As difficult as it is to even think about red wine in a Texas summer, we need to talk about some alternatives to that ubiquitous steakhouse Cali-Cabernet that will bring new life to your culinary experience!
If you’re like me, variety and freedom are a huge part of a dining experience. So, when at a great restaurant, why not give the wine list just as much love as the menu? I can guarantee, some alternatives that will open a world of flavor that will enhance the overall enjoyment. A little exploration will impress friends, and possibly even save some cash from the usual ultra-extracted, extra-oaked fruit bombs currently in high demand.
Starting off, a thin-skinned varietal seems a good way to go… thicker skins = higher extraction = more tannin (typically), which can lead to palette fatigue.
With a few rare exceptions, the juice of a grape, no matter what color the skin, comes out clear. The way red and rosé wines get their color is a process called maceration. As the juice ferments, one of the by-products is heat… as the juice heats up, it leeches the pigmentation, or anthocyanins, out of the skins. With rosé, there is very short contact before the skins are pulled off, giving the pink, rather than the various shades of red.
The most common thin-skinned variety of red grape is Pinot Noir. California produces some of the most popular, fruit-driven Pinot Noirs that exist, with some of the best coming from the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands, and Santa Barbara.
Oregon Pinot Noir, however, may be the perfect bridge to recognizing the structural components of a very finicky grape that generally prefers a cooler climate. Here, the fruit is lush and beautifully ripe, benefiting from the extra hours of daylight indicative of the region. The cooler Oregon climate also helps boost the acidity necessary to balance the textural components. These wines will age far better than those that lack this balance.
The storied region of Burgundy is the home of this noble variety, with some believing that the Celts were growing vines there since the Romans conquered Gaul in 51 BC. The most structured and beautiful Pinot Noirs wines in the world are made here. In general, these winemakers believe that creating a sense of place and time is the key to the allure of these wines, as opposed to making a product that tastes the same from year to year. For a good value, try a Bourgogne Rouge, or if you want to try, in this writer’s humble opinion, the best wines that exist, venture to a Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny or Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Just south of Burgundy is the small region of Beaujolais, famed for the other red Burgundy grape variety, Gamay. I like to think of these wines as “Thanksgiving Wine”; they can pair with almost anything on the dinner table.
Gamay based wines are unique in that they are often fermented, by semi-carbonic maceration. The grapes are put into large, closed vats allowing the natural weight to crush the bottom grapes. When the juice from those start to ferment, the carbon and heat emitted cause the rest to explode or intercellularly ferment. This process gives Beaujolais a fruity, bubble-gummy expression.
The categories of Beaujolais include the simple Beaujolais Nouveau, created to celebrate the end of harvest, Beaujolais Villages, which is more complex and more structurally advanced, and Cru Beaujolais, which can only come from one of ten selected villages that express a unique terroir. Cru Beaujolais have the most versatility and complexity of the three.
Another notable lighter-hued wine is the Italian Nebbiolo. These come from the Piedmontese regions of Barolo and Barbaresco, and in contradiction to their appearance, have massive tannins and acid structure. While the dried floral aromatics will captivate you (the complexity is incredible), the ageability is phenomenal – these wines simply get better and better with time.
Sangiovese wines from the Tuscan regions of Chianti and Montalcino are the perfect mate to pizza, pasta, or other tomato-based sauce recipes, without exhausting the palette for the ambitious eaters out there.
Moving to the medium-bodied category, and possibly the best new-world cabernet drinkers alternative, the Rioja region of Spain, maybe the best value in world-class wines. The Tempranillo-based wines here are the great conduit out of fruit-bombs, and into red-fruited, creamy coconut bliss. Many Rioja wineries have their own aging facilities, where they mature their juice in Appalachian Oak, sometimes over five to ten years before release. Do yourself a favor and taste what a perfectly aged, structurally sound wine can express. A bonus here is that American Oak often runs half the price of French, so the costs associated with these, coupled with a quite modest economy in Spain, can save you a heap of money.
Other medium-bodied gems include funky, green and red noted Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley of France, and notably the Chinon region. This variety is also fantastic from Virginia and The Finger Lakes region of New York.
The Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre based blends of the Southern Rhône region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be a versatile catch-all for your chef-inspired, ingredient-heavy meals or just a really good burger. They can include up to thirteen different grapes varieties within the blend.
Finally, there are the big boys. Napa Cabs are king on this side of the pond, and I’m all for the hometown love. However, there’s an entire world of incredibly made full-bodied wines that would turn a seasoned Silver Oak lover into an international oenophile.
Outside of Bordeaux, there are a handful of French full-bodied reds that can compete in that category. One stand-out in particular is Syrah. This savory, brooding wine that can be blended even with white varieties to give it a lift. Black pepper and beef jerky are fun descriptors when discussing these wines. Try a Côte-Rôtie for a delicious take… it’s typically Syrah, co-fermented with a small percentage of Viognier. There are also Cornas – these are 100% Syrah and powerful as can be. Syrah is also made with differing characteristics in Australia (Shiraz) and is even made in a riper style in the USA.
Though a completely unrelated grape, Petit Sirah is used to create an even inkier, dark wine in California. If you want a mouth-coating bruiser, there’s nothing better (or bigger).
Red Zinfandel is another incredibly fruit-forward, high-alcohol red that can have a ton of peachy-vanilla oak characteristics. You’ve probably already unknowingly enjoyed this one if you’ve ordered Prisoner red in the past. Lodi, CA is a classic appellation for this variety.
In the deep red category, let’s not forget that dark-fruited, black pepper bomb, Malbec. Mostly grown in Argentina these days, Malbec is a Bordeaux varietal that is still made in a structured style called Côt in southwestern France.
Finally, the red that outweighs them all is from Italy. In the DOCG appellation of Valpolicella (Veneto region), Amarone Della Valpolicella is a wine that comes from a unique process called appassimento. In this process, the Corvina and Rondinella grapes are laid on straw mats and are allowed to dry out for several months. This concentrates the juice to the point of having massive sugar content. The resulting alcohol levels can be up to 17% at times. Amarone is perfect for anything from a Ribeye to Blue Cheeses with its residual sugar content.
For benchmark producers, look for Quintarelli. They produce a traditional easy-drinking style with more neutral oak and less extraction. For a mouth-filling more modern style, try a French-oaked styled, Dal Forno.
These are just a touch of what can be included on a world-class wine list and can be an amazing alternative to the California Cabernets. After all, there’s a reason Sommeliers work so hard to build a massive base of knowledge… it’s there to enhance the culinary experience every time you dine.
By Tony Scholzhauer