine making, it’s not the first place many people think about when ordering a nice bottle. The fine red wines being made there from the Nero d’Avola grape are changing this. This varietal has a unique personality and produces wines that are velvety and smooth, with pleasant tannins and focused, spicy red fruit. The aromas are complex with dried flowers, ripe fruit and a pleasant minerality. It’s a very food friendly wine, and will work with anything from a grilled rib-eye, to roasted chicken with pesto to spaghetti carbonara. (Price: $35-80/bottle.)
Ribera del Duero Ribera del Duero is a wine region in Spain that, along with Rioja, produces some of the countries best wines. The reds from Ribero del Duero, made primarily from the grape Tinto Fino, are rich, smooth and round, with concentrated red and black fruit. They are well balanced with good acidity and moderate levels of alcohol and tannins that won’t bother even the red wine-adverse. (Price: $40-80.)