Three months of dining out for our "Best Restaurants" feature has put me in a mood to sit up on my soapbox and proclaim a few truths. As you can imagine, I pay particular attention to wine lists. My theory is that a passionate wine list promises a similar trait in the kitchen. A list populated by mundane mass-produced wine makes me worry that a similar disdain for the customer will arrive on my plate. The worst offenders hand over the wine list to one or two monster suppliers without a second thought. When I see a wine list that relies solely on its liquor salesman for inspiration, the food that follows is reliably bland.
Now let's discuss value. I'm okay with restaurant mark-ups when someone has taken time to construct a decent, well-considered list, but I'm loath to pay it if no one cared enough to consider the customer. What I often find missing are wines that are challenging, food-friendly—but don't break the bank. Just because I don't have $100 to spend on Château de l'AMEX Noir doesn't mean I don't have $45 to blow on something other than Laughing Platypus Vintners' Reserve Select of Sonoma.
I've picked three wines that embody what I would like to see more of on wine lists. None of these is in wide restaurant circulation, but that's not the point. Rather, I encourage you to have a taste, make a note of their value and their tremendous affinity for food, and then begin to seek similar examples when you dine out.
Lagar de Cervera Albariño 2005 ($22)
Step away from the Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, folks, and start hunting down appealing esoterica like this charming white wine, which hails from Northwestern Spain. Aromatic and juicy, its showy peach, apricot, and minerals are wrapped up in thrilling acidity and length. I could easily make this my house white wine; it's aromatic enough for light fish, but has enough body to handle roasted poultry. And, of course, it's a great cheese wine. (Bacchus Importers, Ltd.)Domaine d'Aupilhac Coteaux du Languedoc Rouge "Lou Maset" 2005 ($15)
To taste this wine quickly is to appreciate its roundness, the quality of its fruit, and its tannin, but then to dismiss it as simple country wine. Hanging out with it for a little while yields aromas of dusty chalk, and of the spare sun-baked scrub that dominates this part of France. Bright cherry notes from Grenache, astringent blackberry stains from Cinsault, formidable, rustic tannin from Carignan, and brooding, smoky Syrah all reveal themselves. It won't be mistaken for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but it makes me happy to find a wine with this kind of finesse and fortitude at this price. (Wines, Ltd.)Château d'Aydie "Maydie" 2003 ($18)
Dessert wine is a category that is easy to ignore, even for good wine programs. Usually it's the same collection of ports. If you're lucky, there might be a Banyuls, or Muscat, Friend of Fruit Desserts. But this "Maydie" is really interesting stuff. It comes from the French region of Madiran and is made from the stout Tannat grape. It's rich, lush, and hedonistic; I heartily recommend it as an alternative to port this winter. (LVDH)