We’ve all been there. An airport lounge, an unfortunate happy hour, a wedding with an open bar and…limited choices. When confronted with these situations, you could just have some sparkling water and sit it out, but at a party or social event, it’s nice to have a glass of something. It can’t be Grand Cru Champagne and First Growth Bordeaux every night – and if it is at your house, well, we’ll be right over! So here’s what to avoid and what to try when presented with less than ideal choices.
Whites. Typical offerings include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and sometimes an aromatic varietal like Riesling or Viognier. Our advice is to avoid Chardonnay of nebulous origins whenever possible. Some of the greatest wines in the world, and some of our favorites, are Chardonnays, even Chardonnays that see significant oak. However, at a happy hour at an anonymous chain restaurant, the Chardonnay on offer is generally an inexpensive New World style, which means it’s fruit-forward and sees a lot of ‘oak.’ Why the quotation marks? Because often the ‘oak’ is in the form of oak chips, oak dust that comes in tea bags (yes, this is a real thing!) or oak staves that are planted in stainless steel tanks to give Chardonnay oak flavors and aromas. When this oak fakery is done badly, it’s really unpleasant.
On the other hand, an inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio you’ve never heard of probably won’t change your life, but it’s more likely to be crisp and pleasantly quaffable rather than cloying. A New World (from New Zealand, California or Chile rather than from France) Sauvignon Blanc will almost always be unoaked and fermented cool to preserve its citrusy, grassy aromatics. Drunk cold on a warm day, it’s pretty easy to like! Pinot Grigio from Italy, similarly, may be overcropped or uninteresting, but even the worst versions are merely bland rather than offensive.
Aromatic varietals like Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or Viognier should also be avoided in these situations. Viognier and Gewurz become overripe and therefore unpleasantly boozy very quickly, and while sweet and off-dry Rieslings can be life-changing, cheap, sweet-ish Riesling is often awful and headache-inducing.
Reds. Of the well-known, international varietals, Pinot Noir is the most difficult to make inexpensively. If it’s underripe, what little fruit is there will be overpowered by oak, and if it’s overripe, it won’t even taste like Pinot Noir.
High in food-friendly acidity, Sangiovese-based wines like Rosso di Montalcino or Toscana Rosso are a good bet. If you’re in the mood for something fuller-bodied, Bordeaux is, surprisingly, a good call on a restaurant glass list if it’s available. The word Bordeaux calls to mind expensive, because we associate it with the famous estates of this region. The truth is that Bordeaux is one of the larger wine-producing regions in France and churns out a lot of wine that doesn’t need to be snapped up at auction and aged for decades in your cellar.
In a pinch, California Merlot can also be a good choice, as it’s usually softer and fruitier than Cabernet and less likely to be oaked into a complete stupor. Just stay away from any wine that’s named for a baked good or dessert – trust us.
Whether you’re looking for red or white, it’s always a good idea to favor wines from the most recent vintages, as storage is likely to be suspect, and most inexpensive wines taste best right when they’re released.
And if all else fails, there’s always beer!