A mixed case for the adventurous drinker.

By Carson Demmond
Updated May 24, 2017
Josh Perlman
Credit: © Galdones Photography

In the About section of the website for the hotly anticipated Giant Restaurant in Chicago, chefs Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader make a heartfelt vow: “We promise to make simple, delicious (slightly cheffy) food for our people to eat.” That self-proclaimed cheffiness comes across in dishes that blend the uber-comfortable with the unexpected—a Jonah crab salad with waffle fries… tomato "sortalini" that foregoes the technical definition of the pasta but goes long on flavor… sweet corn that gets Pad Thai treatment (chili, peanut, scallion)… You get the point.

So it’s unsurprising that beverage director Josh Perlman’s wine list would follow suit: fun wines that deviate beyond the classics but are delicious despite their obscure appellation or grape names. There’s a smattering of pét-nats, a Vermentino from California and one from Corsica, and an amphora-aged red from France’s Savoie. “The last restaurant I worked in had a very focused Mediterranean wine list,” says Perlman. “With the type of food Jason and Ben were putting together here, I saw an opportunity to be like a rebellious kid.” Now, he’s serving the kinds of wines he likes to drink. He calls them “conversation starters”.

“Pairing-wise, a lot of these wines are very aromatic and acid-driven, which works so well with the dishes we have,” he adds. And diners have so far been receptive to the program. “We have a very open-minded clientele who want to try new things. The best response I’ve seen is people raving about how cool something tastes because it’s not what they were expecting.”

Here, Perlman shares 12 slightly sommy wines for the adventurous drinker:

1. 2014 Andi Knauss ‘Brut 0' Riesling Sekt
“Andi Knauss is a young guy who took over his family estate in Swabia—a southwestern part of Germany—in 2004 and has really focused to do things organically and naturally. This sparkling wine started as a kind of experiment. It’s zero dosage, so it’s bone-dry, which is counter to what the German market wanted. It doesn’t have a printed label, just a big handwritten big zero on the front of the bottle. What I love is how focused and linear it is. You get this fruit that’s like sour lemon and white grapefruit, with a classic Riesling texture that coats your mouth and then this wonderful effervescence that cleans everything up. It’s great with anything that has either spice or sweetness, and it’s so much fun wine to bring around this bottle with a handwritten label, as a sort of testament to the artisanal nature of it.”

2. 2013 Ryme Cellars Mendocino County ‘Crackling' Carignane
“This is from a husband-wife team that’s part of the new California approach: all about Old World sensibility and terroir-driven wines. They sourced these 90-plus-year-old Carignane vines, use native yeasts, and bottle without fining or filtering. It’s kind of this rugged wine, pale red in color, and pretty aromatic. You get some of that bright red berry fruit, hints of herbs and fennel, with a beautiful refreshing acidity. With a meat-based sauce like bolognese, it’s something I’d pair all day long.”

3. 2015 Day Wines ‘Papacito’ Applegate Valley Sparkling Primitivo
“For her Papacito, winemaker Brianna Day wanted to created something similar to a Lambrusco. But since there isn’t anyone growing Lambrusco around Oregon, she found a farmer growing this organic Primitivo, fermented it like a red wine, and then bottled it with a crown cap once it hit around 30 grams of sugar per liter, creating this very Lambrusco-esque pét-nat. It has this dried cherry and berry-toned fruit—bright and fresh, with a nice sparkle. The BBQ sauce for our ribs has this deep molasses glaze… that with the dried cherry aspect of this pét-nat is really nice.”

4. 2014 Mathias Hild Mosel Elbling Trocken
“Elbling is one of the oldest grapes in Europe, but it’s not a grape of distinction by any means. It’s simple, refreshing, low in alcohol. In the Upper Mosel, it’s like its own culture, and Hild is its biggest champion. On the food side, it’s a terrific wine because it has some body to it, a nice citrusy quality, and a little herbaceousness. If you’re used to drinking Muscadet, and if you love that stony character in white wine, this Elbling will have everything you want while still being true to its place and the way the wine has been made for centuries.”

5. 2014 La Zorra ’Teso Blanco’ Sierra de Salamanca
“This is from Salamanca, which is the youngest appellation in Spain, made from the local grapes Palomino and Rufete Blanco. It’s from all old vines, fermented in stainless steel, and aged in oak under flor for 5 months, which gives it a really interesting texture. It’s super cool stuff: not oxidative, but it has some of those aromatics and is beautiful in the glass. You get white orchard fruit and toasted grain notes—think oats and buckwheat—from the flor, so it has a lot of roundness. And this bright, refreshing quality I love.”

6. 2015 Louis-Antoine Luyt ‘Cuvée des Brasseurs’ Gordo Blanco
“I think Luis-Antoine Luyt’s story is pretty fascinating. He’s a native Burgundian who moved to Chile when he was in his 20s—and there he started working in restaurants, enrolled in a wine school, and basically brought Lapierre Beaujolais-style winemaking to the area. He really pioneered this idea that wine in Chile could be true to place and true to the grape variety. Gordo Blanco (a.k.a. Muscat of Alexandria) is super cool because it’s one of those really pretty, fragrant grapes. It has this exotic, tropical fruit aromas… It’s just so giving in the glass. And then when you taste it, it’s bright in a sour beer way with this bracing acidity and intense texture. It’s one of those wines that make you think.”

7. 2014 Eladio Piñeiro ‘Envidia Cochina’ Rias Baixas Albariño
“Eladio Piñeiro has made wine for a long time, but when his wife got sick, it really shifted his thinking about the different kinds of additives involved. He has since taken on a wholly biodynamic approach. And what I like about this particular bottle is that it challenges what we think about Albariño. It’s not just a fresh, bright, simple wine. He stirs the lees to give it this rich roundness. It has ripe fruit, balsamic notes, fennel, and a nutty marzipan quality. There’s a ton of stuff going on in this wine, yet it still has bright acidity and a nice soft textural mouthfeel. It’s fascinating.”

8. 2012 Norman Hardie Prince Edward County Chardonnay
“So, this is a little toasty. It does have a little bit of what people call ‘buttery’ in a Chardonnay. It has a familiar style, but it’s from a place that you don’t automatically think quality wine can come from. Norman Hardie makes great wine—not only Chardonnay, but Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc... I like this one so much because it has that peach-pear fruit and nice minerality. This is the one to get people to think differently about Canadian wine.”

9. 2014 Minimus ‘Dijon Free’ Willamette Valley Chardonnay
“If the Norman Hardie occupies the place of the classic style of Chardonnay, this Minimus wine represents the other end of the spectrum. Chad Stock is the winemaker for this project, and he does all of these different experiments. This one is a reaction to the fact that the Dijon clone of Chardonnay is so prominent in Oregon, and he wanted to source different Chardonnay clones to see if they might be better suited to the terroir. This one ages partially in new oak and partially in neutral barrels. Think: Chablis on steroids. It has this bracing acidity up front but it also has a floral component, this under ripe white peach fruit, and tons of minerality and salinity. It’s a wine that makes you think differently about what Chardonnay can be—and even what it should be.”

10. 2014 Arnot-Roberts North Coast Trousseau
“I love this wine because it has great lift. It’s light and refreshing with these wonderful cola and tea qualities, floral-tinged red berry fruit, and a carbonic zip when first opened. It’s one of those wines that I could drink all day long. When I first tasted it, I thought: this is everything I love about the Jura and everything I love about California together in one wine. And it can work with some difficult-to-pair dishes. We had some beautiful peaches that we worked into this marinated Asian flavor-inflected eggplant dish… It was perfect with that.”

11. 2014 Louis-Antoine Luyt ‘Pipeño’ Maule Valley País
“País the same as the Mission grape in California that was brought over from Spain, so part of why I like this wine is the history behind it. But it’s also another one of those carbo wines that is reminiscent of Gamay with these extra forest floor notes. These wines are aged in really large format wooden barrels called pipas, and it’s minimal intervention winemaking… all native ferments… just about as natural as it can get, and using a grape that’s been grown in Chile for hundreds of years. It’s great for any dish involving peppers, but it’s also great with really meaty dishes, like our Bolognese.”

12. 2014 Pearl Morisette ‘Cuvée Métis’ Niagara Peninsula Cabernet Franc
“When people think of Cabernet Franc, the first place they usually think of is the Loire. This winemaker is definitely trying to champion a Loire-like natural expression of the grape in Ontario. He’s making wines for the wine nerd. Honest wines. They’re small production—a little experimental, perhaps. It’s bold: full of dark, ripe fruit, with a hint of a barnyard funkiness and a supple, silky texture. It’s my go-to for our ribs or any sort of sauce that has a bit of sweetness.”