Alternative wines

A delicious and affordable break from the mainstream

There are over 10,000 varieties of grapes used in the production of wine, and yet just a handful of varieties make up the bulk of wine sales in the United States. Cabernet sauvignon sales overtook chardonnay as the nation's bestseller in 2020, followed by pinot grigio, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. While many of us have our dependable tried-and-true favorites, the explosion of growth in new wine markets across the globe in recent decades means that more delicious and affordable wines are available to more consumers than ever before.

Good local wine merchants are ideal guides for those looking to expand their palate. They'll be able to steer you towards wines that are similar to your current favorite, but with nuances all their own. Even the same grape produced in a different style can be a revelatory change. For example, the majority of chardonnay sold in the United States is known for its rich, buttery character and full body, thanks to aging in oak barrels. Unoaked chardonnay, on the other hand, aged in stainless steel tanks, often results in a lighter wine brimming with creamy tropical fruit.

Many of these "alternative" wines are also an excellent value and can easily be found for less than $20. And while many of these grapes are varieties of European origin, in some cases grape varieties that had waned in popularity in their original home country have done exceptionally well in New World wine regions such as Chile, Argentina, South Africa and the United States. Malbec production has been declining in France since the mid-20th century, however the grape has since experienced a resurgence and seems to have found its true home in the upper Mendoza region of Argentina where they have been producing age-worthy, garnet-hued malbecs for decades.

If you're a wine lover looking to break from the mainstream, keep an eye out for these quaffable and affordable pours:

Like sauvignon blanc? Try colombard.

Colombard is a French grape variety from Charentais where it was used for blending cognac. While its popularity faded in France, it was at one point the most widely planted grape in California. (However that is no longer the case today.) It produces a reasonably neutral wine with crisp acidity and stone fruit aromas, perfect for serving very well chilled, preferably poolside. These wines are meant to be drunk young, within five years of production. Pairs extremely well with seafood and would be perfect alongside prosciutto-wrapped melon or avocado toast topped with sliced cucumbers and a sprinkle of coarse salt.

Monte Gravet Cotes de Gascogne $12

Like pinot grigio? Try albariño.

These distinctive, aromatic grapes from Northwest Spain and Portugal (known there as alvarinho) have thick skin, which helps them withstand the region's damp climate and resulting in wines rich in acidity and flavor. Albariño was the first Spanish white grape variety produced as a single varietal wine as opposed to a blend. These wines are sometimes aged in oak and can be age-worthy whites that will develop flavor and character over time. Enjoy them alongside washed rind cheeses like gruyere or with grilled chicken or shrimp topped with garlicky chimichurri.

Klinker Brick Albariño $16

Like shiraz? Try pinotage.

A uniquely South African variety, this grape was developed in 1925 by Stellenbosch University viticulturist Abraham Perold. A cross between pinot noir and cinsaut grapes, pinotage is characterized by its deep red hues and earthy, brambly fruitiness. This is a great wine to enjoy with a spicy bowl of chili or a rack of sticky barbecued ribs.

Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage $15

Like Riesling? Try dornfelder.

Another variety developed in the 20th century, dornfelder grapes were bred in Germany in 1956 and are said to incorporate every notable German red wine variety into their genealogy. This grape produces a berry-hued wine with good acidity, a velvety texture and a lightly floral sweetness. Served slightly chilled, this slightly sweet wine is often barely frizzante, or fizzy, and tends to be lower in alcohol, making it a perfect choice for brunch and lovely with ham and rich cheesy dishes.

Try Valkenberg Dornfelder $15

Like pinot noir? Try blaukanfrisch.

This grape has been grown in Austria, Germany and Hungary for centuries and it still one of Austria's most widely planted dark-berried varieties. These wines tend to have lovely deep color, balanced acidity and a velvety texture that make them excellent for enjoying with food. Play up the wine's garnet hues by serving alongside roasted beets with topped fresh goat's cheese or take advantage of its balanced acidity and pair with rich grilled lamb chops or sausages.

Try Evolucio Blaukanfrisch $12

Ashley Meyer studied winemaking at Lincoln University in New Zealand. She currently lives in Springfield and is excited to embark on some Midwest wine tasting and leaf-peeping road trips this fall.

About The Author

Ashley Meyer

Ashley Meyer has been cooking as long as she has been walking. The daughter of beloved former Illinois Times food columnist, Julianne Glatz, Ashley offers a fresh, inspired take on her mother’s culinary legacy. Ashley studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand and recently achieved the...

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