Vine Couture

Jeffery Lindenmuth - May 2010

Trend conscious pros discuss the current fashions that keep their lists hot.

It's been said that the stock market rises and falls with hemlines, but no such reliable indicator exists for predicting the tastes of wine lovers. For every enduring red Bordeaux, the timeless little black dress of wine, there is a best-forgotten big buttery Chardonnay (the liquid equivalent of 1980s leg warmers) or a wrongly vanquished Merlot (as absurd as declaring the trench coat out of style). While wine trends may appear to come out of nowhere, the most enduring begin with quality wines from passionate producers, often assisted by visionary importers--whether Tony Terlato's American introduction of Pinot Grigio in 1979 or Terry Theise's decision to delve into Austria in 1994, a decade before wine hipsters would dub the Grüner Veltliner grape "Grü Vee"--and, finally, presented by enthusiastic on-premise trendspotters, who permit these newcomers to strut upon the restaurant runway.

Spain has been a seemingly endless source of stylish new wines over the past decade, as Americans moved beyond Rioja, to Ribera del Duero, the whites of Rías Baixas, and values from Jumilla, Montsant, and Priorat. José Andrés, a native of Mieres, Asturias, Spain, and partner in ThinkFoodGroup, recently debuted the wines of northwest Spain's little-known D.O. Ribeiro at the group's Jaleo in Washington, D.C. According to Andrés, the wines of the inland Galician regions of Valdeorras and Ribeiro fit with America's consumer trend to support small producers and biodiversity. "These wines have wonderful flavor characteristics, but I also love the story of safeguarding the grapes and regions. Cities are vibrant and wonderful places, but it's important to me to have rural areas that are thriving," states Andrés. "When you have a bottle of wine from a small region and a small producer, you are positively influencing an area that might not otherwise have a chance."

Already familiar with Galicia's coastal whites made from Albariño, Americans seem open to adding the fresh whites made from Treixadura and Godello to their repertoire. Jaleo features three such whites on their concise one-page list. While the wines are divine with traditional Galician fare, like boiled octopus with smoked paprika, Andrés says the key to success, even for a trendy wine, is to fit into the American lifestyle. He suggests these whites as partners for favorites like sushi and oysters. "Americans already have a huge knowledge of grapes and wines, much more so than in Spain. To succeed here, you don't tell them who you are, but tell them why you belong where they are," explains Andrés.

Another macro-trend that is opening doors for new wines is America's growing acceptance of aromatic whites, paved by wines like German Riesling, Greek Moschofilero, and Argentine Torrontés, all capable of delivering profuse aromas coupled with a dry palate. Michael McCaulley, wine director and partner in Philadelphia's two Tria cafes, the forthcoming Biba, and the Tria Fermentation School (for consumers and pros), discovered the popularity of Austria's dry Muscat--Gelber Muskateller--while working at wineries in Austria. "I was really surprised at the amount of Gelber Muskateller people were drinking, especially younger people. It's ideal for the summer with its low-alcohol, no oak aging, and aromas of honeysuckle and orange blossoms," says McCaulley.

McCaulley is less surprised at the popularity of Gelber Muskateller at Tria, given that their best sellers are aromatic white wines, with Sauvignon Blanc and Torrontés at the top, followed by Riesling and Viognier. Winemakers are also responsible for the success of these wines, as they are able to coax gorgeous aromatics from these grapes, while also fermenting a dry-style wine. "I don't think Gelber will ever be the next Chardonnay, but it certainly could be the next Grüner Veltliner, given how fashionable it's already looking. It's a great example of the new understanding that aromatic does not equal sweet," says McCaulley.

Juliana Santos, wine director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates eight restaurants in and around Washington, D.C., offers an excellent testing ground for potentially fashionable wines at Tallula, with a list of 50 eclectic wines served by the glass. One movement Santos has observed is the increasing quality throughout California's Central Coast, challenging its stigma as a former bulk wine region. Santos regularly offers wines from Baileyana, which produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Edna Valley AVA, within the larger Central Coast AVA. However, she suggests that Rhône varieties hold even greater potential for the region.

The wine list at Tallula is categorized in two ways, both by region and by flavor profile. The section titled "rich and floral" offers the opportunity to introduce a French Viognier fan to Stolpman L'Avion, a Roussanne and Viognier blend from California's Central Coast, or Edmunds St. John Heart of Gold, a mix of Vermentino and Grenache Blanc from Napa. Also joining the section is Horton Viognier from Orange County, Virginia. "We have a growing number of people who appreciate local products and Virginia Viognier is one of them, but an expensive Virginia wine is still a tough sell," observes Santos.

Looking beyond United States bottlings, surprisingly good sellers by the glass include Foundi Estate Xinomavro 2006 from Greece, Familia Zuccardi Bonarda Mendoza Serie A 2007 from Argentina, and Conceito Contraste Tinto 2007 from Portugal's Douro Valley. "This wine is made with the same grape varieties allowed in Port, but as a dry red table wine," explains Santos. "It's not very mainstream, but the great concentration of fruit, without being baked or jammy, gives it potential with a lot of foods, making it one of our top sellers."

"Fashion in wine favors the New World," says Joe Campanale, beverage director and partner of L'Artusi and Dell'anima restaurants in Manhattan. "In California you can grub up a vineyard or graft some vines, and in two years you're in a totally different world. That doesn't happen in Chianti." However, even with a wine program that is 99 percent Italian, Campanale maintains that Italy's most exciting trends are not limited to the Milan runways.

The wine savvy patrons at Dell'anima are already keen to the good values coming from the southern Italian mainland, including Campagnese reds from the Aglianico grape and whites from Fiano, Falanghina, and Greco. Campanale champions the even edgier wines of Sicily, especially the reds of DOC Mt. Etna, made from the local Nerello Mascalese, which he likens to Pinot Noir when grown at high altitudes. Further evidence of Sicily's rise is the elevation of Cerasuolo Di Vittoria in 2005 to the status of DOCG, Italy's highest quality wine region designation. While small in production, Campanale says these red blends of Nero d'Avola and Frappato are finding fans at Dell'anima for their "light and bright fruit flavors."

The wine lists at San Francisco's A16 and SPQR are also primarily Italian, but that doesn't stop wine director/owner Shelley Lindgren from finding fashionable wines closer to home. Placed shoulder to shoulder with their Old World peers, California's Italian varietal wines can truly offer the best of both worlds--local pedigree and varietal authenticity. "When we opened, I tried to taste every California Italian varietal wine I could find. There were some disappointments, but also some wonderful surprises," says Lindgren.

Winning Lindgren's obvious approval, Palmina winery makes the A16 list with Arneis Malvasia Bianca and Tocai Friulano from Santa Ynez Valley as well as affordable Santa Barbara County renditions of Barbera, Dolcetto, and Nebbiolo. One or more of these Palmina wines is typically offered on the extensive by-the-glass list, which accounts for over half of wine sales at A16.

Other favorite Cal-Itals include the wines of Amador County's Sangiovese specialists Vino Noceto and the Sonoma Valley Sangiovese from Lorenzo Petroni of San Francisco's North Beach Restaurant, cleverly dubbed Petroni Vineyards Brunello di Sonoma (although the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino is working to change that). Leonetti Cellar makes the list with a Wal-Ital, Leonetti Cellar Sangiovese from Washington's Walla Walla Valley.

Lindgren believes California's growing diversity, including the success of Italian varietal wines, is evidence that California wine is continuing to evolve: "It used to be that if you had a square acre of land, you planted the whole thing with Chardonnay or Cabernet and went for a 100 point wine. Now, people look at their acre and say, ‘What will work best on this section or this little hill?'" If the caprice of fashion can teach us anything about wine selection, it's that balance, purity, craftsmanship, and food-friendliness ultimately succeed over gimmickry, for as the old adage goes, good taste never goes out of style.