Swap It

Wines to Get You Out of a Wine Rut

Know what you like, but aren’t sure what to check out next? Try these.

Amber Gibson By June 1, 2021July 28th, 2021
A photo illustration of three bottles of wine against a background showing chocolate, lemons, and black pepper.
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Originally from France, they’re now part of a group known as “international varieties” because they’re found everywhere. They’re wildly popular for a good reason: They can be relied on to deliver a relatively consistent sipping experience.

For something new, consider a wine swap. Choose wines that are close enough in style to the tried-and-true to be reassuring, but different enough that they offer a new taste experience.

Like Sauvignon Blanc? Try Muscadet

Sauvignon Blanc is a medium-bodied, high-acid wine with flavors ranging from citrus to orchard and stone fruits, depending on where it comes from. For an easy-drinking white wine that’s even lighter than Sauvignon Blanc and with plenty of lemon-lime and apple flavors, try Muscadet instead, says Mai Pham, wine director of Michelin-starred Yūgen in Chicago.

“This variety is my perfect glass of wine to enjoy by itself or pair with fresh seafood,” she says. “It’s particularly known as the perfect pairing with oysters due to its oceanic and mineral characteristic.”

Pham recommends Domaine de l’Écu Granite Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie from the Loire Valley as her personal favorite. This organic and biodynamic producer focuses on single-soil-type bottlings, and Pham loves the minerality from granite soil.

Like Chardonnay? Try Viognier

Victoria O’Bryan, wine director at Addison in San Diego, suggests that wine drinkers who enjoy full-bodied, rich Chardonnay styles should try Viognier. “Both varietals can offer a creamy texture on the palate with subtle honeysuckle aromas and ripe citrus and stone fruits, especially when sourced from warmer climates,” she says. “They are both often treated with a portion of new oak, which can offer sweet baking spice and vanilla characteristics to the wine, and can visually enhance the coloring to reflect more golden hues.”

Viognier is most commonly sourced from France’s Northern Rhône, California, and Australia. Some producers to consider include South Australia’s Yalumba, Napa Valley’s Stags’ Leap Winery and Darioush, and the Northern Rhône’s Yves Cuilleron and E. Guigal. 

Reliable Viognier food pairings include dishes centered around shellfish, rich seafood, or chicken, especially with a cream sauce. O’Bryan says that Viognier can also work well with mildly spiced Asian dishes featuring curry or coconut.

Like Pinot Noir? Try Blaufränkisch

Pinot Noir at its best is all about elegance, nuance, and subtle power, with juicy berry fruit accented by herbal, spicy, and floral notes,” says wine writer and educator Nikki Goddard. Burgundy and Oregon’s Willamette Valley make some of the very best, but the most coveted bottles are pricey. 

Goddard recommends Blaufränkisch, an Austrian specialty, as a more affordable alternative to Pinot. “The two varieties share many of the characteristics that make them so appealing,” she says. “Blaufränkisch wines are typically juicy, tart, and medium-bodied, with velvet-smooth tannins, mouthwatering acidity, and a trademark kick of black pepper. These are crowd-pleasing, food-friendly wines, but they’re rarely boring.” A few of her favorite Blaufränkisch producers include Moric, Christian Tschida, Meinklang, and Gut Oggau from Austria. Biodynamic Johan Vineyards also makes a great one in Oregon.

Like Merlot? Try Carménère

Carménère and Merlot, both offspring of Cabernet Franc, naturally show a similar dark-fruit profile capable of lush wines with hints of violet aromas. 

“There are many shared attributes between the two varietals,” O’Bryan says. “Carménère can often share Merlot’s cocoa and chocolate expression, especially when it sees new oak treatment, and the body and tannin levels are often balanced and inviting. It’s worth noting that Carménère can often express a much more green pepper aromatic that tends to be more subtle in Merlot, which gives Carménère a bit more edge that is nonetheless intriguing.”

Carménère originates from the Bordeaux region of France, but O’Bryan says its best expression today is from Chile, especially from producers such as Montes, Concha y Toro, or Casa Lapostolle. The more luxurious offerings often see robust oak usage and offer the fullest expressions.

“Carménère is best paired alongside smoked or roasted meat dishes, especially lamb or game,” she says. “Mexican cuisine rich with spice and character also works well, as does any dish featuring grilled vegetables, chili peppers, or leafy greens.”

Like Cabernet Sauvignon? Try Syrah

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most widely recognized red wine grapes and grown in nearly every major wine producing country. This variety is known to get better with age, as the tannins soften and some of the powerful fruit flavor fades, allowing new and complex aromas to develop. Syrah has a similar robust style and high tanninic profile found in Cabernet Sauvignon; Pham recommends pairing it with lamb, duck, or steak. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah also benefits from aging and decanting. It differs in offering notes of spices like cinnamon and clove in place of the tomato leaf and bell pepper flavors of Cabernet. 

Syrah’s ancestral home is the Rhône, where producers such as M. Chapoutier, E. Guigal and Paul Jaboulet Aîné are renowned names, while a younger generation is also making its mark. “Vincent Paris is a young producer who is a rising star in the Rhône Valley,” Pham says. Paris grew up in Cornas and began making wine at a very young age, studying under his uncle Robert Michel, who is considered one of the finest growers in Cornas. “His wine is elegant, but made with so much intention and precision, resulting in wine that I would describe as complex and seductive,” Pham says. “It has a smooth tannin and is not at all aggressive like many Cornas can be.”