As summer fast approaches and wine enthusiasts make plans to trek through wine country, it just might be time to take stock of old assumptions and broaden the horizons of wine country as we know it, or think we know it, to explore beyond Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and other more or less familiar wine destinations.
Technical advances in grape cultivation and wine production over the past half-century have made it possible for many heretofore obscure wine regions to elevate the quality of their wines and join in the vast parade of truly fine wines we have at our fingertips today. Examples abound.
One of the most exciting white wines currently in circulation is the Horton 2016 Rkatsiteli ($15) from Orange County, Virginia. One of the oldest grape varieties still in production, Rkatsiteli was grown first in the Caucasus in the country of Georgia and was tremendously popular in the former Soviet Union.
Dr. Konstantin Frank winery in New York's Finger Lakes region has long made a crisp, dry expression of Rkatsiteli that I've always considered the benchmark for this grape variety in the U.S. The Horton Rkatsiteli is dry as well but less austere on the palate. It's a sensational ambassador for the wine industry of southwestern Virginia, which has been making plenty of noise lately.
Another up-and-coming region is Comte Tolosan IGP, located in southwestern France in the area surrounding Cahors (the ancestral home of malbec) and the fiery spirits of Armagnac. The broader region is Gascony, most famous for foie gras and not well-regarded for its wines, which tend to be simple and rustic.
Two sauvignon blancs from Comte Tolosan IGP are prominent on my radar at the moment — Cuvee Joelle 2017 ($18.99) and Georges Vigouroux ($29.99) — and speak well for the improvements in viticulture and winemaking over the past few years. The improved quality has driven up prices a bit, but this area still delivers exceptional value.
And from Cahors, Chateau Leret has an excellent 2015 Malbec ($44.99) that is beautifully structured yet avoids the mouth-puckering tannins that are infamous from this region.
Italy's Beneventano IGT region is hardly well-known, but this little slice of the Campania region in the south yields award-winning red and white wines that would do more famous regions proud. Hot right now are the 2017 Aglianico (a steal at $22.99) and the 2017 Falanghina ($19.99) from Feudo Ducale. The Falanghina has that rare combination of richness and minerality that the best white wines from southern Italy possess.
Closer to home, in the American state of Georgia, Frogtown Cellars pulls off a similar feat with tannat, a tannic red grape variety that is native to southwest France. The Frogtown 2013 Tannat Reserve ($56.99) is produced from grapes cultivated in the foothills of Georgia's western mountain ranges, far from the heat and humidity of Atlanta. Try it and you will never think of tannat the same way again.
Moving to the middle of the country, the Old Mission Peninsula American Viticultural Area in Michigan is turning heads with its white wines. Two of them — the Bonobo Winery 2017 Pinot Blanc ($24) and the Brys Estate 2017 Gewurztraminer ($22) — are stunners, and each was awarded a platinum medal at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition in May. Both rival in quality the finest wines of this type from the Alsace region of France or California's highly regarded Anderson Valley.
Berryessa Gap Vineyards, since turning over the winemaking rein to Nicole Salengo, has brought acclaim to northern California's Yolo County, where the quality of wines produced has seldom evoked comparisons to Napa or Sonoma to the south. Her 2015 tempranillo ($26) is a juicy red that is beautifully balanced, refined and downright delicious.
At the opposite end of the state, in the Temecula Valley an hour north of San Diego, California, winemaker Duncan Williams has energized Falkner Winery since taking over production four years ago. Formerly winemaker at the award-winning Fallbrook Winery in San Diego County, where he made stunning chardonnay, Williams has taken his magic touch to Temecula.
This is a region that gets little exposure beyond its borders because most of its production is sold to tourists through winery tasting rooms. Quality, which has been spotty in the past, has improved with new investment over the past decade. Falkner made that point perfectly clear when its 2017 chardonnay ($29.95) from Temecula grapes dazzled at the 2018 Critics Challenge, where it was named best chardonnay out of the 156 chards entered.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.