"It’s just grape juice. Don’t take it so seriously." Whatever the wording, that's a sentiment sommeliers often rely on to put their guests at ease. Here, we're taking a quick break from the more serious wine discussions in this series to explore some styles and serving customs that may seem flawed, weird, or just plain tacky—but they all have their time and place within the world of wine.
Americans drank so much Riunite in the 1970s that they apparently blacked out, blocking out en masse all recollection of any such thing as sparkling red wine for decades afterward. But now it’s all coming back to them—and happily, Italy’s importing the good stuff this time around. Quality dry Lambrusco, primarily from Emilia-Romagna, tends to show notes of tart cherry, earthy balsamico, and even an amaro tang; as for sweet red bubbly, Piedmont’s Brachetto d’Acqui, bursting with strawberries, is many a sommelier’s go-to for chocolate pairings. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that you’ll find superb examples at Frasca, Luca, Sarto’s, Barolo Grill, and Panzano.
Italy’s not the only source of red sparklers. Australia makes some fine fizzy Shiraz, and a few California wineries are following suit; at downtown Polish restaurant Belvedere, you can even find a Ukrainian version, worth trying if only for experience’s sake.
You may know the story of Greece’s infamous retsina: it’s an enduring byproduct of the ancient practice of sealing amphorae with pine sap, which kept the oxygen out while sneaking its own, um, distinctive qualities in—and even as storage technology evolved, a soft spot for pine-infused white wine stuck with the Greeks. You may also think you know what retsina smells and tastes like: sour furniture polish. But if you haven’t tried it in, oh, a decade or two, give it another whirl. Today’s producers take a subtler approach to their craft, and the result laces sensations of sunny citrus and flowering herbs together with those unmistakable hints of menthol. Try it as an aperitif with meze at Axios Estiatorio—but don’t stop there: owner Telly Topakas’s entire wine list provides a thrilling introduction to celebrated Greek varietals like Assyrtiko and Xinomavro (as we’ll discuss in a future post).
You know what happens when wine is exposed to air for too long: it goes bad. Except, that is, when it doesn’t. Believe it or not, the nuttiness that characterizes some of the world’s most celebrated fortified wines—Spanish Sherry, Portuguese Madeira and Tawny Port—is the result of deliberate, controlled oxidation. These days, you can trust any restaurant or bar with a decent wine program to carry an example or two. What’s much, much harder to find is the extremely funky, and legendary, vin jaune and its variants from France’s Jura region. But you may spot it from time to time, for instance at Old Major or Mizuna—and if you do, treat yourself big.
Fruit wine (and non-fruit "wine")
Wine, by strict definition, is made from grapes. But since antiquity, people all around the world have produced and enjoyed beverages fermented from fruit other than grapes, and these have collectively come to be known as "fruit wine." Granted, the term is sometimes extended to fruit-infused spirits and other interlopers—but either way, it can still be a fun category to explore just for kicks. In addition to the plum wine so ubiquitous in Asian restaurants, for instance, Dae Gee offers half-bottles of blueberry and black-raspberry wine, while the aforementioned Belvedere serves pomegranate wine from Armenia and apricot wine from Ukraine, among others. Argonaut Liquors, meanwhile, carries everything from Hawaiian pineapple wine to a panoply of bottlings from Palisade’s own Colorado Cellars (elderberry, chokecherry, peach). Of course, they’re generally rather sweet. That is not necessarily the case with quality cider—which, as fermented apple juice, is pretty much a fruit wine, despite its conventional associations with beer. Sample a few at Stem Ciders and have a light-bulb moment on that score.
As for Japan’s famous "rice wine": aside from being grain- rather than fruit-based, it’s a brew (the brewing process involves, but is not limited to, fermentation). So sake is closer to beer, although sticklers will insist it’s technically in a category by itself. "Honey wine"—mead, Ethiopian tej, and so on—is of course not made from fruit at all, but it is strictly fermented, so the term is somewhat understandable.
Spritzers et al.
After falling out of fashion for decades, spritzers and their ilk—that is, wine mixed with seltzer or soda pop—are once again having a moment stateside. And why not? They’re refreshing, they’re lower-alcohol, they’re basically a wine drinker’s answer to session beers (so long as they’re made with relatively cheap, simple bottlings—don’t go asking for a Barolo spritz).
The Germans, for instance, adore their Schorle, and Helga’s German Restaurant & Deli offers your choice of red or white with Sprite or club soda. Spain’s beloved Calimocho—a mixture of red wine and Coke—is featured at The Med, while The 9th Door showcases another Spanish tradition, the combination of red wine and (in this case) orange soda called Tinto de Verano. Finally, any decent bar these days should be able to crank out an Aperol-Prosecco spritz (it’s not hard), but it’s hard to beat at the flagship Pizzeria Locale, accompanied by classic salty snacks like olives and bruschetta.