In the quest for a wine you can love, it's too easy to latch onto a little wine knowledge like a safe date. Because wine shops confuse, customers go for what they know. When I was selling wine, I enjoyed making new connections for people, and took it as a challenge.
Check out Voracious, our food blog, as Maggie Dutton gives our food editor a lesson in wine geekery.
Take Sancerre, the epitome of sauvignon blanc and a name many casual wine drinkers know. Located in the middle of France, on the Loire River, the Sancerre region produces wines famous for their intense acidity and for soft grapefruit/citrus flavors that stop short of fruitiness. The soil lends a mineral quality to the wines that is best described as the smell before a thunderstorm. Sancerre whites always remind me of an icy Hitchcock blonde. She's not a smiley, friendly girl. She's beautiful but austere, her pretty blond hair pulled back tightly and her curvy figure restrained in a charcoal gray suit—which makes her all the more fascinating.
Sancerre makes quick friends with fresh spring produce like wild greens and fava beans. But when you're not ready to pony up for a date with this fine lady, there are plenty of other complicated starlets to enjoy. I'm not saying these wines are knockoffs of Sancerre, but they are cut from the same cloth, give a similar smack-on-the-cheek impression, and cost $9 to $17 on average, or $10 to $20 less than France's most famous sauvignon blanc.
In a country where wine is all about place, it pays to know the girls next door. Quincy (pronounced can-see) and Ruilly (ruee-yee), both west of Sancerre, offer wines from sauvignon blanc with every bit of the citrus fruit and bracing character of the matinee idol, but perhaps dialed down a few notches in overall flavor and price. In southwestern France, the Gascony region produces very affordable whites from grapes normally meant for cognac. The wines are clean, dry, and as aromatic as wild flowers, with a hint of a mineral streak. Look for "Côtes de Gascogne" on the label; producer Domaine de Pouy is particularly reliable.
France isn't the only place to find tart distractions. Head further south to Spain's Rueda region and try racy, exotically spiced wines from the verdejo grape (its name should be listed on the front label). Verdejo wines, like the one from Martinsancho, come off a little wild, with loads of pure lime zest and a subtle, herbaceous character. Another unlikely contender for the hearts of steely white wine lovers is the Clare Valley of south Australia. A dry riesling may seem out of place in a continent famous for macho syrahs, but that's exactly the specialty of wineries like Mitchell Wines, which manage to balance the grape's decadent flowery and mineral aromas with the bone-dry flavors of pear and citrus. Look for labels that display "Clare Valley" and "dry riesling" front and center. Add to that the sauvignon blanc of the Adelaide Hills (in particular, the one by Nepenthe, whose cool, refreshing character is all grassy and as light as honeydew), and Australia's reputation for monster reds seems misplaced.
Branch out for the names you know and ask the staff of your local wine shop for their current prickly favorites. Spring has sprung, so make like the birds and bees and play the field. These lovelies are just the antidote to your average white.