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On Wine

Dan Berger, On Wine: Unlikely winners in wine

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When the chestnut colt Rich Strike won the Kentucky Derby, at odds of 80 to 1, it was a huge upset, making him one of horse racing’s most unlikely winners ever.

Which immediately signaled to me that the phrase “unlikely winner” applies also to several dozen superb wines that, chances are, are regularly bypassed as wine lovers ignore them in both restaurants and retail shops – and for reasons that have nothing to do with good taste.

Rich Strike got into the Kentucky Derby as the result of another horse being withdrawn. The late-blossoming Canadian colt ended up confounding the experts, which only proves that not all experts are all that expert.

As I mused about this equine parallel to wine, my thoughts immediately turned to what I call varietal prejudice, that predisposition in some people that casts doubt or even disparagement on wines made from grapes without a wide following or pedigree. A friend says it’s not prejudice as much as ignorance.

It also can work the other way. Some people assume that just because a label says Cabernet, such a wine has to be better than, say, Zinfandel or Grenache.

Not all Cabernets are excellent for all people, which is one reason scores exist. It’s one way experts can tell others what to buy. But until you actually taste a wine, you can’t know if that score has any meaning at all.

I’ve met people who detest Cabernet. And others who love White Zinfandel. In fact, some people dislike all red wines. But things get even more complicated when a wine is so obscure that it immediately causes some people to snub it when in fact it could well be an 80-to-1 longshot hiding in the weeds.

Take, for instance, wines made from grapes called Petit Verdot, Chenin Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Alvarinho, Silvaner and Grenache. All can make excellent wines, and recently some have been treated wonderfully by winemakers who see the excitement they can provide to people seeking interesting aromas and flavors.

For decades, I’ve written columns in support of what I call orphan grape varieties. The above grapes are anything but orphans, but a few of them are relatively obscure. Yet rarely do they qualify in some people’s glossaries as great.

The wines listed below all are currently available and are so good I defy anyone to dislike them. I can imagine some people consuming mass quantities of them, apologies to the Coneheads.

2021 Miro Ribolla Gialla, Lodi ($21): This wildly aromatic grape variety has as much personality as a quality Gewürztraminer, but with even more floral notes of gardenia and lemon curd. Miro Tcholakov discovered this grape variety growing in the relatively cool Clements Hills area of Lodi. Despite the odd appearance of the fruit, he fermented it completely dry. I defy anyone to say that it doesn’t have any sugar because it tastes slightly sweet. It works brilliantly with Indian cuisine. The ancient grape (it dates from the 12th century) is native to Friuli in Italy and to Slovenia. It’s relatively full-bodied; Miro says it has a lot of glycerol. The variety almost went defunct decades ago. It’s now in revival. Fewer than 30 growers have it planted in California. To order, call the winery at 707-893-7144‬.

2020 Acorn Alvarinho, Russian River Valley, Alegría Vineyard ($35): A slightly minerally aroma of grapefruit, white flowers, fresh fennel, and a trace of fresh almond make this delightful white wine remarkably appealing. It is dry, has only 13.0% alcohol and has excellent acidity. Though I enjoyed it all by itself, it also worked superbly with halibut. Bill and Betsy Nachbauer have grown mainly red wine grapes on their Russian River Valley Alegría Vineyard since 1990 and recently decided to take a chance on a few white grapes, including this Portuguese variety that’s called Albariño in Spain. This stellar white (it’s actually 80% varietal plus 10 other Portuguese varieties) is an absolute winner.

2020 Hans Wirsching Silvaner, Franken ($25): Another ancient white-wine grape, Silvaner (sometimes, as in Alsace, spelled with a y) is a minor variety in Germany, but makes a stylish, mineral-scented wine that, from this producer, is nearly completely dry and is aimed at being served with delicate dishes such as sole or pan-fried trout. Decades ago, it was used as one of the grapes in Liebfraumilch and today it is one of the most delightful wines to serve ice cold on a hot patio. The same producer’s 2018 Grosses Gewachs Silvaner “trocken” is $75. Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa carries this wine in a screw-capped bocksbeutel for $20.99.

2014 WineSmith Pinot Gris, Arroyo Seco, Meador Estate Vineyard ($24): Most people would think I’m crazy to suggest an 8-year-old Pinot Gris, but this rare treat used excellent cold-climate Monterey County fruit and two creative tactics to retain character. Winemaker Clark Smith used a technique from Germany’s Mosel “where they hyper-oxygenate the juice to remove the tannins, so it can’t oxidize,” he said, plus a relatively controversial technique called “aroma capture.” He said, “We put a condenser on the top of the fermenter… [so] all of the aromatics are returned to the wine.” It is creamy and complex and unlike any Pinot Gris I’ve ever tasted. Only eight cases remain out of a production of 150 cases.

Wine of the Week: 2019 Jim Barry Riesling, Clare Valley, Watervale ($16): Australia’s Claire Valley is home to some of the world’s finest dry Rieslings. This stellar wine is floral and slightly spicy and still offers delightful fruit, but is dry enough to work with a wide array of seafood dishes. Watervale is one of the cooler sub-regions of Clare Valley. Try it with Thai food.

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Wine lists in restaurants, Dan Berger writes, are frequently characterized by "ludicrous pricing, outrageous corkage charges, and selections that are absurd." Stanley Hoersch took a different approach to selling wine in his family's restaurant. 

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