5 Alternative Wine Styles to Try This Year
The end of 2019 brought a deluge of articles trying to nail the most important wine trends of the past decade. Plaudits were handed to rosé and natural wine, while Prosecco and its imitators couldn’t be denied their place. Having waded through more of these articles than I’d care to admit, the question I was left with is what we should look for going forward. Beyond the perennially popular classics, what styles should we be choosing to spice up our Wednesday dinners or the next BYO?
Rather than get overly ambitious and make grand prognostications for the coming decade, my first effort is a shortlist of categories I think everyone should try at least once this year. Included are regions that emerged from the twenty-teens more clearly delineated and “mature” than they entered – see Hawke’s Bay’s increasingly brilliant syrahs – or that are overdue for a second look – see the unfairly dismissed treasure trove that is classic Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.
To be considered, each region had to have more than just one or two standout examples and, despite inevitable and in fact desirable diversity within the category, a unique and cohesive identity. To try to capture the essence of each of these promising styles, I’ve created an accompanying Visual Tasting Note and made a few suggestions of producers or individual wines to try. Hope you enjoy exploring these categories as much as I did “researching” them!
1/5 Blanc de Noirs champagne
Where: Champagne, France
Why: Literally a white made only from black-skinned grapes, this style of champagne has emerged from the shadow of the more traditionally prized blanc de blancs (made only from white-skinned grapes) to add dimension and depth to a category that most people view exclusively in terms of brands and price points. Typically it has been embraced by growers (i.e. producers who grow all their own grapes and process them from start to finish, distinguishable by the letters “RM” on the label) like Egly-Ouriet and Cédric Bouchard, whose production philosophy tends to emphasize uniqueness and “character” over consistency, particularly compared to the houses (i.e. producers who buy grapes, juice or wine that they then market and sell, marked with “NM” on the label), like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Piper-Heidsieck, and other familiar names.
Since the grapes in question, pinot noir and meunier, both bring greater weight and fullness to the classic champagne blend where they are used offset the racy delicacy of chardonnay, these wines tend to be more robust, structured and “vinous” than blanc de blancs. Fruit flavours tend to be darker and richer though not necessarily “redder” since the red grape skins are barely involved in the process. Complexity comes in the form of “base notes” you might expect in a gender neutral perfume, like chypre or sandalwood, layered with pastry and brown spices, sometimes showing idiosyncratic earthy or even animal notes.
Meunier-only versions are particularly in vogue among the Champagne avant-garde, favoured for their generous fruit enlivened by an almost briny savouriness. A final variation, the very lightly pink style called Oeil de Perdix, brings an added layer of tart cherry fruit that bridges the gap between these and rosé champagne.
Which: Egly-Ouriet Blanc de Noirs Vieilles Vignes Grand Cru Brut, Cédric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Blanc de Noirs Cote de Val Vilaine, Paul Bara Special Club Blanc de Noirs Brut, Vouette et Sorbée Cuvée Fidèle Blanc de Noirs; Meunier-only: Dehours & Fils Lieux Dit "Les Genevraux"; Œil de Perdrix: Charles Dufour Le Corroy, Jean Veselles Œil de Perdrix
Where: Galicia, Spain
What: Still white
Why: The region also known as Green Spain for its moist, Atlantic freshened landscape has been turning the image of Spanish whites, long disregarded as oxidised and uninteresting, on its head. A grape that typifies the “narrow escape from extinction” narrative, Galicia’s godello has risen on steep terraced slopes from near annihilation in the 1970s to become a sleeper hit that has almost overshadowed that other Galician white, albariño.
Much less overtly aromatic than its more coastal rival, godello shines for its ineffable aromas and sensual textures, ranging from slightly oily to creamy to baroquely waxy, but always firmly anchored by a central spear of acidity. This is often enriched by careful working of the lees that can bring out everything from a subtle smokiness to an almost oaken toastiness, evoking nothing so much as white Burgundy. Leaner examples tend to be greener in their expression with crisp, precise green apple fruit, a slightly medicinal elderflower quality and a sobering bitterness on the finish.
Which: Valdesil Godello Sobre Lias, Guímaro Blanco, Telmo Rodriguez Gaba do Xil, Rafael Palacios O Soro, Godeval Cepas Velhas Godello
3/5 Etna Rosso
Where: Sicily, Italy
What: Still red
Why: Apart from the sheer romance of wines grown on a moonscape-like, jet black volcano with some of Italy’s highest vineyard sites (up to 1000m above sea level), Etna Rosso has captivated wine cognoscenti the world over for its lightness of being and silky caress belied by a tense grasp beneath, as well as a chimeric ability to develop sheer, lustrous layers of flavour over time. The inherent drama of trying to cultivate vines on an active volcano—vineyards are occasionally buried under fresh lava flows—is offset by the rich multiplicity of sites that results, best expressed in single-vineyard or “contrada” wines. Finally, the use of a single primary grape—nerello mascalese—that is little known outside of the region has only added to its allure.
Called the “Burgundy of Italy” by some, I think of Etna as more akin to the great Nebbiolo wines of northern Italy for its exquisite combination of pleasure and tongue-wrenching sadism. Where the “earthy” smells of Burgundy often bring to mind lush moss and lovingly worm-turned humus, Etna’s “mineral” qualities are far harsher and more angular, channelling fresh-laid asphalt, sauna stones and sizzling tarmac (but in the loveliest possible way).
Which: Passopisciaro Rampante, Sciaranuova and Guardiola; Pietradolce Rampante and Santo Spirito; Tenuta delle Terre Nere Calderara Sottana; I Vigneri di Salvo Foti Vinupetra; Alta Mora Guardiola; Graci Arcurìa; Benanti Etna Rosso
4/5 Hawke’s Bay Syrah
Where: North Island, New Zealand
What: Still red
Why: Long overshadowed by the region’s Bordeaux blends and massively outgunned by Australian Shiraz in their domestic and export markets, these shimmering gemstones of peppery, purple-berried delight are worth making an extra effort to seek out. The most prestigious address within Hawke’s Bay is Gimblett Gravels, favoured for its well-drained cobblestone soils, but cooler sites around the region, particularly hillside terraces, are yielding exciting examples.
Occasionally almost indistinguishable from northern Rhone treasures like Côte-Rôtie or St Joseph, these wines have gained a concentration and generosity in their fruit over the years that has started to set them apart from the wines they initially emulated so closely. Always more redolent of white pepper than black and sprinkled with candied violets, this initial iridescent glimmer of aroma gives way to a meaty tapenade and saddle leather savour, always remaining just this side of “dirty.”
Which: Smith and Sheth Cru Heretaunga Syrah, Trinity Hill Homage Syrah, Black Barn Hawke’s Bay Syrah, Bilancia La Collina Syrah, Craggy Range Le Sol
5/5 Classic Napa cab: Heitz Martha’s Vineyard
Where: California, USA
What: Still red
Why: Lest we get too carried away with esoteric styles and lesser-known regions, its worth taking stock of the wines that made our “great regions” great in the first place. Napa has been tarred with a (sometimes fair) reputation for American maximalism and a loss of subtlety but it’s far from time to write it off. For one thing, there are the many cabs from the more classical days of the 1970s and 1980s have held onto their fruit so impressively that I’ve often opened them and been befuddled by their apparent youthfulness.
While accepting climate realities demands that we admit that those leaner wine styles are likely gone for good, at least in core Napa, some of that increased volume and density has not been the work of a warming climate alone. We can look to less overtly ambitious wines that haven’t had the hangtime, extraction and oak lavishing of top bottles, like many producers’ estate Cabernets (i.e. their “entry level” bottles, still normally a good US$50 retail). These often have a freshness and vibrancy to their cassis fruit, a judicious and proportionate velvetiness to their tannins and a brilliance to their acidity than makes the mouth salivate, while retaining a distinctively effulgent Napa-ness that would never make these a dupe for Bordeaux or anything else. However, there are also those in the rich and luscious camp that have managed to hold onto a sense of proportion, demonstrating amply that size and grace can happily co-exist.
Which: Mature bottles (pre-1990s): Mayacamas, Caymus, Robert Mondavi, Dunn, Philip Togni; estate wines: Heitz Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon; big and beautiful: Accendo Cellars, Snowden Vineyards