As my coworker and I meandered through the aisles of French wine, we recited the regions as we passed them—that shelf, Rhône, that stretch of bottles, white Burgundy, and then, I said, there is this. I stopped in front of a section where no small number of bottles were assembled, standing up proud, if awkwardly. He finished my thought as he turned and placed his hand on the neck of a bottle.
These were the French wines with no big name to sell themselves nor prestigious appellation that would provide the protection of belonging. These were the loners, independents, and sole representatives. Among their mismatched group were the besmirched varietals and the underappreciated (or maybe just under-marketed) regions. Malbec from Cahors, Tannat from Madiran, and Cab Franc-heavy blends. Who cares about the little 100% Carignan Corbieres when there’s Napa Cab to be cocktailed? Why the herby, awkward, hard-to-get-to-know Languedoc when we’ve got juicy, boozy, tongue-down-your-throat Zin?
Quite honestly I don’t bring many customers here because the general population of wine buyers are looking for ‘friends’ they already know and like—not new foreigners that will take some initial patience, tolerance, and a little getting used to.
I am enchanted by these wines. While they may not be the tastiest, juiciest party wines in the shop, they are excellent representations of the lands from which they hail. They are wines of high quality, though initially you might not find them the best tasting wines.
But don’t great quality and great taste naturally go together?
The answer to that question lets you in on a little secret about wine: not necessarily. As American consumers we learned early that if we were going to shell out the bills, we were going to get it our way. Wine, especially Old World wine, doesn’t obey the Burger King rule.
Getting one’s head around this notion becomes a lot easier when we think about wine’s first purpose and commitment. You might be surprised by this, but the primary function of wine is not to get you drunk, nor to delight your individual palate. These may be side benefits, but the goal and function of wine is to express the land in which it is grown—its terroir (if you want the fancy technical term).
I think we often make similar ‘me-centered’ mistakes in judging fine art. Everything gets the ‘mantle test,’ as I will call it. “Sure, this may be a million dollar Picasso, but I don’t think I’d want it in my living room.” This may be hard to believe, but Picasso wasn’t painting for your living room any more than a wine maker with integrity is producing a wine for your palate (though many do because, after all, tasty wine sells). Picasso produced art that expressed himself, the time period in which he painted, and the various art movements operating during his career. Your taste and your living room were of little concern.
And so it is with some of these wines. Their purpose is to express their little corner of the world. For example, the Ermitage du Pic St. Loup from southernmost France that I brought home was a surprising mix of green peppercorns and herbes de Provence (maybe minus the lavender). Odd, right? Not the flavors you want swirling around in your wineglass? I can’t blame you. But while this wine was not immediately the epitome of delishery, I couldn’t help being intrigued by it. As I drank a bit more of it and paired it with some food, I actually came to appreciate and even like it very much.
Kind of like that foreign exchange student that ended up becoming one of your best friends. Sure they dressed a little funny and spoke with an accent and needed special explanation on idioms and jokes, but it wasn’t long and you realized that this sojourner was really a special individual. Suddenly everyone who was just like you and represented all the things you knew and liked weren’t quite as exciting anymore.
There are a lot of these semi-obscure ‘homeless’ wines that are affordable, food friendly, unsung gems. Don’t be afraid to try funky wines you’ve never heard of. Choose a varietal or a region that is totally unknown to you and then work on getting to know it. Do a little research, make a dish that will pair well, and then sit down and get to know a new friend.