The great grape swap
October 14th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
Share this on:

Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.

I had a good friend once who, when ordering Chinese takeout, would always order exactly the same thing: kung pao chicken. One time I said, why not get something else? She replied, "But I like kung pao chicken." And there the conversation ended.

Fair enough. But there are two ways to look at something you know you like. You can see it as a simple prescription (I like kung pao chicken, therefore I will order kung pao chicken, now get out of my face) or as a loose guideline to all the other things you've never had before that you might like (I like kung pao chicken, therefore I might also like cold noodles with sesame sauce and shredded chicken, what the heck?).

Ditto wine. People buy millions of bottles of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Grigio. They're four of the most popular varietals in the U.S. (Chardonnay's number one, by the way, by a long shot). But take your fondness for Chardonnay as advice rather than as an answer, and the world opens up.

To that end, here are some affordable alternatives to those varieties.

Try a white wine from France's Côtes du Rhône, like the melony 2009 Chapoutier Belleruche (about $13), which is mostly made from Grenache Blanc. It's similar in body to many Chardonnays, with many of the same kind of tree-fruit flavors, but with no oak influence and its own lightly spicy notes.

Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio ranges from utterly anonymous to pleasantly drinkable, in general. If what you love is utterly anonymous wine, I have no useful advice to offer; if what you want is pleasantly drinkable, light bodied, and even charming and intriguingly aromatic, try a Grüner Veltliner from Austria. Berger's lightly herbal 1-liter bottling (about $13) is a terrific deal. The beer-bottle-like crown cap makes bottle look slightly industrial, but the wine inside is delightful.

Malbec. This isn't exactly a surprise suggestion, as Argentine Malbec has become increasingly popular over the past few years, but we still drink far, far more Cabernet. If what you want is dark fruit, lush texture and plenty of power though, Malbec is hard to beat; ditto if what you've got on hand food-wise is a steak. Or short ribs. Or heck, a whole spit-roasted cow (chef Tim Love of the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth once did that, apparently). Try the juicy 2009 Trapiche Oak Cast (about $10).

It's a funny little note of wine history, but for quite some time most people thought that Chile's many many acres of Carmenère vines actually were Merlot - up until the early 1990s, in fact. Many of the grape's characteristics are similar - dark plum fruit; fine, firm tannins - but Carmenère has a floral-plus-spice note all its own. A couple of good ones to start with are the mocha-scented 2010 Casa Lapostolle (about $15) or the 2009 Emiliana Natura (about $11), which is made from organically grown grapes.

More from Food & Wine:

Best Burgers in the U.S.

Best Burger Recipes Ever

Best Grilled Cheese in the U.S.

Best Pizza Places in the U.S.

Best Ice Cream Spots in the U.S.

© 2011 American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Posted by:
Filed under: Content Partner • Food and Wine • Sip • Wine

Comments are closed.

| Part of