It may be true, as a friend of mine likes to say, that fashion is the only thing left worth dying for, but in wine-drinking circles that sort of thinking can lead you seriously astray. There's a herd mentality that has pointed hordes of American wine buyers first toward (mostly) bland Chardonnays and then treacly white Zinfandels. A change in wine fashion, especially in the big-volume U.S. market, can cause worldwide shifts, as vineyards from Austria to Argentina are uprooted or grafted over, and unfaddish native grape varieties are replaced by internationally acceptable Chardonnay, Cabernet and, of course, Merlot.
Fortunately, a few stubborn winemakers continue to produce soul-satisfying wines from grapes so unhip you've probably never heard of them. In fact, the very unfashionableness of these wines works in your favor: They typically cost far less than the celebrity wines of the moment, provide higher quality overall and are taste-bud-reviving alternatives to the same-old Cabernet. And, finally, in the (unlikely) event that any one of them actually becomes fashionable, you who have valued its quality early on can bask in the satisfaction of one who was well ahead of the herd.
CALIFORNIA'S CHENIN BLANCS
Chenin Blanc, the grape of France's vibrant, surprisingly long-lived Vouvrays, rarely gets star treatment in California, where it's mainly harnessed as a high-production workhorse grape for jug wines. But don't let that unfortunate association throw you. Chenin Blanc grown in cooler vineyards and harvested at low yields can produce some thrilling white wines with all the exotic intensity of Chardonnay and none of its often excessive richness.
This winery is so bullish on Chenin Blanc that it is planning an event optimistically called Chenin Blanc Revival. Its 1998 Chenin is a big-bodied crowd-pleaser, with grapefruit and honeydew flavors. ($11)
A high-quality, low-visibility two-man venture in Santa Barbara, Foxen picks its grapes ripe and barrel ferments them to produce its Chenins, like the juicy, ripe wine of the 1998 vintage. ($14)
This consistently high-quality Napa Valley winery adds 14 percent Viognier to its 1999 Chenin Blanc-Viognier, which lends a musky, exotic note to a compelling blend of blossomy, melony flavors. ($11)
The name Valpolicella means "valley of many cellars," and it's nothing if not accurate. This region, located in Veneto, near Verona, pumps out a small ocean of stingy, low-intensity, high-acidity reds that for most Americans conjure up cheap red-checkered-tablecloth restaurants. But there is a new dynamism to be found in the cellars of many young Valpolicella producers. These determined, quality-minded winemakers are bottling graceful, concentrated, medium-weight international-caliber wines that are far from the "spaghetti reds" of years past.
The Valpolicella of Le Ragose comes from the delimited Classico subregion, which essentially means it meets the extra aging and alcohol-content requirements necessary to be labeled Superiore. It's also made by the ripasso method, which means it's given a second fermentation on the lees of the winery's Amarone, boosting color, body and complexity. The resulting wine is very dry and very concentrated, with surprising power and grace. And, best of all, the 1995 is a mere $14 a bottle.
The 1998 Serègo Alighieri Valpolicella Classico Superiore made by Masi comes from a single vineyard once owned by the poet Dante's son. Remarks about bottled poetry aside, it's one of the best red wine deals around. Generously flavor-laden and smoothly knit, the wine just seems to keep expanding in the glass. ($14)
The 1998 Valpolicella Classico, from one of the region's most innovative producers, is a juicy, lighter-bodied wine that is undeniably possessed of considerable, if somewhat more straightforward, charm. ($12)
Australian winemakers' knack for producing high-fruit, low-flab white wines translates perfectly into succulent, extroverted and, yes, dry Rieslings. They may just be able to give this superb, yet globally underappreciated, grape a new, higher profile and a much bigger fan club.
Lengs & Cooter
Its 1999 Riesling from Watervale shows the appealing spicy, floral side of Riesling, with a fine, cool, refreshing cut of citrusy crispness. ($16)
The silky 1998 Eden Valley Riesling is yet another Australian success story, with a wonderfully penetrating perfume of flowers and spices. ($25)
Way out on the Margaret River, on Australia's remote west coast, Leeuwin Estate produces some of Australia's most notable wines. Its 1999 Art Series Riesling is a rich, billowingly aromatic Alsace-like white. ($22)
EU regulations don't permit Spain's sparkling-wine producers to put méthode champenoise on their Cava labels anymore, but you can taste the extra care the Champagne method imparts to the best of these drier-style bargain bottles--a quality lacking in most comparably priced U.S. sparklers, whose makers often cut crucial corners.
Marqués de Gelida
Yet another selection from superstar Spanish importer Jorge Ordoñez, the nonvintage Brut Cava from producer Marqués de Gelida is spicy, fruity and deliciously crisp. A standout wine. ($7)
Although it's now part of the Freixenet empire, Cava house Segura Viudas has maintained its stylistic independence. It gives its nonvintage Brut Reserva two to three years of aging in the bottle; the result is a wine with a yeasty, toasty underpinning to its marvelous array of intriguing berry and anise flavors. ($7)
Juvé y Camps
The dry 1996 Reserva de la Familia Brut from this well-known house also benefits from extra aging, mellowing into a smoothly flavorful, easy-to-drink wine. ($12)
THE LOIRE'S CHINONS
Cabernet Franc may be a genetic parent of Cabernet Sauvignon, but in Bordeaux blends this red grape is often treated like an overshadowed younger sibling. In Chinon, the Loire Valley birthplace of Rabelaisian good times (or, anyway, of Rabelais himself), Cabernet Franc shines unblended, in aromatic, medium-rich, food-loving reds with plenty of texture and flavor.
Chinon's most exciting producer bottles a wide range of wines, from simple but stylish reds all the way up to its multilayered, power-packed single-vineyard wine, Clos de Chêne Vert. Joguet's most affordable Chinon, however, the 1998 Jeunes Vignes, or "young vines," will give Chinon drinkers an idea of what this producer can do. Medium-bodied and fairly lean, it exudes a complex aroma that mingles plum, black cherry and leather. ($18)
The 1996 Chinon Les Picasses from Raffault is supple and refined, with plump plum and raspberry flavors kept lively by a fine mild cut of acidity. ($17)
This well-known Loire Valley winemaker has turned out a clean, soft, compulsively sippable 1998 Chinon with a perfume of crushed red berries. ($15)
Richard Nalley is the wine editor at Departures. He is a frequent contributor to FOOD & WINE.