Americans love Pinot Noir. We love it from Burgundy, we love it from Sonoma's Russian River Valley, we love it from tiny producers in the mountains of Valle d'Aosta, Italy. But Pinot mania has gotten a little out of hand. Even sommeliers (many of whom are the world's biggest Burgundy fanatics) seem to be losing patience with the unending obsession.
"People are crazy about Pinot Noir to the point of exasperation," says David Lynch, wine director at San Francisco's Quince and Cotogna restaurants. "I think it has to do with aromatics. Taste is driven so much by smell, and a grape with the kind of beguiling aromatics that Pinot Noir has"which range from a deep earthiness to the scent of fresh berries"is hard to pass up."
But thanks to an increasingly accomplished set of importers, Americans now have easy access to a plethora of red wines that aren't Pinot Noir but offer so many of the things Pinot Noir does: fantastic acidity, balance, fruit-forwardness, moderate tannins and compatibility with food. And the prices for these wines generally don't come near what you'd have to pay for a good Pinot Noir.
Lynch, for one, champions Italian reds with regional distinctiveness, like the smooth Sangioveses from Tuscany's Chianti Classico area. "You get delicacy, perfume and finesse. Isole e Olena is a favorite; that wine has a lot of velvet to it." Chad Ellegood, wine director at Chicago's Tru, looks to the Mencía grape from Spain's Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo and Valdeorras regions. "Mencía has a similar structure to Pinot Noir, along with brambly fruit and nice earthiness. Plus it's not overcrowded with tannin," Ellegood says. The regions' slate and granite soils and ancient vineyards (some 100 years old) also give Mencía a unique minerality and complexity.
On the following pages, you'll find six Pinot-esque grapes from around the world. Marcia Kiesel in F&W's Test Kitchen created a recipe to match each, showing them to be just as food-friendly as Pinot is.
Food-Friendly Red Wines: 6 Varietals
Burgundy is renowned for its Pinot Noir, but it also produces another red grape, Gamay, in the Beaujolais region. Wines from the 10 crus (villages) in Beaujolais are loaded with the same strawberry and cherry flavors that can be so alluring in Pinot Noir.
Wines to try: 2008 Domaine J. Chamonard Morgon ($25) and 2009 Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly ($24).
Pairs with: Burgundy is famed for Pinot, but its Gamays are also great with light meat dishes like veal scaloppine.
Sangiovese is as hard to grow as Pinot Noir: Both are thin-skinned grapes that ripen slowly, which helps them develop stunning aromas and textures. Chianti Classicos, made with Sangiovese, are earthy with bright cherry fruit, like many Pinot Noirs.
Wines to try: 2008 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico ($20) and 2008 Fèlsina Berardenga ($24).
Pairs with: Chianti Classico, made from Sangiovese, finds its not-so-classic partner in an Italian-American sausage-and-Fontina biscuit sandwich.
This is the grape for the person who loves Sonoma Coast Pinot's fresh berry notes. Mencía is grown in Spain's northwestern Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras, regions known for seriously old vines and slate and granite soils that give the wines balance and minerality.
Wines to try: 2009 D. Ventura Viña do Burato ($20) and 2008 Dominio de Tares Baltos ($16).
Pairs with: In Spain, ancient vines produce a red wine, Mencía, with great minerality. It's delicious with seafood like this smoky squid salad.
While Malbec is Argentina's most famous grape, Bonarda (a variety originally brought over from Italy) is the country's second most widely planted. Bonardas resemble Pinot Noirs in structure, with very mellow tannins and even more robust fruitiness.
Wines to try: 2009 Colonia Las Liebres ($11) and 2008 La Posta Estela Armando ($17).
Pairs with: Argentina produces amazing beef, like this tenderloin (with blue cheese and tangy tomatoes) and terrific reds, like fruity Bonarda.
Thanks to its cool climate, Austria produces lighter reds like Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. Zweigelt, a cross between those grapes, has a lightness and focus similar to Pinot Noirs from Germany, along with its own lively pepperiness.
Wines to try: 2009 Willi Bründlmayer ($14) and 2008 Weninger ($16).
Pairs with: Pairing red wine with vegetables can be a challenge, but reds from Austria, like Zweigelt, have a lightness that works with an herb-flecked spring vegetable stew.
Xinomavro, a grape primarily grown in Greece's northern Macedonia region, is super-aromatic, with pretty olive notes and tart cherry fruit similar to some Oregon Pinots. The wines tend to be more tannic than Pinot Noirs and go best with hearty dishes.
Wines to try: 2007 Boutari Naoussa ($17) and 2007 Alpha Estate Hedgehog ($22).
Pairs with: One trick for pairing vegetarian food with red wine: Use wine in the dish. The eggplant here is stuffed with mushrooms and red winesoaked bread, making it a nice match for Xinomavro.