When my family travels, we search for hole-in-the-wall restaurants — unknown to everyone but the locals. Small towns in Tuscany have main streets that cater to tourists, but only two blocks away, we found restaurants packed with locals enjoying authentic food and wine. It’s a common vacation tactic, but for most people, once the wheels touch the tarmac on home base, they’re back to their old habits, especially when it comes to buying wine.
But in doing so, they’re devaluing the purpose of drinking wine: finding new flavors to savor and enjoy. Supermarkets and restaurants certainly aren’t helping the problem, either. They’re full of the same wines. In fact, nearly 80 percent of wine popularity by sales market share is made up of just 10 different varietals.
The fact that you can walk into any supermarket and see 50 stock-keeping units for cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, riesling, and chardonnay is pretty telling. And in my opinion, these homogenous wine selections are killing the wine experience.
The Crux of the Homogenous Wine Epidemic
Wine selections have become homogenous primarily because of consumer behavior. A bottle of wine is a $10 to $15 investment, so most people really want to know whether it’s good or bad. As a result, they make the safe choice. For producers, this creates risk in wine diversity. What if their customers don’t like it? What if they don’t even try it?
It wasn’t always like this. For a long time, people were expanding their wine horizons, but the shrinking economy and consolidation of a number of wine producers and distributors resulted in fewer choices. Now consumers have a skewed perception of what’s out there because they have to go to a specialty store to find anything unique.
To make matters worse, large wine companies are simply producing most of the wine we can buy. More than half of the total wine produced in 2013 came from just three companies. Even the types of grapes being planted are becoming more homogenous, which only further limits what the world’s winemakers have to work with.
Regional Wines Are Worth the Risk
Buying the same bottle of wine every time does nothing to open your palate, and it certainly won’t persuade retailers to carry anything new. As a wine consumer, you have to break out of your comfort zone and create demand for diversity. Local vintages are a great place to start because you’ll get something unique, and drinking local supports the heritage, tradition, and growth of small vineyards. Expand your horizons with these five great regional wines:
Norton: Norton wines are rich, bold, and dry with high natural acidity. They’re usually treated with quite a bit of oak in the cellar. The modern grape’s ancestors are credited with saving the French wine industry in the late 19th century. Norton wine is found primarily in Missouri and Virginia, and it pairs well with pork, lamb, and hard aged cheeses.
Chambourcin: This is a more medium-bodied red that’s accessible with bright cherry and berry flavors. The natural tannins in this wine are soft, and it’s usually fermented and aged in oak for several months to bolster that structure. This is a perfect accompaniment to parmigiana, but it can be paired with any Italian red sauce.
Riesling: Most people associate riesling with Germany, but this varietal has found a new place among American wine drinkers with incredibly successful wines from New York, the state of Washington, and Michigan. Pair it with sweet-and-spicy glazed duck wings or a simple garlic-braised chicken.
Vignoles: Pronounced “vin-yole,” this incredibly versatile grape is found primarily in the Midwest. It’s tricky in the vineyard, but it has one of the most distinctive flavors of any wine — stone fruit and caramel. Traditionally off-dry and usually medium-bodied, this wine is phenomenal as a crisp, dry wine or a golden dessert wine. Pair with bleu cheese, soft goat cheese, or your favorite Cajun-seasoned dish.
Chardonel: A French-American hybrid of the well-known chardonnay, this dry wine has the neutral pear and apple tones of its parent but the staying power to survive Midwestern winters. It can be fermented and aged in oak or stainless steel. My favorite versions of chardonel undergo natural fermentation in the barrel, developing buttery, vanilla notes that fill out the more muted, fruity tones of the grape alone.
There’s a whole world of wine out there waiting to be tasted. To encourage retailers to carry a more diverse wine selection, you need to be an advocate for diversity. Request new wines, push local retailers to taste and carry them, make your friends try new things, and take a risk every time you purchase a bottle. In doing so, your palate will be brightened by new flavors and pairings that make up the wine experience you’re meant to have.
Andrew Meggitt joined the St. James Winery team in 2002 and has been enjoying life in the wine business for over 20 years. A three-year-long travel adventure around the world following university influenced not only his outlook on life, but also his perception of winemaking styles and methodology. Andrew creatively stretches the boundaries of traditional winemaking while integrating both old- and new-world techniques he learned while working in New Zealand and France.