Research shows that a huge proportion of Brits always buy the same wine when they are in the supermarket or out to dinner. Perhaps daunted by too much choice, we tend to stick with what we know.
Ironically, this tends to lead to over-demand for the most popular wines, driving up prices and tempting producers to cut corners on quality to keep up.
In most cases there are great, less well-known alternatives, often made from exactly the same grape, which are worth a try. If you find yourself stuck in a wine rut, but not knowing where to turn next, here are four suggestions of alternatives worth giving a go.
Like Chardonnay in the 1990s, Pinot Grigio continues to ride a wave of popularity at the moment. With current trends leaning towards a lighter style of wine, the neutral, unobtrusive flavours of many cheaper Pinot Grigios account for its popularity. With a fresh, light style, floral aroma and even a slight spritz, they can be perfect for easy summer drinking.
However, with a flood of bargain, easy drinking Pinot Grigios, the quality has unsurprisingly been compromised. Too much of what is now on offer is
insipid and lacking character.
Cross the Alps northwards, however, and the solution is right there. Alsace is a region which has bounced back between France and Germany over the centuries, and its wines reflect this: fruity and fresh, but with the body and seriousness that you would expect of a French wine. Here you will find serious Pinot Gris (yes, the same grape as Pinot Grigio), with an intensity of flavour which only the best Italian versions can achieve.
The French fizz never really goes out of fashion, even though it has been challenged by sparkling wine produced by the same method from around the world, including much made here in England. But with Champagne
prices soaring, Brits are increasingly looking for more wallet-friendly alternatives, hence the surge in popularity of Prosecco.
However, Prosecco is a totally different product, with the secondary fermentation (which creates the bubbles) happening not in the bottle, as in Champagne, but in vast, pressurised tanks. The result is a wine with much less complexity, a less fine mousse, and considerably less structure.
Just a short drive from Prosecco country, near Verona in northern Italy, you will find Franciacorta, a sparkling wine remarkably similar in style to Champagne – mainly because it is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
(two of the main Champagne grapes), and by the same in-bottle secondary fermentation method (the so-called ‘Champagne method’).
Crisp, elegant, and with that toasty yeastiness which gives the best sparklers their character, Franciacorta will delight and surprise the wine drinker searching for something truly different.
Once best known as being a grape for blending (mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon), in recent times Merlot has taken more of a starring role, principally due to good value versions from places like Chile. That’s not to say that it was never used on its own – it is perhaps most famous as the grape used in the world’s most exclusive wine, Chateau Petrus.
Unfortunately, it has become something of a victim of its own success: too many examples nowadays can be dull and a little ‘green’. But if you are searching for that Merlot-like flavour without taking out a second mortgage, help is at hand.
A similar grape worth trying is Carmenère. Originally a Bordeaux grape, it fell out of favour in its French heartland, but was rediscovered in Chile as recently as 1991. Combining the accessibility of Merlot with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon (and without the Petrus-like price tag) it’s a worthy alternative.
It is a measure of the sheer amount of land under vine in Spain that the country’s premier red grape, Tempranillo, is also the world’s third most planted wine grape variety – despite the fact that 88 per cent of that global planting is within Spain’s borders.
Rioja is the best-known expression of the grape, where it is the senior partner in a blend which can also include Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. At its best it offers complex notes of berries, plum, tobacco, vanilla, leather and herb.
Different in style, but still with the unmistakable Tempranillo character, are wines made from the Tinto Roriz grape over the border in Portugal, where it is most commonly partnered with Touriga Nacional and Tinto Francesca. That similarity to Tempranillo isn’t really a surprise – because it is in fact the same grape, just masquerading under a different name. So if you like Rioja but fancy a change, a glass of Tinto Roriz is a safe bet.
Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month
- Pinot Gris Grand Cru Spiegel, Domaines Schlumberger, 2015 (Majestic, £15.99 when bought as part of a mixed case of six bottles)
Made in one of Alsace’s best Grand Cru vineyards, with hand selection of grapes, whole-bunch pressing and ageing on its lees, this is as far from insipid Italian Pinot Grigio as you can get. With texture and depth of flavour, a beautiful maturity (yet still fresh), this is rich, balanced and mouth-filling.
- Montidori Sangiovese, DOC Romagna, 2018 (Waitrose, £9.49)
Looking for a Chianti alternative? Look no further. Made in Emilia Romagna, right in the heart of Italy, this, like Chianti, is made from the Sangiovese grape. With a touch of ‘appassimento’, the technique which uses dried grapes to add richness and depth of flavour, at this price it’s a steal.
- Decoy Sonoma County Zinfandel, Duckhorn, 2017 (Majestic, £22 when bought as part of a mixed case of six bottles)
If you are ever in California, Duckhorn should be on your list of wineries to visit; I spent a very happy morning on a sunny veranda appreciating top-quality wines. This is how Zinfandel should be: a delicious mix of strawberry jam, raspberry, vanilla, chocolate-smothered cherries and white pepper. Not the cheapest, but worth every penny.
Article published in Feast Issue 44