When it comes to wines people order when they visit bars and restaurants, chardonnay and merlot still top the list in the U.S. I can remember selling these two varietals by the gallon as a waiter in 1984.
But while wines from the more familiar grapes continue to lead in by-the-glass sales across the country, Americans are discovering that there are many other delicious varietals out there. And not only do these other wines offer up enjoyable flavors, they’re typically available at attractive price points because demand for them is lower.
It’s a great time to help your customers expand beyond the basics by offering up some of these unsung varietals. Here’s a quick look at some of the “other” wine grapes.
Fruit of the Rhône
Syrah and grenache grapes are grown all over, and fit right in with Americans tastes in wine—especially new world examples. Their big, fruity and spicy flavors make these reds drinkable on their own, but they also pair perfectly with casual American foods such as burgers, barbecue and pizza. Syrah in particular has been a favorite of many California producers, but since it lies in the shadow of cabernet and merlot, the price/value ratio leans strongly to the value side.
Some of the white Rhône grapes, such as marsanne and roussane, are not as well known than their red counterparts, but they’re also worth exploring. Wines from these varietals can be a great alternative to chardonnay for customers looking to branch out.
If your wine director has been begging you to allow more rieslings on the list, now’s a good time to do it. The versatile white wine is finally making its way to American dinner tables because it’s great with food.
Dry rieslings offer incredibly flexibility with a broad range of vegetable, fish and light meat dishes, while off-dry versions are perfect with Thai flavors and other sweet-spicy or savory dishes that have some sweetness, like salads with goat cheese and fruit or beets.
Look to the colder growing regions of the U.S., such as Washington State and the Finger Lakes of New York for great riesling values.
Sights on chenin blanc
This grape has been hanging around in the fringe for a while now, but it offers tremendous potential. A relative of sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc works well by itself when it’s off dry, while versions with some sweetness are a good match with food.
Both American and French versions (from the Loire region) of chenin blanc are available in a range of sweetness levels to suit all tastes and occasions.
Get into the grüner
Grüner veltliner (pronounced groon-er felt-leener) is the premier white grape of Austria that produces a mineral-driven wine with fresh herb and floral notes. Grüner veltliner is not as aggressively “green” as many sauvignon blancs, though, and its relative subtlety makes it a great food wine.
There are inexpensive Austrian versions, usually seen in one-liter bottles (sometimes with bottle caps instead of corks) that provide easy, fresh flavors to accompany simple lighter dishes. The premier Austrian versions can be quite expensive—and they’re worth it. But the grüner veltliners from American wineries are starting to show up with a little more fruit at affordable prices.
Make it a malbec
This is one of the five main grapes of red Bordeaux, although its importance there is diminishing. Argentina has picked up the malbec ball and is running with it.
Malbec from Argentina tends to be dark and lush, with aromas and flavors of black plum. While some premium wines come from the higher altitudes of the country’s Mendoza province, plenty of merlots are available at attractive prices.
It’s also the perfect wine to lure merlot drinkers away from their usual choice: Malbec offers many of the same characteristics, often at a greater value.
There are plenty of delicious wines brands and varietals that many people have never heard of. Put them on your list as by-the-glass options, and make sure the waitstaff has tasted them and is informed about the nuances of these wines. Bartenders and servers who are educated about the wines can more effectively guide the customers.
The relatively low cost of these wines enables you to offer guests a great deal and encourage them to experiment. Or you can mark up some of the lesser-known wines more aggressively to lower prices elsewhere, say, on the main wine list. Either way, you will be providing value and new experiences for your guests.