It may seem strange to refer to such ancient wine-producing regions as Portugal and Greece as “emerging.” But in the spirit of “everything old becomes new again,” wines from these and other countries have been gaining traction in restaurants.
Take Portugal as an example. Portuguese wines, which started to take off in the U.S. before the great recession, offer “very American-palate-friendly characteristics,” says Arthur Hon, sommelier at Chicago’s Sepia restaurant. “A beautiful extraction, but also a natural acidity and minerality makes them a great bridge, like a gateway to Old World wine for those not as familiar with the great French and Italian wines.”
Sepia recently featured two whites and two reds from Portugal at the head of its extensive international wine list. Hon praises them on the menu: “Their audacity and passion for the new and experimental combined with Portuguese diverse viticultural climates created bottles that really hit home with the contemporary palate.”
The country’s continuing modernization of winemaking practices are yielding vintages with more polish without significant price increases, Hon says. And with more wines—especially whites—now appearing from southern Portugal, it’s a new region to discover.
Straw Valley Food & Drink in Durham, NC, recently added a Portuguese white to its by-the-glass list; co-owner and Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer says that his staff is excited to offer the wine to guests. Wines from so-called emerging regions offer both operators and customers a variety of benefits, he says. Value is important, but so is the opportunity to offer underrepresented or even unknown wines to guests.
“We call our food ‘new American,’ so I get license to match international flavors on a wide palate compared to, say, a steak house or an Italian restaurant,” Dexheimer says. “And with a pricing structure that allows people who are willing to experiment at $40 to $60 per bottle to explore, we’re willing to take on a lot of emerging wines from these regions in that range.”
It’s not that Hon and Dexheimer ignore classic regions: the wine lists at both Sepia and Straw Valley are rife with Burgundy, Chianti and the like.
But Dexheimer, for instance, features numerous wines from the vast production area in Southwest France—two Jurancon Sec whites and Madiran and Irouleguy reds—as well as bottles from France’s Savoie and Ardeche regions. These bottles offer value, quality and simultaneously intrigue his customers.
White-wine-drinking guests take to the Jurancon for the exotic tropical fruit and honey qualities in the dry white, Dexheimer notes. And he gets a great response from drinkers of big reds when he brings them a Madiran that offers the weight and texture of a big cabernet.
Hon agrees regarding the growth of wines from southwest France. “Price-wise, you can get a lot more quality wine that averages at a much lower price. Producers from this and other emerging regions can’t market their wines much higher, so they offer great value, and are really approachable wines at mid- and lower price points.”
For Max’s Wine Dive, where the mantra is “Fried Chicken and Champagne?… Why the Hell Not?!” the wine lists at the 13 locations vary by as much as 30%. But there’s an emphasis on taking some risks on emerging wine regions or unfamiliar styles.
One Max’s unit carries a white grenache, for example, while others feature a colombard from Gascony.
The appeal of wines from regions along the Mediterranean coast, for example, includes lower cost that can be passed along to guests, says Jacob Fairchild, one of the Houston, TX-based company’s leadership and development managers. “There are lots of varieties like colombard that are very approachable but have a little bit of difference that takes guests out of their normal box and makes it kind of fun,” says Max’s wine sales manager Leslie Higgs.
That slight difference, along with value and an easier food-friendliness, are frequently cited by wine pros who like to include emerging wines. Max’s typically charges about $7 for a glass of the colombard.
Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, MA, which specializes in Middle Eastern food, is finding success with Greek wines, among others. “Once people get over their post traumatic retsina experience, they find a lot to like,” says wine director Lauren Friel, referring to the traditional Greek wine that’s flavored with pine resin.
“We pour assyrtiko by the glass and people love it, particularly in the summertime—that briney and snappy acidity,” Friel says. “Among reds, xinomavro is dynamic and versatile, and can be like a Beaujolais or a Barolo, depending on the producer.”
Hon, who carries nearly a dozen Greek bottles on his list, says that Greek wines have benefited from a continuing promotional campaign in the U.S. that has succeeding in generating consumer interest. “In mainstream markets, they really are catching on—as a wine professional, I never really thought we’d see that with Greek wines.”
Oleana’s Middle Eastern cuisine derives in many cases from nations with no winemaking or consuming tradition. So customers have few expectations or preconceived ideas of what should be on the wine list, says Friel.
That’s an advantage with guests, she notes, “but by the same token, we are a nationally ranked restaurant, and people see that and make a reservation without necessarily knowing what we are about before they come.”
Her white by-the-glass list is indicative of the breadth of entire program: The choices include an assyrtiko from Greece, a muscadet, an Austrian riesling, a pigato from Liguria and a malvazija from Slovenia.
How does Oleana handle it when guests are confused about the wines? “We try to make people feel comfortable with the wine list, so they know it’s not different for the sake of being different,” Friel says. Also, she says, “I train the staff about how to make the connections between, say, a pinot and a mencia blend from the Ribera, or if they like white Burgundy to get them into a gruner [veltliner].”
Underexposed Italian wines
Some restaurants by choice confine themselves to one major region. In the case of Nostrana, a pan-Italian restaurant in Portland, OR, the wine list is limited by convention to Italian and Oregon wines, though it includes Corsica for its winemaking traditions and Slovenia for its proximity.
Still, Nostrana features a multitude of small and underrepresented Italian regions, says wine director Michael Doherty. For example, the restaurant this summer offered two flights on the menu: one a trio of white, pink and red lambruscos; the other three rosés from Corsica. Flights are a great way to ease customers into wines with which they may be unfamiliar, he notes.
“Some guests like to stay with what they know, while others want a new experience. So we make sure there’s enough on the list to serve either type,” says Doherty.
Wines such as the three Etna Rossos he offers attract diners who want to venture a bit further afield, says Doherty, who admits that he used to have a much more narrow view of Italian wine, based on the big names. And with the balance of Nostrana’s wines priced from $40 to $60, guests can range wide without spending too much.
Speaking of rosé, Max’s is seeing a surge in popularity of the wine. “It’s insane right now, and having a selection we think is very important right now in the restaurant setting,” says Higgs.
What’s more, she says, Max’s offers rosés from March all the way through November: “They make great Thanksgiving wines.” Including sparkling rosés, each Max’s carries five to 10 rosés.
Getting guests on board
Featuring wines from lesser-known regions is a double-edged sword, Hon says. You can offer them at more competitive prices than other wines, but the names and varietals are often unknown. “Guests who want something cheaper will take a chance and treat it as a learning experience,” he notes.
Value is important in introducing customers to these emerging regions, Dexheimer says, “because when people see something that’s interesting, they’re willing to go there if it’s $50 rather than $80. So I select and keep them at a price point that piques curiosity.”
Not that the less-popular wine regions are all about bargains. Higgs notes that Austrian wines, while not priced especially low, are gaining a following at Max’s.
“Gruner veltliners are definitely becoming much more popular, and even the [Austrian] reds that are hitting the market much more in the past few years.” It’s a bit market dependent she says, noting that in Atlanta, gruners are “huge,” with a growing demand in Max’s Austin and Chicago units as well.
Hon, who carries about two dozen Austrian wines—primarily whites—on the Sepia menu, notes that the wines that are gaining popularity are high quality but not inexpensive. And as more Austrian labels arrive in the U.S. and the style of wine becomes more familiar, his customers are quickly taking to them.
As for helping customers navigate unfamiliar wine territory, some Max’s units will group a number of wines together as “unique whites” to attract the adventurous guest. “That’s a fun category for us, and we categorize our wines mainly under what makes the most sense for the guest—not always regionally or varietally,” Higgs says.
Oleana’s wine list uses unique descriptor groupings. “Saffron, Vanilla and Toasted Orange” heads thesix-wine grouping of full-bodied whites, while “Barberries, Sumac and Hibiscus” leads a group of light-bodied reds from Jura, Friuli, Sicily, the Loire Valley and Solano County, CA.
“I’m hoping this gives a sense of the wines; those are notes that will resonate or put you off,” Friel says. She also aims to group similar wines with different price points “so if they love, say, a chenin blanc but not at our price point, or if they are feeling flush and want to spend more, this helps as an anchor point grouping more-recognizable varietals with their less-recognizable cousins.”
Food pairings also offer an opportunity to introduce guests to unique wines. At Straw Valley, Dexheimer looks for wines with medium weight and interesting aromatics. He believes that unique grape varieties often offer a better situation for the entire table if guests order a bottle.
Straw Valley will sell a lot of California cabernet and pinot noir as well, he notes. “But the majority of our guests want to feel that there’s at least an attempt to pair something with their meal, and the sense of adventure they have is cool.”
In Wine We Trust
To help guests through any wine list—particularly when you include offerings from more obscure and emerging regions, the guests have to trust you, says Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer, co-owner of Straw Valley Food & Drink in Durham, NC. His list includes wines from place like Sardinia and Croatia.
“We have a consumer base that’s receptive to putting themselves in my hands, but there are enough comfortable choices on the list for anyone, and then a lot of interesting things with a broad palate of flavors.” Dexheimer says.
“But there’s nothing for building trust like when a table is looking at a $75 pinot noir and you bring them something interesting they never heard of at $60 and they like it—now we are in a relationship.” Unique wines from emerging regions can help forge that, he adds.
The down side? “Now I’m forced to find new wines all the time because I have a pool of guests who come with a sense of adventure,” Dexheimer says.
At Max’s Wine Dive, building a relationship with guests is part of the concept. All locations have a “try-before-you-buy” philosophy, says Jacob Fairchild, one of the Houston, TX-based company’s leadership and development managers, so servers are encouraged to get as much wine tasted as possible. “It’s a very approachable way to get customers into the right wine and to introduce them to what we serve.”
Middle Eastern food restaurant Oleana in Cambridge, MA, offers wines from Greece, Liguria and Slovenia, among other countries. “I choose every wine to elevate the food,” says wine director Lauren Friel. When a guest is unsure about her choices, “I’ll say ‘Trust me—let me hold your hand.’”
You have to develop that trust with guests to get there, Friel notes. “When you’re taking someone someplace they’ve never been before, it’s important they feel like you’re on their team.”