Whether you’re a veteran oenophile or a budding wine enthusiast, you’ve probably fallen into a wine rut at one point or another.
Perhaps you’ve never been disappointed by a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, so these days, it’s all you buy. Or maybe you stock your pantry with perennial crowd pleasers like Washington State Merlot and California Chardonnay, so those are the only wines you drink.
All too often, I find myself reaching for Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. My favorite examples combine all the elements I look for in Pinot — rich, ripe aromas of cherries along with fresh herbs and earth, together with lively acidity — so regardless of the season or the meal, it’s my go-to wine.
Such complacency is easy to understand. After all, we’re creatures of habit.
But it’s silly. The world of wine is infinite. There are, quite literally, thousands of different wine grape varieties planted in dozens of countries. Tasting different wines is the best way to learn, and surprising your palate is the best way to keep things fun.
So be adventurous.
To begin, consider exploring different regions. If you like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, try a classic, Left Bank Bordeaux or see what Chile has to offer. If you regularly reach for Sonoma Pinot Noir, explore the wines of Burgundy, Oregon, or New Zealand.
Next, look for wines with similar profiles. If you like Chardonnay, consider Viognier. If you like Sauvignon Blanc, try Torrontes or Albarino. If Pinot Noir is your go-to grape, try Tempranillo or Blaufränkisch. If you’re a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, consider ordering Malbec or Merlot.
Seek obscurity. Some of the most exciting wines are hard to compare to the more popular styles on the market.
This summer, for example, I’ve fallen for Muscadet, a white wine produced in France’s Loire Valley from a grape called “Melon de Bourgogne.” Typically, the wines are marked by subtle yet precise aromas of apples, limes, and seawater. Thanks to extended contact with the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation, Muscadet is also known for exhibiting a creamy mouthfeel. These wines are perfect with shellfish and light seafood dishes.
Plus, like most obscure-but-delicious wines, Muscadet is generally affordable.
Orange wines are also worth finding. Despite the moniker, these wines aren’t made from oranges — they’re white wines produced like red wines, remaining in contact with their skins for an extended period during fermentation. As a result of this process, the wines pick up features that are typically associated with red wines, like tannins. These wines are certainly unusual — many taste sour — but they’re captivating.
Unpopular doesn’t have to mean esoteric — there are plenty of fun, food friendly wines that simply haven’t caught on in the United States, even though they’re guaranteed hits. Austrian Grüner Veltliner, a white, and Sicilian Nero d’Avola, a red, are two varieties that’ll pair with virtually everything. Both work great if all your dinner companions have ordered something different. The wine world is vast, so avoiding complacency is easy. You just have to embrace surprise.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.