Monogamy is a wonderful thing for marriage. For wine? Not so much.
The wine world is huge. Italy grows hundreds of local grape varieties (wine geeks call them autochthonous, meaning native vitis vinifera grapes, a high score word for your for next Scrabble game). Georgia claims over a thousand.
And you want to drink only Malbec?
It’s easy to get into a wine rut. Go to the store and pick up the same bottle. Check out that wine list for the one or two names you recognize. Be true to your brand.
But, we don’t wear the same pair of shoes all the time. Why drink the same wine?
Well, people tell me they do it because it’s easy. They know what to expect; there are no surprises; they don’t have to think about it. It worked last time is the thinking.
I get it.
But, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. You can try new wines without a) breaking the bank, b) getting too far out of your comfort zone and, c) looking like an idiot when you try to pronounce the unpronounceable.
Here’s How: Play the Substitution Game
Let’s say you drink Cabernet in the winter and Sauvignon Blanc in the summer and you have a go-to. What happens when the shop is out of your go-to? Think of it as an opportunity. Any self-respecting wine shop will have similar wines on the shelf—from New Zealand, Canada, USA, Italy, France, (though you might not know that at a glance because most French, not all, but most French wine is named after the region not the grape and maybe you don’t feel like a geography lesson right now.)
Some stores and wine lists help play the game by grouping wines by flavour characteristics and style.Here’s how to make great substitutions you will love.
- Stay in the same price range. We have all been in that uncomfortable spot: the wine we usually buy is $23 and the one the salesperson is holding is $29. Hand me three similar wines in the $20-30 range? Now we’re talking, choice is good.
- You don’t have to stay in the same country or with the same grape. We are talking similarities in style, not trying to replicate an exact flavour
(see Handy Substitution Chart).
- Buy a few bottles at a time. Reason number one: taste memory is highly subjective. That great wine you had the other night? Was it really sublime? Or was it the food, the company, the atmosphere? Having a few bottles within a few days or weeks of each other helps you remember what you liked and why. Reason number two: saves time!
- Allow yourself to like something new. Human beings don’t like new tastes. Not even every kid liked ice cream the first time they tried it.
- Play with your food. If you are eating pasta from Puglia, drink a wine from southern Italy too, rather than your usual Chianti.
- Ask your server for a recommendation. Be specific. Say something like: “I’d like a wine from the same region as this dish, or similar, in this price range.” And, if they can’t help you, think of going to a more wine-smart restaurant next time. Adopt the same technique in a wine shop.
- Try not to be intimidated. Don’t get me started on snooty wine people. Wine is supposed to be fun. If you get attitude, (which in my experience is usually based on the fact that the individual is trying too hard to hide a lack of wine sense, because real wine people cannot wait to share and have fun with you) ask for the somm, or at least someone who knows something about the wines being sold. (If nobody knows? Drink beer.)
- Think about the climate of your go-to. Is it hot and sunny? Or is it a cooler climate such as northern Italy? You can categorize wine by climate to find like-tasting wines. If you like Argentine Malbec look to other warmer climate wines first, such as wine from the Mediterranean and Australia.
- The language barrier. Yes, it’s a drag and keeps people from trying new things. There is nothing wrong with pointing at a wine on the list and saying, ‘tell me about this.’ Staff at Corso 32, a super wine-saavy resto, tell me they think people always order Chianti and Amarone because they recognize it and can say it. If your server or salesperson asks if you need help, let them help you.
- Take a picture. Who remembers the year, the producer, the region, the country, the grape variety? Show the photo and you don’t even have to try to pronounce anything.
- Like the label? You will probably like the wine. Seriously, there are worse reasons to pick a bottle off the shelf. I don’t believe those folks who say they would never buy a wine because of its label. They just don’t want to cop to something they think is superficial. It’s not. Wine people (even from the tiniest farms) work creatively to come up with a package that reflects what’s in the bottle, the fruit of their labour. The least we can do is pay attention.
Go on! It’s a big wine world out there. Dive in!
Handy Substitution Chart, Whites
Sauvignon Blanc is aromatic, with grassy, citrusy and herbaceous flavours. This group of white wines could be your segue from the all-Savvy-all-the-time trap. (Here’s looking at you Kim Crawford drinkers.) Why? They are also crisp, fresh and aromatic, rarely have spent time in an oak barrel and are best serve chilled.
Riesling (Bender Kulina, Germany) Gruner Veltliner (Gruber Röschitz from Austria); Muscadet, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris (Tinhorn Pinot Gris, Canada).
Albarinho, Alvarhino, Grillo, Carracante, Pecorino, Biancame; Falanghina, Friulano, Fernão Pires (Luis Pato’s Maria Gomes). Most of the V grapes (Verdicchio, Vermentino, Vespaiolo, Vernaccia, Verdeho) could fall into this crisp and citrusy category without too much trouble. Try the Petit Bonhomme from Spain, under $20. I’m not saying they will taste exactly like your go-to but you find some new faves.
Chardonnay comes in two general styles; crisp and light-bodied (see above under Sauvignon Blanc) and a fuller-bodied wine with rich flavours, lots of mouth feel, yet still dry. If this is what you like, try Macabeo (called Viura in Spain), South African Chenin Blanc, (often buttery like some Chard) Fiano (rich and floral); Arneis and Cortese from Piedmont; whites from Jura, Pinot Bianco, Ribolla Giallo and Ramato-style wines from north-eastern Europe.
Gewürztraminer is spicy and usually, though not always, has some sweetness and texture. Try the I Love Mosel Riesling from Germany, Moscato or Malvasia, especially from Portugal.
Handy Substitution Chart, Reds
Grenache from the south of France, Spain and Sardinia (try the Santa Maria la Palma Cannonau de Sardegna), has the generous flavours, robust alcohol and soft tannins Malbec drinkers love. Or, go to the source, the French region of Cahors where Malbec is still called Cot, for wines like the stylish Gaudou Malbec Merlot, $20ish, Also, Barbera, Merlot, Primitivo, Montepulciano, Rosso Conero, Nero d’Avola and GSM from South Africa and Australia. Lower in alcohol and with more sprightly acidity, but still soft and fruity, is Piedmont’s Dolcetto.
Pinot Noir Like French Pinot Noir? Try Mencia from Spain (Petalos) Spätburgunder or Zweigelt (Germany and Austria) Trousseau (Jura), Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Teroldego, Langhe Nebbiolo, Ruché, Frappato, Lacrima de Morro d’Alba and Cerasuolo di Vittoria, all from Italy.
Like new world Pinot? Try these Italians: Corvina, Nero Mascalese and Nielluccio (Corsica).
Aficionados of Cabernet Sauvignon, especially American, South American and Australian Cabs, generally like big reds with structure and tannin. Look to Spain’s Priorat or Toro regions; Sagrantino from Umbria in Italy; Carignan and Mourvedre from the south of France (especially from St. Chinian and Faugeres) and the wines of the Italian south, Aglianico, Negroamaro, and Cannonnau and Carignano from Sardinia.
How to say
Cerasuolo di Vittoria: chair-ah-SWOH-lo-dee-vee-toh-ree-ah.
Falanghina: fah-lawn -GHEE-nah (GH makes a hard G sound.)
Merlot: maer-low, though I hear Italian wine producers say murlott all the time!