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How to expand your red wine repertoire beyond cabs, pinots and merlots

Always drink merlot, pinot and cabernet? We have some other reds in mind. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

We humans are creatures of habit. Too often, our wine choices are cab, cab, cab, chard, pinot and cab. We can easily miss out on wine’s amazing diversity.

Last week, we celebrated the vine’s variety by exploring white wines from around the world similar enough to our favorites to lead us out of our rut and on an adventure. This week, we’ll try to explore different red wines, with a hat tip to Hugh Johnson, who features “If you like this, try this” in his annual pocket wine guides.

New white wines to try based on the ones you already love

Let’s start with those cabernets. If you like Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, try Washington state’s. They can be ripe, plush and complex, and may save you a few dollars compared with the Napa versions. If you can’t afford Napa cabernet, look to Paso Robles, Lodi or Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley for top-notch cabs at more reasonable prices.

In Australia, Coonawarra and South Australia’s Adelaide Hills are known for racy, spicy cabernets as well as the more famous shiraz. Cooler regions, such as Margaret River and McLaren Vale, give their cabernets a minty, refreshing character.

Cabernet’s sleeper region may be Argentina’s Mendoza, where the altitude of the Andes foothills softens the tannins and preserves acidity and lightness in the wine. Bargain hunters should look to Chile, where the Maipo, Aconcagua and Apalta valleys produce excellent cabs from the bottom to the top of the price range.

For alternatives to cabernet, look to petit verdot. Traditionally a minor part of a Bordeaux blend, PV excels in Virginia, where it produces dark, jammy and brambly wines. Spain and Australia also produce some petit verdot, and we are likely to see some varietally labeled PV from Bordeaux as that region adapts to climate change. Carmenere from Chile and malbec from Argentina are also worthy Bordeaux alternatives. If your taste is solidly French, look to that country’s southwest and the inexpensive, rustic and savory wines of Gaillac and Irouléguy or French malbec from Cahors.

Climate change is reshaping wine as we know it

Remember merlot? This once popular grape still seems to suffer from the “Sideways” effect, after the 2004 movie dissed the grape in favor of pinot noir. But merlot is still the main grape of Bordeaux, especially the inexpensive Cru Bourgeois and Bordeaux AOC bottlings. Chile also makes expressive merlot at bargain prices.

If you like Virginia cabernet franc, look to the Loire Valley in France, where Chinon and Bourgueil excel with this red grape. But also try mencia, the red grape of Bierzo in Spain, and saperavi from Georgia. Both display an herbal character reminiscent of cab franc. Saperavi is even making inroads in New York and Maryland.

Pinot noir lovers could spend their lives, and livers, exploring the appellations of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, from the flowery bouquet of Chambolle-Musigny to the power of Pommard and the velvet of Volnay. Oregon’s Willamette Valley offers a geologic study of pinot noir that can trace the origins of the wine in your glass to ancient collisions of Earth’s tectonic plates and floods caused by melting glaciers. Fans of this grape should also explore wines from New Zealand’s Central Otago, Australia’s Tasmania and Argentina’s Patagonia. In California, Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and the western Sonoma Coast region excel at pinot noir. There are a lot of saints in the California church of pinot noir.

And pinot lovers should not neglect gamay, the grape of Beaujolais and some parts of the Loire Valley. Gamay does not approach pinot in complexity or sheer hedonistic pleasure, but it does offer light, affordable, food-friendly wines that are sometimes best described as “fun.”

If Rhône reds are your fancy, you’ve probably discovered garnacha and mataro from Spain, known as grenache and mourvèdre in France. Don’t ignore Sardinia, where grenache goes by the alias cannonau and achieves a brambly rustic flavor evoking the Mediterranean. The red wines of Greece, Turkey and Lebanon often have texture and flavors similar to Rhône wines.

These suggestions could lead us through a lifetime of exploration. And I’ve barely mentioned Italy, which offers myriad opportunities as well. You can find my recommendations for specific wines through the wine archive link on the Food section webpage. Explore the vast world of wine. You’ll discover new favorites, and when you return to your old standbys, you may appreciate them all the more in the context of wine’s diversity.

A sad note: The D.C. wine scene lost Paul Lukacs, who died June 15 after a long illness. Lukacs was the longtime wine columnist for the Washington Times in the 1990s and later Washingtonian magazine, as well as an English professor at Loyola University in Baltimore. He wrote three books that established him as a leading historian of wine: “American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine” (2000) and “The Great Wines of America” (2006). His third book, “Inventing Wine” (2012), traced wine’s evolution in parallel with Western civilization, through industrialization and the “international style” that emerged along with a globalized economy. Lukacs was also a longtime contributor to Wine Review Online, a website co-founded by his friend Michael Franz, a former Washington Post wine columnist.

More from Wine archives:

The new wine rules: Drink what you like with what you want to eat

Stock up on your favorite wine now: Low inventory and higher prices are on the horizon

Chillable reds and low-alcohol pours: Winemakers try to bottle success with younger consumers

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