Wine

The New Who’s Who of Wine Cool

January 17, 2020

Story: Megan Krigbaum

Photo: Lizzie Munro

Wine

The New Who’s Who of Wine Cool

January 17, 2020

Story: Megan Krigbaum

Art: Lizzie Munro

Among America’s most progressive wine lists, which producers act as universal touchstones in 2020?

Two years ago, we did a research project to see which wines were turning up the most on wine lists across the country. We looked at lists from the sorts of restaurants and wine bars where we like to drink (Austin’s Bufalina, Brooklyn’s Prime Meats, Jon & Vinny’s in Los Angeles) and found that there were 10 producers who turned up over and over again; these wines were inarguably the wines to drink and be drank with. Curious to see how this who’s who has changed in a short time, we went at it again, looking at the same lists from the first round, but adding on selections from places like Penny Quarter in Houston, Pleasantry in Cincinnati, Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn and many others.

What stood out most this time is that the majority of the cool-kid wines in restaurants these days aren’t necessarily from France. Bottles from Mexico, Canada and Oregon have edged their way in; Italy’s new guard is taking up more space in cellars; and those French representatives that did rise to the top aren’t the most cutting-edge newbies, but are producers who have been beating the drum for a long time and are now getting well-deserved sommelier affection. So, without further ado, here are the wines we’re drinking today.

Domaine de la Grand’Cour (Jean-Louis Dutraive)

So often these days, it’s all about the new-new, especially in a region like Beaujolais. That’s why it’s so energizing when a producer like Jean-Louis Dutraive—who’s been making wine in Fleurie and Brouilly for nearly 40 years—gets the much-deserved spotlight. The Dutraive wines had been scarcely imported into the States until 2012, when the winery began its work with a new importer. Within a few vintages, the wines were so beloved that they became highly allocated. “We almost always have a Dutraive bottling on the list,” says Andy Fortgang, of Portland’s Canard. “If you don’t chug them back and stop to notice, they are incredibly nuanced as well. There is a spirit to them that breeds joy.” Fortgang calls the wines light-bodied and exuberant, ideal for the modern palate. In 2016, due to a devastating hailstorm, Dutraive had to purchase fruit from other growers in order to produce a vintage. These wines were labeled Famille Dutraive, and he’s continued to make them, at a lower price point than his Domaine bottlings, ever since. Jean-Louis’ son, Justin, also makes wine under his own label; those bottlings have caught on with sommeliers from New York to Houston.

Hiyu and Smockshop Band

“He’s like a wizard of the wine world,” says Erin Rolek, wine director of Los Angeles’ new Onda restaurant, of Hiyu’s winemaker, Nate Ready. “A wizard poet,” she adds. In 2015, Ready, a master sommelier who ran the floor in restaurants like The French Laundry in Napa and Boulder’s Frasca, traded in all the pomp and circumstance for farming in Oregon’s Hood River Valley. “I first tasted the wines three years ago, and I was so struck by the wines; they’re so imaginative,” says Rolek. “He’s capturing the beautiful things that you want to think about wine and nature.” Ready’s project is a grand experiment; he’s growing some 80 different varieties, planting them all intermixed, toying with cofermenting grapes, as well as blending in unusual combinations to make wines that Rolek says defy categorization. While he doesn’t make much of any one bottling, Ready does make quite a number of wines, including those made under his Smockshop Band label, made with fruit that he purchases from other like-minded organic growers in the larger Columbia Gorge appellation.

Pearl Morissette

That a Canadian winery would find such a following in the States is truly surprising. “I would put them in the top wines from North America,” says Matt Tunstall, owner of Stems & Skins in Charleston, South Carolina. The Ontario winery is run by the idiosyncratic François Morissette, a sommelier-turned-winemaker who spent a handful of years working in Burgundy before landing in Niagara, where he produces small amounts of wine from organically farmed chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, gamay and cabernet franc. “The wines really have a potent uniqueness and are incredible examples of their varietals in the New World,” Tunstall says. Morissette’s cellar work echoes much of what he saw while working in Burgundy, from whole-cluster fermentations to aging in both old oak barrels and more modern vessels like concrete eggs. The wines are direct and self-assured, released to the market only when Morissette and his co-winemaker, Svetlana Atcheva, believe them to be ready—which means that some linger in the cellar longer than others.

Le Coste

Gianmarco Antonuzzi and Clémentin Bouveron of Le Coste work in Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, in the town of Gradoli, where Antonuzzi grew up. This area, which is cozied up against Lago di Bolsena, is an up-and-coming corner of Italy. Here, on volcanic soil, Antonuzzi and Bouveron grow the region’s signature red aleatico grape, as well as sangiovese, ciliegiolo and malvasia, producing upwards of a dozen different bottlings every year. The wines range from lifted whites to more umami-charged orange wines and fragrant reds. “They’re unique in a million ways, and for natural wines from Italy, to me, they’re some of the best,” says John Paterson of Franks Wine Bar in Brooklyn. “The Bianchetto is the wine that I first tasted and have been pulled to. It’s a blend of a bunch of local grapes, always really aromatic, a little herbaceous and interesting and [when we have it] it hits our list at an amazing price [$59].” Sommeliers also seem to be keen on Le Coste’s easy-drinking Rosato and Rosso bottlings, as well as the value-priced liter bottles of Litrozzo (in Bianco, Rosato and Rosso), but Le Coste does produce more serious and site-specific wines that can be found at restaurants like New York’s Café Altro Paradiso.

Bichi

In a mere five vintages, Noel Téllez of Bichi’s natural bottlings from Baja have single-handedly put Mexican wine on the international stage. The wines are primarily made from the mission grape (called país here), which has been planted in the region for hundreds of years. “The rediscovery of old país and, in general, of ancestral wine history in Latin America is very interesting to us,” says Simon Lowry of Portland, Oregon’s Sardine Head. “Bichi is paving the way for a Mexican artisanal rebirth.” The wines, specifically a rosé called Rosa and a pét-nat cleverly named Pet Mex, have made their way onto many of the country’s leading natural-wine lists, in markets both large and small. Both Pleasantry in Cincinnati and Lowry at Sardine Head pour Bichi’s No Sapiens, a red wine that’s from a 70-year-old vineyard planted with unidentified grapes, which adds to the thrill of trying something new. “The fruit is dark and savory and plays well with the acidity and the general subtle rusticity of the wine. It reminds me of dolcetto with a Pacific Ocean lift,” says Lowry.

Alice & Olivier De Moor

Oddly, as the wines from De Moor grow ever scarcer (the last few vintages have been particularly hellish in Chablis), they seem to be turning up on more and more wine lists, their following bolstered by their appeal to both the natural set and the straight classicists. “The Coteau de Rosette is recognizably Chablis, but it has a bit of richness and waxiness to it before the acid kicks in,” says Steven Dilley, of Austin’s Bufalina. “It’s one of my favorite Chablis wines, period.” The De Moors also produce a pair of profound, doted-after aligoté bottlings, one from younger vines and one from a plot planted in 1902, which Dilley loves: “It’s surprisingly concentrated, full of energy and high in acid that rounds out a bit after a couple years in bottle.” Along with a Saint-Bris sauvignon blanc, De Moor bottles are increasingly found on wine lists, like those at Income Tax Bar and Giant, both in Chicago. Dilley says that he’s usually allocated between one-half and two cases of De Moor wines each year, but notes that the De Moors are now making a small quantity of négociant wine under the Le Vendangeur Masqué label, and have added a couple of premier cru Chablis to their 2017 lineup, which should help with accessibility.

Cantina Furlani

Riding high on the pét-nat wave, Matteo Furlani’s frizzante wines out of Italy’s Alpine Trentino region have taken on the role of an alternative Italian sparkler in restaurants that aren’t all that keen on Prosecco. Furlani works with tiny parcels of nearly-forgotten indigenous grapes, which he uses to make half a dozen pét-nats that are frequent sightings at more natural restaurants, especially for their affordability. In addition to fizzy wines, Furlani also blends native nosiola, verdarbara and lagarino to make a still white, which has a home on sommelier Francesca Maniace’s list at Che Fico in San Francisco. Maniace points to the wine’s supreme accessibility, particularly for more mainstream drinkers. “There is a familiarity to [the wine] that helps translate to guests with conventional palates while still maintaining the spirit and history of the region, and the perspective of the winemaker,” she says. A still red from the negrara grape, called Alpino Negrik, can be found at Portland’s OK Omen.

Fabio Gea

A renegade in the very conservative Barbaresco region, it’s easy to understand why sommeliers geek out about Fabio Gea. His outside-the-box wines do not follow any standards whatsoever, aside from using regionally accepted grape varieties (old-vine nebbiolo his grandfather planted, dolcetto, grignolino). Gea works with porcelain amphorae (which he refers to as toilets, endearingly) and untoasted oak barrels, the interior of which he sort of caramelizes himself using hot stones. He even affixes the labels to his bottles in a way that will permit drinkers to easily remove them and put the glass to new use. All this considered, the wines are clean and nuanced, a deeply thoughtful new look at an old region. Made in small quantities, the wines can be quite expensive and are highly allocated, which means, per the wines’ importer, sommeliers tend to snap up whatever they can get. At Bufalina, Dilley pours Gea’s Nòtu e l’Albera, a Langhe Rosso nebbiolo, while Amanda Smeltz at Café Altro Paradiso offers his charged-up Back Grin, made from grignolino.

Meinklang

“I think the Meinklang wines are a great example of how open drinkers are today to new things: They’ll embrace wines from regions they might be unfamiliar with, made from grapes they’ve never heard of, if the wines are delicious,” says Dilley. Meinklang’s affordable bottlings are made from grapes from both the Burgenland region of Austria as well as across the border in Hungary’s Somló. The winery’s sparkling wines turn up on lists the most, with its frizzante rosé a perennial sommelier favorite. Dilley prefers the Foam Somló, though. “It’s a sparkling wine made from grapes I’ve never heard of that came in at 10.5 percent alcohol last year and has an incredible apple/citrus thing going on,” he says.

Martha Stoumen

Martha Stoumen’s star has been rising for a few years now, with her southern Italy by-way-of Mendocino, California, reds quickly becoming sommelier darlings. Her wines are mostly blends, made from Italian grape varieties like negroamaro and nero d’avola in a lifted style, not overripe or too tannic. “They’re true to the variety, but decidedly not pretending to be from Sicily,” says Ksandek Podbielski of Portland, Oregon’s Coquine, which carries Stoumen’s nero d’avola. You’ll find her wines on lists at both fine-dining establishments and neighborhood joints, as well as just about any natural-leaning wine store worth its weight. Her Teal Drops rosé in particular is a wine list favorite. “They are honest and soulful wines. I seek this in wine,” says Podbielski. “I think that regardless of style—delicate, opulent, primitive or polished—soulfulness is a characteristic that comes through in wine and when combined with good winemaking in whichever style, they resonate with us.”