"We all have our comfort zones, in wine as in everything else. Perhaps we’ll explore outside them tomorrow, but tonight let’s just have another bottle of… It’s a pity. Wine is wonderfully various, and you never know what potential new favourite you’re missing if you never try it. So, here are some leads to more exploratory drinking. If you love Elvis you’ll love the Everly Brothers. Or maybe not, but I do, so here goes.
If you like late-harvest Tokáji, try Sercial Madeira
Good Tokáji (and quality and style do vary) has searing acidity, smoky fruit and an intense fieriness that is like nothing else – unless you swap a continent for an island, and Furmint for Sercial, which has (wait for it) searing acidity, smoky fruit and an intense preserved-lemons citrus note. Two caveats: Sercial Madeira is bone-dry, and Tokáji is sweet, though late-harvest styles, which won’t be labelled with any puttonyos rating, tend to taste less obviously sweet because of their acidity. Both are utterly compelling.
If you like Médoc, try Saperavi
You know that beautiful cigar-box and plum-skins flavour of proper mature Médoc? Ripe but not overripe, balanced by good acidity, and with some bottle-age? If you can find a good Saperavi, it’ll have it in spades. Saperavi is a grape we hardly know; there’s a vast acreage of it in Georgia, Moldova and various places around the Black Sea, but the winemaking can be a little, shall we say, erratic. So it’s not much exported. But it’s worth mentioning because the odd supermarket is exploring the area, and occasional Saperavis are appearing on the shelves. They’re worth a look.
If you like white burgundy, try Australian Chardonnay
'Surely not!' I hear you say. “All that butterscotch and pineapple and oak – what has that to do with Meursault or Puligny?” But times have changed, and so has Aussie Chard. Out with the oak and in with the elegance. Choose cool-climate spots like Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula or the slightly warmer Yarra, close your eyes and be transported to – not any particular part of the fractured geology of the Côte d’Or, but somewhere surprisingly close.
If you like Viognier, try Fiano di Avellino
The best Viognier is not obvious or overblown, and its apricot fruit is subtle and minerally. Some of the best comes from Condrieu in the Northern Rhône, but there are contenders from as far apart as Australia and Virginia. Apricot-type fruit is not that uncommon in wine, but few combine it with Viognier’s low acidity and tendency to high alcohol – making Viognier a difficult grape to grow and a difficult wine to make.
Southern Italy’s Fiano grape has a flavour of honeyed peaches, which, given the traditional Italian suspicion of aromatic grapes, is subtly presented, with a little more acidity than Viognier. Avellino is not the only place to grow Fiano; Coriole makes some, and Australia’s McLaren Vale does, too.
If you like Napa Cabernet, try Priorat
This is one of the last bastions of very overripe grapes in a world edging nervously towards better balance. Hang-times are super-long because producers seek the most velvety tannins possible, and don’t mind the low acidity and high alcohol that are inevitable side effects.
It finds an echo in the raisiny, figgy fruit of Priorat in Spain, where a variety of grapes, usually involving Garnacha to some degree (usually a high one in alcoholic terms), make wines you could stand a spoon in. Priorat is not quite as massive as it was, true, and it has earthier flavours than you’ll find in Napa Cab, but the profile is not dissimilar.
If you like Vin Santo, try Amontillado
Vin Santo can be a bit of a risk because while some are very good, some are not good at all. Choose a reputable producer, and enjoy the walnut pungency that takes the edge off the sweetness. It’s made all over Italy (Vino Santo in Trentino) but the principle is the same: grapes are picked and left to dry on trays to concentrate their sweetness.
Amontillado Sherry is made in a very different way. Here the concentration comes from long ageing in solera, while the wine oxidizes to tawny nuttiness and gains that characteristic austere bite. Real amontillado – proper amontillado – is bone-dry, but the richness and weight of the wine balance the lack of sweetness. It is also the biggest bargain in the world of wine.
If you like Clare Riesling, try Godello
Australian Riesling has carved out its own style among Rieslings: lime-cordial fruit, complete dryness and total purity. It ages well, developing more honeyed flavours in bottle, and it always has the high, ripe acidity of Riesling. That lime-ness, that precision, finds its counterpart in Spain’s Godello grape, which in turn reaches its apogee in Valdeorras. The limes can have a note of pineapple here, minerality comes singing through, and there’s richness, too, to keep it all together. Godello, incidentally, is the local name for Verdelho, which in Australia’s Hunter Valley gives wines of huge richness and spice, while remaining dry.
If you like red burgundy, try Langhe Nebbiolo
The burgundy I mean here is light, young and crunchy. It comes from a good grower, and probably from one of the lighter appellations of the Côte d’Or: eg. Savigny-lès-Beaune or young vines in a grander AC blended into plain Bourgogne Rouge.
That same freshness and lightness is to be found in Langhe Nebbiolo, a world away from the weight and concentration of Barolo, and lighter than Nebbiolo d’Alba or Nebbiolo d’Asti (though often this is where it comes from). The wines have the same floral spiciness as young burgundy, the same freshness, the same bright moreishness."
* "Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2013" is published by Octopus Books at $15.99.