There’s been some feather-ruffling on the wine blahblahsphere lately about a “war” between critics and sommeliers. As described by W. Blake Gray on Palate Press, sommeliers resent wine critics and their 100-point scoring systems because the scribes try to democratize wine and empower readers/diners to choose their own bottles without the help of the snooty somm. Critics — well, they agree with that picture and resent sommeliers who try to foist obscure wines from godforsaken parts of the earth on unsuspecting customers.
Gray, despite being a wine writer, sides with the sommeliers. Stephen Eliot, writing on the Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine blog, put Gray’s argument in the context of the larger debate among wine lovers about “whether low-alcohol/high-acid wines are inherently better than those bolder, more flavorful offerings that emphasize ripeness and unbridled fruit.” You can probably tell from that formulation where Eliot’s preferences lie.
Personally, I think sommeliers are rock stars. They taste a lot of wines, from all parts of the world, in search of those that provide extra value for the buck, much like I do as a wine columnist, but they do so in a high-stakes environment with the success of their restaurants and their livelihoods on the line. That may lead them to favor the unusual, quirky wine over a more typical one, but that’s okay. As an adventurous drinker and eater, I’m always willing to experiment and grateful to have a pro clue me in to something new.
So I found myself last week at Estadio, near Logan Circle, talking to Max Kuller about wines from the Canary Islands. Kuller, son of owner Mark Kuller and keeper of the restaurant’s excellent list of regional Spanish wines, recently added several from the Canaries, a Spanish-owned archipelago off the coast of Africa. The wines have all the characteristics to be a sommelier’s darling — they are unusual, championed by a single importer and available almost nowhere else. The importer, Jose Pastor, is based in the Bay Area; the wines have become popular in trendier establishments in San Francisco and New York.
“After those two cities, I thought D.C. would be a logical third place for them to catch on,” Kuller says.
And Estadio is a likely venue. As I looked over the noisy throng of young singles crowded around the communal tables and bar, I realized that I was by far the oldest person there. This millennial demographic is the prosperous and adventurous crowd that is changing the way America drinks. They don’t need point scores from established critics to tell them what to drink; they’re willing to experiment.
“We sell a lot of mencia wines,” Kuller says, referring to a red grape indigenous to northwestern Spain. “If I put a cab-merlot on the list, it doesn’t sell, which actually makes me happy.”
Here’s what I like about the Canary wines: Most are made from grape varieties you are unlikely to find elsewhere, such as listan negro, negramole or gual. Even those grown in other regions (malvasia and listan blanco, another name for palomino) achieve a unique expression of the islands’ volcanic soils and wind-swept vineyards. These are not overtly fruity wines, but they have an ability to latch onto flavors in food and amplify them in a way that makes both food and wine a little better.
My favorite was the Vinatigo Gual, a rich white that hinted of orange and apricot around its thick, minerally core. Whites included a citrusy dry malvasia from Los Bermejos and a crisp, saline listan blanco from Vina Zanata. Among the reds, the Vid Sur Negramole will soon be appearing by the glass, Kuller promised, as a “summer alternative to pinot noir” — it’s deceptively light, but by no means simple.
These wines won’t spark many epiphanies, but they are delicious and should put Estadio on any adventurous wine lover’s list of restaurants to explore.