What Are The Best Wines To Drink?
Sommeliers, myself included, love to fill our Instagram feeds with glamour shots of unicorn wines – rare and legendary bottles, usually outrageously priced, e.g., Vega Sicilia ‘Unico’, Chateau Petrus, Domain de la Romaneé Conti, etc. We wax poetic in the photo’s appended paragraphs about complexity, tension, and depth. This braggadocios public display is really just our way of scoring an invitation to dinner.
Am I joking?
Either way, don’t be upset when what we bring to drink for the occasion doesn’t come from one of these famed estates.
Truth is, those once-in-a-lifetime wines we post on social media usually belonged to someone with much deeper pockets. The fact that we occasionally get to try these fabled wines is one perk of the job, one typically dependent on the generosity of others.
Jump back to the night you’ve invited us over for dinner. We’re coming with something you’ve likely never heard of, it’ll sound incredibly foreign, and will have probably cost us around $20. And in all likelihood, it’ll be delicious.
While our palettes are trained on the world’s great expensive wines, most of us don’t pull enough coin to actually afford them, so we spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out the world’s great affordable wines. When spending our own dollar on vino, we think in terms of QVR – Quality-to-Value Ratio. Here is how we do it.
Somms Drink Lots of White Wine
People often equate great wine with red wine. Comparatively, white wine is often seen as unserious, less complex, and some (no joke) consider it too feminine. Certainly white wines exist that would challenge these impressions, but on the other hand, these characteristics can be exactly a wine’s strength. Serious and complex wines are nice and all, but what about drinkability? We sommeliers drink loads of unfussy whites exactly because they’re simple, delicious, and effective.
Sancerre is a pretty well-known region in the Loire Valley of France making fresh and mineral Sauvignon Blanc, and while a handful of producers in the region are widely exalted – with a price tag to prove it – many fine examples price under or around $20. They are incredibly versatile with food, but are equally appropriate without. (Sancerre Rouge is made from Pinot Noir and can similarly offer great value if you like Burgundy wine but not Burgundy prices.)
Italian White Wines
Some Italian white wines can offer more depth in texture and richness, with a little rustic edge that might cause some to reconsider their white wine gender notions. Look for Soave DOC wines, which are made from the Garganega variety in the Veneto, or Roero Arneis DOCG from Piedmont for something sprightlier.
Alsatian White Wine
Alsace, France offers tremendous value for white wines and sparklers. The region has a strong German influence, as it’s been passed from being French to German territory and back again on multiple occasions over the last century, and the wines reflect this influence. If you like mild complexity with a focus and balance, look for Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner. For something more flamboyant and aromatically complex look for Gewurtztraminer or Muscat (which will be dry, and should not be confused with the sweet, semi-sparkling Muscato). Alsatian bubbly is labeled Cremant d’Alsace, and might be considered Champagne’s fun cousin who you don’t need to spend a lot on to have a good time.
Though, with sommeliers, if there is one grape to rule them all, it’s Riesling. Why do sommeliers love Riesling so much? It’s hard to say. Why do we all love tacos? Because each one is instantly recognizable, but still somehow unique, add to this that they’re affordable and dependably delicious. A really good Riesling will strike a balance between freshness and flavor, electricity and weight, and often for around $15. My favorites come from the Mosel and the Rheingau in Germany, but delicious examples are made all around the world.
How to determine a wine's sweetness
(Here’s a quick pro-tip for determining the sweetness level of a bottle of Riesling, without needing to learn all the various regions’ wine label terms. Look at the ABV. A Riesling with a 12% ABV or higher will be very dry, 10-11.5% will likely be off-dry, and anything below 10% will be quite noticeably sweet.)
Somms Drink What’ll Be Popular Tomorrow
Sommeliers are the early-adopters of the beverage business. Because we work day-in and day-out with our ear to the ground, we see where innovation and progress is happening in the industry.
Lately, I’ve been preaching the wine gospel of two particular nations: Austria and Portugal.
Austria’s reputation has been largely built around her white wines, particularly from the grape Gruner Veltliner. A sommelier darling for decades now, GV produces fresh wines with herbaceous aromas and a soft texture on the palette. It can deliver a snip of spice on the finish that is often described as white pepper. Austrian Rieslings are fantastic as well, and almost always dry.
However, it’s the red wines of Austria that remain underappreciated, and thus remain the best value.
The Blaufrankish grape is a personal favorite. Comparable to both Syrah and Pinot Noir, Blaufrankish can express aromas of brambly blackberries and peppered beef jerky in the same whiff (and it’s a good thing). There is a tension on the palette due to the typically cool climate of Austria, not unlike Gamay from Beaujolais, but with a darker fruit profile. Zweigelt is the other important Austrian red variety to know. It’s similar to Blaufrankish, but leans more Pinot Noir than Syrah, with its tart cherry and raspberry fruit character. Find these wines and buy these wines.
Portugal’s exciting dry table wines are likewise made from lesser-known grape varieties, which I don’t suppose is a coincidence. If your average consumer isn’t familiar with a grape variety, it is difficult to sell, and prices are suppressed. Meanwhile, quality in Portugal has soared, sparked by the country’s entrance into the EU in 1986. The once isolated nation has quickly come into modernity, and their winemaking, while adhering to core traditions, has benefitted terrifically from an influx of investment and technology in the wineries.
Most Portuguese wines are a blend of many native varietals with names like Touriga Nacional, Castelão, and Arinto. Probably it’s best to learn your favorite regions, of which there are 31, as opposed to favorite grapes, of which there are hundreds. For serious reds, look for wines from the Douro, Dão, Alentejo, and Bairadda. Douro and Dão wines will be full-bodied, complex, with dark fruit and savory characteristics not unlike a Bordeaux or Napa Valley blend, but for a quarter of the price. Alentejo reds typically include Tempranillo and can resemble Rioja. Bairadda is made primarily from a grape called Baga, and the wines are often compared to the famous Nebbiolo based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco from Piedmont, Italy
Considering how warm the climate is in much of Portugal, the country produces some surprisingly refreshing whites. This is thanks in large to the native grape Arinto, which retains acidity even in warm conditions. It’s grown across the country and used in numerous regions to bring balance and freshness to their local blends. Really good Portuguese white wines can be had for under $10.
Drink these wines now, before they’re ‘discovered’ by the world at large.
Somms Know Who To Trust
Fact is, you’ll never know what to expect from every wine. So, learn whom you can trust.
Wine is available at an endless number of retailers, though most wouldn’t know a good Assyrtiko if it hit them square in the mid-palette. Find a wine shop where the staff is engaged and knowledgeable. Find out what they are excited about. Accept recommendations, and see who leads you to something special. I’m always a lot more satisfied when I go through the trouble of going to the further away wine shop with a thoughtful selection as opposed to the nearby option where they stock whatever the wine rep happened to bring them.
Also realize you have other experts in the room to help you, though they are not quite as obvious. On the back label of every bottle is the name of an importer or distributor. When you like a wine, check the back label and look for other wines from this company. Most specialize in a particular region or style of wine and they can be great guides through an exciting terrain.
Finally, when dining out, don’t hesitate to engage the sommelier. Even if our wine list is a hefty tomb with some prices hitting four or five figures, so long as we’ve done our jobs right, there are hidden gems in the sub $100 category, and we’re usually as excited to sell these wines as anything else.
Somms Allow Taste to Evolve
Finally, as you explore the world of wine, keep an open mind, and allow your taste to evolve. Move around. Don’t get stuck drinking the same thing again and again. While it’s good and well to establish your preferences, you should be slow to dismiss any wine you don’t immediately like. Some wines give up their charm more easily than others, but those that don’t might simply be waiting for the right occasion or food accompaniment.
I never cared much for Fino Sherry, not until I enjoyed a glass while a stone’s throw from the sea in Barcelona, alongside a simple snack of green olives and thin slices of Jamón Ibérico. Suddenly the brilliance of the wine was clear. I remained open to the experience, even though the wine had never impressed me in the past, and in that moment I was sure glad I did.
About the author - Ryan Kraemer is a Los Angeles-based certified sommelier working a 71 Above, Chef Vartan Abgaryan's downtown seasonal fine-dining restaurant. When he's not at work, or studying wine, he enjoys cooking, travel, and strolls around Echo Park Lake with his girlfriend and their pup. He's never been able to answer the question, 'So what's your favorite wine?' because it feels too much like picking a favorite child.