The (Wine) Road Less Traveled


The first duty of wine is to be delicious.

I might even say that the first through tenth duties of wine are to be delicious. Wine geeks like me will wax rhapsodic over this rare grape or that star winemaker. Others might get excited over a particularly pretty label or unusual bottle. But if it doesn't taste good, what's the point?

Years ago, one of my first jobs in the wine business was to reform the wine department at a small but high volume store. I like to say that I worked about 5 years in the 5 months I was there, because the wine manager before me had extremely unusual tastes. X* didn't like to buy California Chardonnay, but Texas Viognier was right up his alley. Wines from traditional regions like Bordeaux or Chianti? Yawn. Give him Michigan bubbly, or an obscure -and unpronounceable-little wine from the Basque region. In short, he only liked wines that were made from grapes you'd never heard of or regions you didn't realize made wine. Some of them were good; a few were even great. But a lot of his favorites were weird just for the sake of being weird, hence the '5 years' comment.

I was thinking about him recently, while unpacking some wines from Moldova, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Lebanon, all well beyond the boundaries of mainstream American wine culture. We still carry a full complement of familiar regions- California Cab and Chard, Bordeaux, Chianti, Rhone, Oregon Pinot, etc, etc-but a growing amount of our shelves are devoted to wines from Portugal, Greece, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Why?

Why not? These regions aren't new to wine; many have a winemaking tradition that stretches back thousands of years. By comparison, New World wines are a mere blip on the radar screen. Greece, Portugal, Macedonia, Hungary....these regions' wine cultures share the same Greek and Roman origins as the more familiar Burgundy, Barolo, and Rioja.

The earliest traces of wine come from Georgia**, about 6,000 years ago, then Iran, at about 5,000 years. Sicily, that crossroads of the Mediterranean, started making wine about 4,000 years ago. The Greek and Roman empires then spread wine culture far and wide.So these 'new' and unfamiliar wine regions share the same general DNA as their more well-known neighbors, but at some point, they took a different path. For reasons ranging from geographical isolation to a troubled economy, Ottoman Turks to Soviet collective farms, the wines fell out of favor and then out of mind. But time and investment cure a lot of ills, and these regions are harnessing their indigenous grapes to turn out wines that are both fascinating and-yes!-delicious.

Best of all, pricing hasn't caught up with quality. Every one of these wines is priced well below comparable wines from more familiar places. So come on in and try a Moldovan Feteasca Regala, a Santorini Assyrtiko, or a Lebanese Bordeaux blend. They might seem weird. But trust me-they're also wonderful.

* It's not nice to name names.
** The Turks claim 9,000 years, but haven't (yet) offered up definitive proof of that.