If you default to the same brand of Chardonnay every week or stock up on your favorite Cabernet when it’s on sale, we have a tasty challenge for you: step out of your wine comfort zone this year. We’ve taken the “Big Six”—the most common wine varietals—and come up with an alternative shopping list so you can travel the world through wine in 2011.
If you like...Riesling
This versatile white is usually light-bodied, with a lovely, distinctive aroma of apples, peaches, and flowers. High acidity makes Riesling a good food wine, and it can be dry, sweet, or anywhere in between.
Try: Albariño, a Spanish white with a deeply aromatic nose of apples, peaches, and almonds. This wine is dry and crisp for those who like dry Riesling. Love sweet wine? Gewürztraminer, a German white, has a heady nose and is often slightly sweet.
We recommend: 2009 Montecillo Albariño (Rias Baixas, Spain, $14), a crisp, aromatic wine with peach and nectarine aromas and flavors.
If you like...Sauvignon Blanc
Bone dry with high acidity and distinctive herbal and citrus notes, Sauvignon Blanc is best swapped out with another zingy cool-climate wine.
Try: Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s most widely-planted grape, has fragrant citrus and grapefruit aromas and a hint of white pepper. South of the equator, Pinot Grigio from New Zealand’s cool vineyards is bright with a lemony zest.
We recommend: 2009 Hofer Grüner Veltliner (Austria, $16). Fresh and zippy with grapefruit on the nose and a sprinkling of spice, this wine made from certified organic grapes comes in a liter-size bottle, the equivalent of almost two extra glasses.
If you like...Chardonnay
Full-bodied, fruity, sometimes creamy and buttery with notes of vanilla, Chardonnay is the MVP of the white wine world. Look to similarly full-bodied whites that have been aged in oak.
Try: Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, and Torrontés all share characteristics with Chardonnay. Chenin Blanc is zesty with a floral, honey character; Semillon is full-bodied and rich; Viognier has a distinctively powerful aroma of ripe apricots and orange blossoms; and Torrontés, similar to Viognier, has enticing aromas and a full body.
We recommend: 2009 Dry Creek Chenin Blanc (California, $12). A fresh, fruity wine with good weight and a minerally, honeyed taste.
If you like...Pinot Noir
Light-bodied and silky with cherry and raspberry fruit and earthy mushrooms, Pinot Noir is perhaps the greatest wine in the world. There’s no substitute for a high-end Pinot, but less expensive Pinot Noir, which has light, simple fruit and good acidity, is easily swapped out.
Try: Look for another light-bodied, high-acid red like Beaujolais, Zweigelt (an Austrian red very similar to Pinot Noir) or Cabernet Franc from a cool-climate area like Chinon or New York’s Finger Lakes.
We recommend: 2009 Georges Duboeuf Fleurie (France, $15), an elegant Beaujolais with floral notes of violets and roses and fruity ripe blackberries and currants.
If you like...Merlot
Medium-bodied and chock full of jammy fruits like plums, cherries, and blackberries, Merlot is a smooth, easy-drinking wine.
Try: Malbec and Bonarda, both from Argentina, are good substitutes for Merlot. Malbec is plush, velvety and fruity, and Bonarda is smooth with dark fruit and a hint of chocolate and spice.
We recommend: 2008 Trivento Amado Sur Malbec (Argentina, $15), a blend of Malbec, Bonarda, and Syrah that’s lush, fruity, and spicy.
If you like...Cabernet Sauvignon
The “king” of grapes, Cabernet is big and bold with dark berry fruits, tobacco and chocolate, and spices like thyme and peppercorn.
Try: Look for similarly big, bold wines like Grenache, Petite Sirah, Carmenere, and Syrah.
We recommend: 2008 Girard Petite Sirah (Napa Valley, $28), a rich, dark, juicy red with coffee, black pepper, and ripe black cherry flavors.
Gretchen Roberts, founder and editor of Vinobite.com, is at the upper end of the Millennial generation, old enough to have a decade of wine-drinking under her belt but young enough to know that wine is about three important things: finding a great bottle at a good value, vicariously exploring the world, and having fun with friends. Roberts writes about wine for Wine Enthusiast, MyRecipes.com, Cooking Light, and Slashfood.com.