I’ve long identified most of our wine at Legal Sea Foods by the name of a familiar grape variety because doing so provides an effective short hand guide to flavor and general style. Not that all Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir tastes identical, but among the reasons that both are now internationally acclaimed superstars is that they thrive in a wide range of climates and soils and they’re amenable to diverse winemaking practices. They’re what I call “comfort zone” wines. There is, however, more to the picture. And while our wine lists rarely devote substantial space to “discovery wines” made from lesser known varietals, these latter help add undeniable intrigue and spice to the mix.
It probably goes without saying, but wines made from obscure grapes are never an “automatic” or easy choice, but they tend to provide exceptional value. As in the broader economy, supply and demand rule. The more difficult a wine is to order, the greater likelihood it offers exceptional value. For example, at equivalent quality but even double the price, it’s clear that a widely beloved Cabernet Sauvignon will sell at a much faster rate than an unknown Carménère. So, I train our servers to describe these discovery wines in comparison to those which have some similarities but are better known.
What follows is a rundown of worthy wines that a careful reader may find lurking in the background on some of our lists. We offer them not in the expectation that they’ll ever be best sellers, but because of the compelling quality they’ve shown in our blind tastings, the value they offer and the fact that they’re irresistible.
Domaine de la Quilla Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, 2015: Why this amazingly lively bright white wine isn’t better known baffles me, but it’s probably due to the fact that it thrives only in the Pays Nantais on France’s northern Atlantic Coast. The wines there are light in body, crisp and very fresh, being bottled after substantial time on the yeast lees without oak aging. This estate Muscadet is herbal, lemony and fresh, with clean apple flavors and a hint of saline minerality. If you like a bracing Loire Sauvignon Blanc, but want something a bit less grapefruity, this is your wine. Oysters anyone?
Lucien Albrecht “Cuvée Balthazar” Pinot Blanc, Alsace, 2016: An unsung hero of the wine world, always laboring behind sexier grapes (Riesling in Alsace and Germany, Chardonnay in Burgundy or Alto Adige), Pinot Blanc is often my “go-to” as an aperitif, and I’m rarely disappointed with its purity, spice and charm. This one is something special, though. Slightly floral with a toasted, bacon-like aromatic, it’s mellow and creamy on the palate (much like an un-oaked Chardonnay), with a peach and melon understated fruit flavor. Its hint of spice suggests accompaniment with cape scallops.
Truchard Roussanne, Napa Valley, 2016: This grape variety is really hard to find, but Truchard’s is worth a special search (hint, especially if you are in the vicinity of Legal Crossing). Round and honeyed on the palate, Roussanne has a floral, pear-like flavor, with a backbone of citrus acidity. Its richness suits it well to crabcakes and is reminiscent of a really good, spicy, but mineral driven Chardonnay.
De Martino “Gallardía” Cinsault, Itata Valley, 2016: Chile has emerged from being a country chiefly known for value priced Central Valley Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, to a source of interesting offbeat grape varieties from vineyard sites throughout the length of the country. De Martino sources Cinsault, a component of Châteauneuf-du-Pape as well as other fine Rhônes, from a valley deep in Chile’s cool climate south. It’s a dead ringer for Pinot Noir, with red cherries, violets and hints of charming baking spice notes. A terrific accompaniment to most any light to medium textured fish.
Beeslaar Pinotage, Stellenbosch, 2014: South African Pinotage may have once been amongst the most controversial of grapes, producing wine just 15 years ago so out of the mainstream in terms of its strong vegetal signature that it turned off a lot of Americans, but the story has totally changed. Today’s Pinotage is uniformly riper and more fruit expressive, without the off-putting rubbery, paint thinner notes that once predominated. Beeslaar’s is quite simply one of the two or three best examples of this grape I’ve ever had. It has “old vine” concentration, and is medium to full bodied, rather than light, with spicy, dark cherry and spice notes. This velvety head-turner is somewhat Syrah like too, and it complements spicy, richer textured fish, like the Everything Tuna, extremely well.
Michael David “Inkblot” Cabernet Franc, Lodi, 2014: The “other” Cabernet is actually more flexible with food than its big brother, and this is one of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted from the US. With raspberry, mocha and herbal mint-like notes, it’s silky and lush but with substantial tannins. It’s also a dream with grilled herb-rubbed swordfish.
Zuccardi “Serie A” Bonarda, Mendoza, 2016: If you enjoy ripe, juicy, smoky reds with medium to full body but softer tannins, this Argentine wine is an insane value. Bonarda was the most widely planted grape in the country before Malbec usurped it. This one has clove, pepper, and blackberry aromas; it’s supple and ripe with a touch of coffee and spice on the palate. Each Bonarda we tasted blind was very good, but Zuccardi was a runaway winner. It’s vaguely Syrah-like.
Terrunyo “Block 27 Peumo Vineyard” Carménère, Cachapoal Valley, 2015: It’s hard not to love today’s Carménère if you’re a Cabernet fan. This grape hails from Bordeaux but is no longer grown there. It’s adapted beautifully to Chile’s dry growing conditions, and is usually the last grape harvested. Like Pinotage, it once turned wine tasters off with excessively green, minty and vegetal notes, but the story has totally changed. The single vineyard Terrunyo (or “terroir” in Spanish) is opaque in color, with an enticing mélange of baking spice, coffee and black raspberry notes. Silky in texture, with outstanding concentration and big ripe tannins, it’s another tuna wine.
The point is, there’s far greater choice than the casual wine drinker might think, and selecting a discovery wine will help create a memorable experience. If your default position is Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, or one of the other famous names you will find everywhere, that’s fine, and there’s no need to experiment. But, if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t have read this far, so let me encourage you to branch out and try a new, deliciously obscure wine the next time you’re in for dinner.
Sandy Block, Master of Wine