WHEN I POLLED friends a few months ago on wines they consider “easygoing,” I was surprised how many of them offered the same examples. But when I began reporting this column on “challenging” wines, each person I consulted put forward a different one. A single certainty united them, however: A challenging wine is one to avoid.
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For some, a challenging wine is one with a particularly overt flavor profile; for others, it’s a wine made from an unknown grape or in an unfamiliar country or region. Or it might simply be a matter of a hard-to-pronounce name. By avoiding such wines, my friends were, I was sure, missing out on some very good drinking. So I made it my mission to find examples of these so-called challenging wines so delicious that they make venturing out of one’s comfort zone a pleasure.
Italian Red Wines
While this category might seem absurdly large, Italian reds, save for famous names such as Chianti and Barolo, can be quite challenging for non-Italophiles. The names of the wines don’t always contain the names of grapes; they can be pure fancy. And the grape names themselves can be just as confusing. Many varieties have multiple monikers depending on where they’re grown. The Tuscan grape Sangiovese has dozens of aliases. It’s Nielluccio in Corsica, for example, and even within Tuscany it goes by a number of different names. All of this obscurity around naming can leave wine drinkers feeling apprehensive and unsure of what they’re getting—or simply not willing to bother.
Thankfully, the Freisa grape of Piedmont has only one name. This cousin of Nebbiolo, the grape of Barbaresco and Barolo, is incredibly easy to love: a snappy, savory red marked by a crunchy red berry note. One of the best I’ve tasted recently, the 2018 Paitin Bonina Langhe Freisa ($18) is bright and bursting with fruit. With its piquant, slightly bitter note, it’s a great match with food.
One of the grapes most commonly called challenging is also one of the most commonplace. Cabernet Franc is an important red grape in Bordeaux, where it’s often blended with Merlot and/or Cabernet Sauvignon. In France’s Loire Valley, it stands alone. Cabernet Franc can be challenging for wine drinkers because they don’t know what to expect. Sometimes this grape can seem like Cabernet Sauvignon: structured and tannic and a bit intense. Other iterations are much lighter, more supple, even herbaceous, with a green or peppery note.
Bernard Baudry and his son Matthieu are masters of Cabernet Franc. Their wines, made in the Chinon region of the Loire from hand-harvested organic vineyards, show the grape at its best. The 2018 Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Grézeaux ($33) is soft and supple, with notes of juicy blackberry.
By avoiding such challenging wines, my friends were, I was sure, missing out on some very good drinking.
Two serious oenophile friends put wines from the Jura region of France at the top of their “most challenging” list. They were referencing the oxidative white wine known as vin jaune. In a method called sous voile, this wine ages in barrel under a veil of yeast. The result tends to be complex, savory, textured, truly particular and not at all easy to pair with food.
The reds of the Jura are a quite different story. I don’t know why those made from Trousseau, the native Jura grape, aren’t better known. They’re much easier to drink and appreciate than Jura whites. Bright and brimming with juicy blackberry fruit, Trousseau is like Gamay, the beguiling red grape of nearby Beaujolais. One of the virtuosos of the Trousseau grape, Michel Gahier, turned out a delightful version with his 2018 Michel Gahier Arbois Rouge Trousseau La Vigne du Louis ($38), marked by notes of red and black fruit and a firm minerality.
This is the wine I’ve most frequently heard cited as challenging, hands down. Many wine drinkers perceive it (negatively) as sweet, though only certain Rieslings are. Riesling labels can be daunting, as well. German winemakers tend to favor full disclosure and often put lots of information on their labels—producer name, vineyard name, village name, grape ripeness. Take heart: Some producers have simplified and streamlined their labels, and many are producing markedly drier wines, too.
One top producer in Germany’s Pfalz region, Weingut von Winning, is known for its dry wines, notably Sauvignon Blanc. Especially for the American market, von Winning also produces a Riesling that straddles the line between dry and sweet. The 2018 von Winning “Winnings” ($15) is an utterly uncomplicated wine—a little bit sweet but also zesty, with a refreshing acidity. And there are no complicated words on the label. The design depicts outstretched hands receiving stars, which, according to its importer, are meant to convey coins falling from the heavens. Perhaps that’s just what will happen when drinkers discover this delicious and accessible Riesling from Germany.
California White Wines
One outlier category of “challenging” wines—and perhaps the most surprising cited in my poll—was quite specific: “white wine from California that’s interesting and affordably priced.” In this case, it’s not the wine itself that’s challenging; rather, it’s a challenge to find a white wine from California that’s both full of character and close to or below the $20 mark. I can find them when I’m in California, often from small producers working with lesser known grapes like Vermentino and Picpoul, but such wines are usually made in tiny quantities and therefore quite hard to find outside the state.
One producer of reliably good, reasonably priced Chardonnay, hiding in plain sight: Au Bon Climat, a winery that’s been around nearly 40 years. The 2018 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($22) is rich but balanced. Produced from three different vineyards, including the famed Bien Nacido, it’s a Chardonnay with just the right weight and intensity at a very fair price.
Write to Lettie at email@example.com
Postscript: While I was reporting this column, fires broke out in Napa Valley and later spread over the hills to Sonoma. As of this writing, top wineries have been damaged or completely destroyed, and far too many Napa residents have lost businesses and homes. It’s a time of terrible loss in one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, and my thoughts are with all who are suffering. I will be writing about Napa in my column next week.
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