Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.
Detroit's Mabel Gray doesn't serve a set menu, instead the New American restaurant—like many others—embraces the local, seasonal, "[e]verything is handmade from scratch" mantra. But the concept of craft food is just what one would expect from a Top Chef alum, in this case season 12's James Rigato. With a consistently inconsistent menu, sommelier Rachel Van Til is always working to match her wine game to plates of rabbit gnocchi and venison with pretzel spaetzle. Below, she considers the world of wine and regions that, today, are offering great values.
Q: Where are the best wine values coming from these days?
Van Til: I love and hate this question. There are amazing wines made all over the world at accessible prices that consumers can enjoy every day without breaking the budget. I feel it’s very important to consider wine as part of the meal, even part of the dish. Think of it as a grocery item instead of a luxury good. That said, I select my day-to-day wines the same way I select produce or anything else I put in a shopping cart; weather, pairing, mood, philosophy and terroir all influence the purchase. Get to know the person you buy wine from. As this person learns your tastes, he or she can help you find what you are looking for, as well as know when to suggest something new. Wine shops often offer case and half-case discounts, so if you fall in love with something, buying a case can save you money. Always keep your personal cellar stocked.
Seventy-five percent of the wines I pair to our tasting menu at Mabel Gray (as well as about 75 percent of the wines I personally drink) are whites, rosés, and bubbles. Chef James Rigato’s style tends to involve curry, hot peppers, kimchi, pickles, and fried things, so we naturally turn to white wines with acid and sometimes a little bit of residual sugar to match the intensity of these flavors and temper the heat. Riesling is a personal favorite of mine and can range from mouth-wateringly dry to tropical-fruit-sweet in style. Chef James often teases me about sour beer and cider trumping wine for their pairing versatility, but I often defer to the Riesling grape. Then again, I’m the one blind pouring Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($12) from brown paper bags because it’s the best thing you hate to know your drinking ... so what do I know?
There is misconception that wines with some residual sugar are only for beginners, grandmas and sorority girls.
There is misconception that wines with some residual sugar are only for beginners, grandmas and sorority girls. If the wines have a lot of acid, they are great wines for food with spice, particularly Southeast Asian cuisine. Riesling works well with pork dishes, so if you’re a fan of pork chops with a sweeter glaze, pork belly (which we serve at Mabel Gray with ong bak and pickled slaw), or charcuterie, this is a fun way to mix things up. Leitz from the Rheingau in Germany makes some killer wines. I love both their Eins Zwei Dry ($16) and Dragonstone ($14) bottlings. Chateau Ste. Michelle ($15) from Washington also makes Riesling that you can find just about anywhere and over-delivers for the price.
After Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most oft asked for white wines in just about any restaurant or wine shop. New Zealand has been particularly popular with quenchy, citrusy versions under screw cap, particularly from Marlborough. If you love NZSB (New Zealand Sauv Blanc), I would highly recommend trying Sauvignon Blanc from Northern Italy. Dipinti ($10), Parusso ($17) and St. Michael-Eppan ($16) all make beautiful examples that are more mango, tangerine, and apricot than grapefruit.
You might also consider exploring Bordeaux’s white wines if you like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. I currently love Château Graville- Lacoste ($18) from Graves in Southern Bordeaux. Semillon gives richness, tropical fruit, and a lovely candlewax quality that is balanced by the freshness of the Sauvignon Blanc. This is a wine that I go to often because it is just normal enough to please everyone, yet weird enough to keep things interesting.
... it is just normal enough to please everyone, yet weird enough to keep things interesting.
People tend to approach red wine with more gravitas than white wines. They have a reputation for being more serious. Maybe that’s why the people drinking them are always so serious. Wines with a deep color, rich fruit, and lots of oak (think vanilla, baking spices, and creamy texture) often resonate with customers as deserving of expense because of their sheer opulence. While many of them are complex and well-made, there are a lot in the market without a lot of complexity. They overwhelm the palate and just taste like money to me. Classics such as Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Barolo or Barbaresco, and high-end Bordeaux taste like money as well, in no small part because of their intrigue, unique character, and the associations with their names and origin. These wines are almost always more about luxury and mystery than everyday use.
If you like a lighter style of red wine, I recommend Pinot Noir from France’s Loire Valley. Finding Burgundy that does not cost a lot can be difficult, but wines from the Central Vineyards can satisfy that need for something with tart fruit, bright acidity, and texture. Interestingly enough, the French coq au vin was originally made with Pinot Noir from the Central Vineyards. I recommend Gitton Père & Fils Côteaux du Giennois ($13), which is tart and expressive with cranberry, slight mushroom and blood orange aromas. And it sounds bourgeois and your friends will have no idea where in France it’s from. Bargain secret safe. This one is harder to find online, but retailers carry other wines by the same producer, so it should not be too difficult to come by.
Chef James also uses curry and sauces like red and green harissa to accent and brighten red meat, such as strip steak or bison. Red wines are notorious for clashing with flavors like these because of their dry character, higher alcohol, and common use of oak. I go to wines from Spain’s Rioja particularly when he starts making harissa. The acidity of the wine and often moderate alcohol keep it from clashing with spicier sauces, and the color, richness, and higher tannin can satisfy your hankering for something full-bodied without sacrificing the pairing. You can easily find a young but integrated, mildly oaked Crianza example by Cune ($11) or Marqués de Cáceres ($12).
The great thing about unpopular wines is that they tend not to be as expensive.
You are probably sick of hearing about that wine movie Sideways. In short, it made Merlot extremely unpopular in America. The great thing about unpopular wines is that they tend not to be as expensive. There are beautiful Merlots made in so many regions, but I particularly love some of the wines coming from Lalande-de-Pomerol (Bordeaux) and Washington for everyday use. Charles Smith’s Velvet Devil ($10) from Washington does the classic plum and tobacco thing that Merlot is known for, and comes with a convenient screw cap as well as a fun label.
There will be times at the beginning or end of a meal when you feel like you should open another bottle. I recommend keeping a bottle or two of vermouth in the refrigerator, as well as amaro and Madeira on hand so that you don’t needlessly deplete your cellar. Vermouth is perfect on the rocks with a lemon peel or a slice of orange, and can satisfy your need to sip on something as you are cooking dinner. Chef James always brings Lillet Blanc ($18) to Thanksgiving and Christmas (serve on the rocks with an orange slice), and I quite like Contratto Bianco ($30) on the rocks with a splash of soda and twist of lemon peel.
Asking a sommelier about his or her favorite "value wines" can feel like asking a film critic what you should see next in theatres; you will have a hard time finding a theatre playing the film and it might be too artistic to be any fun. Wine should be about what tastes good, what you like, what you can find, and what you want to spend. Don’t let any wine geek salesperson convince you to break your budget. Have fun, drink diversely, buy by the case, and don’t forget there’s a reason Kendall-Jackson is a classic: it’s everywhere, people like it, and it tastes damn good for the money.
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