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.