As we approach the start of the new year, I’ve been reflecting on my time here in the desert since moving back from Napa a few years ago. The one thing that I have realized is how much I underestimated the wine savvy—or better yet, the sense of exploration—of the wine consumers here.
When I first started buying wine for a retail space, my overall goal was to bring in wines that were more esoteric, more global, more natural—and more fun! I wanted to start steering away from the mass produced “grocery store” wines toward wines that were created by small producers—farmers and winemakers with deep roots, but perhaps shallow pockets. One at a time, I brought in a quirky label, and then another, and then an unheard-of varietal—hoping that maybe a hipster out of Los Angeles would stumble in and buy some, or maybe someone would trust me enough to take a recommendation for a wine out of left field. At the very least, I knew these wines were incredible—and if all else failed, I could always buy the case and drink the wine myself!
But then something started to happen … people started coming in and asking for these wines. Customers began talking to me about things like skin-contact whites and carbonic maceration. I would hear guests at tastings applaud the low-alcohol content in the wines that were being poured—and tell me they specifically came in to taste the Ribolla Gialla I was pouring.
What?! Who are you people? Where have you been?
Every day, I am surprised and excited by what people are gravitating toward—and so, in the spirit of new beginnings, for all my wine adventurers out there, here are some of my favorite “must-try” wines for 2020.
Italy is one of the most-daunting wine countries to tackle, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Each region has its own pasta and cheese to which it lays claim, and the same can be said for wine varietals—many of which historically almost never made it out of the country, and instead were consumed entirely by its local audience. From the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the far north, look for the deeply colored and richly textured Teroldego. Elisabetta Foradori, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest winemakers in Italy, took on the task of saving this grape from obscurity, and her bottlings are nothing short of glorious. It’s an intensely juicy wine, with loads of blackberry and raspberry flavors, followed by a subtle sweet smokiness.
On the other end of the intensity spectrum is a deliciously light-bodied red called Schiava. This delicious pinot noir-like grape also hails from the Alto Adige region and is as silky and feminine as it gets. Beautiful notes of rose petals, freshly picked strawberries and a touch of lemon zest are the hallmark flavors of this little grape.
From Southern Italy, seek out a wine made from the Aglianico grape. Made primarily in Campania and Basilicata, these brooding reds definitely fall into the savory category. If you’re a fan of rustic wines with layers of flavors (think old-vine zinfandels), you’ll be delighted by the notes of leather, figs, white pepper, nutmeg and boysenberries.
In France, there’s a little-known region called Jura that has garnered the attention of high-profile sommeliers and wine lovers alike. Located on the eastern border between Burgundy and Switzerland, this is a cool-climate region producing some pretty esoteric and geeky wine. For years, this small appellation was known mainly for a sherry-like wine called Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine,” which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. However, the region is now becoming known for a delightful red wine made with a grape called Trousseau that is worth seeking out. Trousseau creates a pale, light-bodied wine that’s surprisingly powerful. It’s so intensely flavored, in fact, that there are sommeliers in three-star Michelin restaurants pairing this seemingly delicate wine with prime cuts of steak! Trousseau might be the most obscure wine suggested here, but if you keep a lookout, finding one might be easier than you think. In fact, there are even a handful of California producers who have sought out domestic plantings of this esoteric grape and are producing some stellar incarnations of both Trousseau Noir and its cousin, Trousseau Gris. A few California names to look for are Jolie-Laide, and Arnot-Roberts. Domaine des Ronces and Michel Gahier are prime examples from Jura.
If you continue to travel south in Europe, this wine adventure will take you into Spain. Right now, there is no greater wine-producing country that offers up as much bang for your buck. Sure, we all know about Tempranillo and Garnacha, and even Cariñena isn’t as obscure as it once was … but have you ever had a Mencía? Hailing from the small western regions of Ribera Sacra and Bierzo, this dark and herbaceous red was once thought to be related to cabernet Franc. Although we now know that’s not the case, this aromatic wine is sure to be a hit with anyone who loves earthy and spicy reds. My personal favorites are the Mencías crafted by Raul Perez under the “Ultreia” label; his protege, Pedro Rodriguez, is creating stunning examples called Guimaro.
The perfumy and citrusy Spanish Albariño has long been my go-to for a crowd-pleasing white alternative to sauvignon blanc. But if you’re ready to venture into uncharted territory, there’s a grape called Hondarrabi Zuri from the Basque region that makes the most refreshing and slightly spritzy white called Txakolina. I cannot think of a better patio wine for our desert climate. It’s a bounty of fresh citrus like key limes, Meyer lemons and Clementine tangerines, all backed by a subtle fragrance of white jasmine and the tiniest presence of bubbles.
Lastly, leave it to Paul Hobbs to bring a project from Armenia to the forefront of our budding wine culture. Areni, which is a grape native to Armenia and the Republic of Georgia, is possibly the oldest varietal on Earth—not surprising, given that this region is the birthplace of viticulture. In 2011, archaeologists discovered artifacts from a winery dating back at least 6,100 years. Hobbs has now partnered with the Yacoubian family from this small Armenian village to revitalize this ancient grape. I recently found out that there are a handful of country clubs (country clubs!) in the Coachella Valley that currently have the Yacoubian-Hobbs Areni on their wine lists. Who would have thought?
So here’s to a new year full of exploration, curiosity—and a community of wine lovers who continue to surprise and inspire me.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.