When you write a column like this one, it's easy to fall into a rut. Therefore, interspersed among my normal columns, I've decided to initiate the Alphabet Soup Project -- where I wander letter by letter...and see what we come up with.
So, to begin: A is for...alternatives.
I like to break out of the usual mold of around-the-house varietals from time to time just to see what else is out there, especially when it comes to Italian wines, since they grow so many varietals that aren't really seen commonly on this side of the Pond -- or really anywhere else, for that matter. Those crazy Italians grow something in the neighborhood of 500 varietals of grapes that can be pressed and fermented.
I broke out of my normal Sangiovese/Montepulciano/Barbera-heavy rotation of Italian reds with the Di Majo Norante 2005 Contado Molise Aglianico. In case you didn't notice, the actual grape in that lengthy title is "Aglianico." Aglianico is a varietal largely cultivated in southern Italy. It's a high-tannin, high-acid wine that usually needs a few years in bottle before it's really drinkable. I'd read that this was an exceptional pairing for pasta puttanesca, so I made a version that included some broccoli and caramelized onions. Thought I don't think of broccoli as particularly wine-friendly, this was really nice. The high acidity made it perfect for an meal like this full of spices and cheese. The acidity worked well as a palate cleanser and to bring out the bright cherry fruit that this wine has to offer. It was a little lighter than many of these wines, being similar weight to many straight Chiantis, but with considerably more structure and without the bite many of them carry. It was right around $15.
Along the same line, I wanted a drinkable Italian white for an afternoon and was looking for something pinot-grigio-ish. I landed on the Valdinera 2006 Roero Arneis. Arneis is a varietal grown in the Piedmont region, known most famously for Nebbiolo-based wines Barolo & Barbaresco and for Asti spumante. This fragrant medium-bodied white actually reminds me a great deal of Viognier. The nose is quite perfumey with plenty of melon and cider. It's medium bodied with a bit of an oily consistency that gives way to a nice amount of minerality. The finish is dry and slightly alkaline. By itself, nice enough to sip on -- but we opened on a Saturday afternoon where we'd put together a little "antipasti" for ourselves -- hard cheese, salami, and crackers -- it performed really nicely, with more fruit coming out as we worked through the food. Again, around $15.
I can have this sort of fun in France, as well. I was under the impression that all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. I was wrong. Danny Gold threw me the Domaine Chêne 2007 Macôn-Villages -- which is made 100% from a varietal called Aligote. Aligote is planted largely in Eastern Europe, but also makes an appearance in a few white Burgundies. It's typically lighter and more acidic, and is the traditional base for the cocktail called kir. Unlike many Macon-Villages, which are some of the oakier whites in Burgundy, this one is a crisp quaffer. The nose is lemons and minerals. It's a bit slow to start, flavorwise, but a little time and warmth reveal pleasant melon and lemon waiting for you. The finish is slightly tart and quite flinty. The minerality made it a nice pairing with spinach salad. Spinach has that chalky texture which makes it a notorious wine-killer. This wine mellowed the chalkiness, but had enough character not to get swallowed by the mushrooms and bacon. Interesting, and solid value from $12-15.