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12 Ways To Get Out Of Your Wine Rut In 2015

A sparkling selection from Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, paired with salmon. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Carneros

A sparkling selection from Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, paired with salmon. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Carneros

With every new year comes a resolution or two, so this is the perfect time to make a few changes to your wine-drinking routine. Take the opportunity to uncork (or unscrew) a bottle you’ve seen but haven’t tasted; try a new food pairing; make a detour on your next winery tour. A chat with the owner of your local wine store can get some ideas flowing, and a new cookbook may inspire you in the kitchen. Here are 12 ways to start new gastronomic traditions right now.

1. Drink bubbly with dinner.

Don’t save that bottle of bubbly in the fridge for a special occasion; open it up the next time you order sushi, Thai or even Indian cuisine. Sparkling wine’s naturally high acidity and minerality make it a natural partner with food. And there are so many affordable bubblies now that there’s no reason not to let it perk up a weeknight. Besides Champagne, try a Crémant de Bourgogne or Crémant di Limoux from France; Spanish cava or Italian Prosecco; a sparkling wine from California or New Mexico; or even a sparkling Shiraz from Australia.

2. Buy large-format bottles.

It may seem like a luxury, but depending on the occasion, buying a large-format bottle can actually save you money — and make you the life of the party. Here’s some easy math: a magnum (1.5 liters) is equal to two bottles; a double magnum (3 liters) equals four bottles; and a jeroboam (4.5 liters of still wine) holds six standard bottles. (A jeroboam of sparkling wine is 3 liters, equaling four standard bottles of bubbly.) Sommeliers rave about these larger bottles because they often age better than the traditional 750-milliliter bottle; the oxygen-to-wine ratio in them is far lower, which allows for a slower maturation. More wineries are offering large formats, and stores such as Costco often carry them for the holidays.

3. Try a Rhône varietal from California’s Central Coast.

There are some exciting wines coming out of California’s Central Coast. The terroir is similar to the Rhône Valley, and winemakers are producing reds based on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache, as well as whites with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, that whisk you off to France by way of the West Coast.

4. Order the wine-pairing option.

The next time you’re at a restaurant with a tasting menu, opt for the wine pairings as well (usually available for a supplement). The beverage directors and sommeliers work with the chef to create something out of the box, so why not take advantage of their expertise? It’s a chance to get creative and open your palate to new pairing ideas.

5. Try Italian whites.

Sick of Sauvignon Blanc? Try one of Italy’s white varietals. They may be hard to pronounce, but they’re easy to drink (and generally affordable). Falanghina, for instance, tastes like bananas, apples and pears; look for producers Feudi di San Gregorio and Terredora. Vermentino tastes of crisp apples and citrus; producers include Antinori and Pala. And Piedmontese Arneis offers flavors of lemons and apples; look for Vietti. All three pair beautifully with seafood, chicken, pork and anything fried.

6. Try a new wine-and-food pairing.

Break out of the mind-set that classic pairings (for instance, red meat with red wine, white meat with white wine) are your only options. Here are some creative examples:

  • Chicken fajitas and guacamole with still or sparkling dry rosé
  • Beef chili and cornbread with Zinfandel
  • Grilled swordfish with Beaujolais
  • Grilled sardines with Pinot Noir
  • Arctic char over tomato-olive tapenade with Sangiovese
  • Roasted veal chops with Viognier
  • Roasted pork chops and caramelized onions with Chardonnay or Riesling
  • Roasted asparagus with Chianti Classico
  • Roasted cauliflower with sparkling wine

7. Serve a French dessert wine with chocolate.

While Port is a natural with chocolate, try a glass of Banyuls for a change. Banyuls is a Grenache-based wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, fortified (as it has been since the 13th century) with clear brandy and aged for at least 10 months. With flavors of mocha, coffee and dark plum, it’s the perfect complement to any chocolate dessert. Serve it at around 58 F in small dessert-wine glasses. Ranging from $25 to $60 for a 375-milliliter bottle, Banyuls may not be easy to find, but it’s worth the effort. M. Chapoutier and Domaine La Tour Vielle are two to look for.

8. Drink white wine with cheese.

Many consumers don’t realize that cheeses generally taste better with white wine than red. Here are some starter pairings:

  • Goat cheese with Sancerre, Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano with Prosecco or Orvieto
  • Brie with Pinot Gris or Chardonnay
  • Triple crème with Riesling
  • Stilton with Sauternes

9. Try a white wine that you think is sweet.

Many wine lovers stay away from a varietal because they associate it with a characteristic they dislike. Take Rieslings: despite their reputation for sweetness, they’re not all sweet. Rieslings are wonderfully food-friendly whites that deserve a place at the table. Juicy and crisp, dry German Riesling sets the standard, but domestic Rieslings are on the rise, so there are plenty of options at a wide range of prices.

10. Visit off-the-beaten-path wineries.

Do your homework before your next California wine trip. It’s worth seeking out small family-run wineries that may be a bit out of the way. Picturesque Preston Family Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley has a farmstand and bocce ball court in addition to a tasting room. Iron Horse Vineyards boasts an outdoor tasting facility with spectacular views of Sonoma County. Cliff Lede Vineyards may be just minutes from a busy Napa highway, but its sculpture garden, art gallery and specialized wine tastings make it feel like a special getaway. (You can even book at a night at Mr. Lede’s Poetry Inn in the Stags Leap District.)

11. Sign up for wine-and food tours.

You should also check out wineries that do more than just pour a glass of wine. Many in California offer additional activities such as olive-oil tastings or farm tours. Here is a sampling:

12. Join a winery-run wine club.

They’re not just for tourists anymore. Wineries have been honing their club memberships in recent years to make them more personalized, and the rewards can be great — particularly the discounts. If you live within a reasonable distance of the winery to take advantage of their special members-only events, do it. But even if you just receive monthly or twice-yearly shipments, you’ll benefit from such programs.

Main photo: A sparkling selection from Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, paired with salmon. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Carneros

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is "Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country" with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, California, released in November 2011.

  • Charles Duby 1·1·15

    In one session of my culinary class, we had a regional buyer from Trader Joes as a guest speaker. One thing I learned was that wines with the TJ label and the words “Reserve” or “Grand Reserve” (price range $10-20) were exceptional values. Those bottles typically sell for 2X or 3X the price when labeled with the vintner’s standard label. But those wineries do not want their name associated with the price sold under the TJ label, as they feel it degrades their higher-end image. There you go!