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Top Ten Wine Regions to Watch

Ribeira Sacra, Alto Piemonte, and the tastiest, trendiest wines in the world.

The wine world is a dynamic and exciting place.  People all around the world are rediscovering ancient traditions, reclaiming antique vines and lost grape types, and trying new and wonderful techniques in the vineyard and in the winery.  But with all this action it can be hard to stay on top of what the cool kids are drinking!

If you were listening to the wine cognoscenti on Twitter and the blogs just a couple years back, you would have noticed that everybody was talking about regions like Muscadet, Austria, and Slovenia. These are still great wine regions filled with excellent producers making delicious wines that in each case could clearly only be a product of that region.  And if you haven’t gotten to know them yet, you should - here are a few jumping-off points: MuscadetAustria.

But those regions just aren’t as hot as they used to be.

You can tell by checking Google Trends: these regions hit peak interest around 2005 and have been slowly declining ever since. Compare that to Etna Rosso, which, according to Google Trends, nobody searched for until about 2008 and is still climbing towards its peak.  Let’s face it, Etna is hot!

But are these wines any good? Is there anything to these trends or is this of interest only to the faithful follower of fashion?

These wines aren’t just trendy: they’re delicious! To prove it, I’ve used a mix of Google Trends and my own wine store observations to compile a list of the top ten regions that are hot now. When you look at this list and think about what each of these regions has to offer, you’ll see the wisdom of the wine crowds.

1. Etna Rosso: Nerello Mascalese, super-old vines, and natural winemaking

Thanks to a combination of the buzz around natural wine superstar Frank Cornelissen, the group of other dedicated producers spawned by the work of consultant Salvo Foti, and a general preference in today’s wine world for mountain wine and obscure Italian grapes, Etna has erupted (if you’ll forgive me…).

And although not every bottle from this region will appeal to every palate – in fact, some can be hyper-natural – this region is a great example of all the trends that are driving the resurgent popularity of many of the regions on this list.

Etna Rosso has it all.  The most important grapes, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, have been grown in the region for centuries and have adapted to their individual sites in the same way Pinot Noir has so supremely adapted to Le Chambertin and Le Musigny. The result is that the Nerellos produce wines that express their origins supremely well.

Just as exciting, Etna is covered in super-old vines, many of which pre-date phylloxera and are planted on their own rootstock.  As we all know, old vines make better wines!  And in this case, wines that translate their soil supremely well. When you throw in some of the world’s most thoughtful, devoted artisanal winemakers, you have a recipe for delicious, super-exciting wines.

Where to begin?  Cornelissen’s wines are a must-try, and if you don’t know Foti, try the wines of Benanti, the reference-point producer where he was the wine-maker for years. For an introduction to the region, the Murgo is an incredible value and very representative. But my personal favorite is the super traditionalist, Calabretta, who releases his Etna Rosso ten years or more after the vintage! (We still have bottles of the 2001, which are drinking beautifully with the 12 years of bottle age, and available at the ridiculous price of $27.99; there's also a Carricante with beautiful purity).

2. Anjou: Chenin Blanc and wines you can drink with dinner

This corner of the Loire Valley is now on everyone’s lips, thanks to two rock star producers: René Mosse, the great maverick who really put this AOC on the map, and more recently Richard Leroy, whose fame sky-rocketed, thanks to The Initiates, a brilliant graphic novel about an artist/writer and winemaker swapping lives and careers over a year. Both producers make rich, flavorful Chenin Blanc that can be found in all the trendiest natural wine bars of Paris.

These Chenin Blancs are delicious wines that can be profound, worthy of contemplation. But they also highlight another important trend: as wine becomes more of an everyday necessity with good food, everyone is looking for wines that do more to elevate what they are eating. This in no small measure explains the recent strong rejection of overly oaked California Chardonnays: the wines overpower food. These wines, by contrast, although rich and complex, are also refreshing and bring out hidden dimensions in your farm-to-table feasts, rather than just tiring your palate.

3. Champagne: great terroir of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, from Krug Clos de Mesnil to Growers’ Champagnes

No, this isn’t a recently “discovered” region of France. We’ve been drinking it for centuries! And yet, it’s fast becoming one of the most exciting wine regions in the world.

Why the resurgence? Well, it’s thanks in part to a fairly new emphasis in the region on terroir. “Grower Champagnes,” from producers working in single villages, often on single sites, have done a great job of teaching the world that Champagne, like Burgundy, offers incredible terroir, varying in character from site to site, for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The fact that these are often small, family-owned wineries, working naturally and without chemicals, also helps to explain their popularity.

But many of the larger houses are also working to get this message across. With more frequent releases of truly astounding single vineyard wines, like Krug’s glorious Clos de Mesnil and Philipponnat’s (still somewhat under the radar) Clos de Goisses, they put the focus squarely on the terroir. It’s amazing how often we now talk about our Champagne selections with customers in terms of villages – Avize, Bouzy, Ay, etc. – in the same way that we’ve been talking about Burgundy villages for decades.

Of course, there are other trends helping Champagne along: restrained dosage, increased organic farming, heightened awareness that even non-vintage Champagne can age beautifully, and modern culinary trends that scream out for bubbles.

4. Saar Riesling: winemaking adapts to Global Warming

For years, most grapes from the Saar were used to make Sekt (the local bubbly) because the climate was considerably cooler than in neighboring Mosel, and the grapes just couldn’t get ripe enough for still wine production – with some notable exceptions, especially the wines of Egon Muller, which many consider to be Germany’s greatest.

But global warming has changed all that. With warmer temperatures making a more regular appearance, still wine production has become much more common in the region (often in the increasingly popular dry style), and wine lovers in the U.S. are starting to take note. Example number one is Peter Lauer, a producer whom no one in the U.S. had heard of a decade ago but who is now fast achieving cult status.  His Schonfels is now considered one of the greatest dry wines of Germany. Also watch out for Falkenstein, a more classically styled producer who is still far less well-known than Lauer… though that is bound to change.

5. California: everything old is new again.

Huh?  Isn’t California – land of over-extracted wines, stupid-high alcohol, and even stupider-high-points – the opposite of hot?

No! California is finally pulling out of its point-obsessed funk. The peak era of the over-designed wines intended to give journalists a jolt of pleasure from a single sip and thereby secure a nice score in a glossy magazine is behind us.  Those superficial, hard to enjoy past the first glass wines are still out there.  And if you’re unlucky enough to have cellared a bunch, you’re unlikely either to enjoy the results (these manipulated wines do not improve with extended aging) or to turn a profit (the market for these wines peaked an election cycle ago).

But California is now undergoing a full-blown renaissance. In part, it’s returning to its classic roots of the 1960s, 1970s (and before).  And in part it’s charting new territory in the cooler corners of the state, with more natural, less manipulative winemaking. But in both cases the wines are striking and New York’s wine lovers have taken note. So, for the first time in a while, everyone’s talking about, looking for, and – gasp! – even drinking California.

Many of these wines are in very short supply, but we still have a few wines from some top producers like Arnot-Roberts, Clos Saron, Broc Cellars, and La Clarine Farm. If you want to be sure to get your hands on these and you can’t stop in regularly to ask, you could sign up for our newsletter. That way you’ll continue to hear about all kinds of new producers who keep doing amazing things. Like Matt Rorick, whom we profiled recently and who is reviving California’s ancient tradition and growing the grape Valdiguie (at the time mistaken for Gamay).

6. Cote Chalonnaise: Burgundy for everyday drinking

Really, all of Burgundy is hot: wines from the top producers are now the most sought-after the world over. But that means most of us will never be able to pull the cork on a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée Conti’s Grands Crus over dinner at home.

On the other hand – and putting trophy hunting aside – the region producing perhaps the most exciting wines in Burgundy is the still relatively unknown Cote Chalonnaise.

The Cote d’Or (home to all of Burgundy’s greatest names: Vosne, Chambolle, Gevrey, etc.) has become so expensive – both for producers looking for land and consumers looking for bottles – that producers and consumers alike are looking to nearby terroirs. And, for Pinot Noir at least, the very best terroirs in Burgundy outside of the Cote d’Or are in the Cote Chalonnaise.

Just ask the Faiveley family, who continue to make investments in Mercurey where they produce incredibly deep, complex, and long-lived Pinot in crus like Myglands. And again, as global warming continues, the Cote Chalonnaise’s growers will be able to ripen Pinot Noir more and more regularly.

And while the Cote Chalonnaise’s Chardonnay has to compete with terroirs like Chablis and Pouilly-Fuisse for the title of champion of the non-Cote d’Or, you would be foolish to ignore examples from the likes of Dureuil-Janthial (in Rully), Laurent Cognard (Montagny), and A.&P. de Villaine (in Bouzeron, where they also grow excellent Aligote).

7. Sherry: Jerez, the home of terroir as well as technique

Interest in the wines of Jerez has been building for years. But in the last 12 months or so, it seems to have exploded. Was it the release of Peter Liem’s volume on the subject? Or the emergence of Sherryfest? Or the exciting new releases of La Bota from Equipo Navazos?

All these things help, of course, but there is a greater cultural context that is key to Sherry’s big bang:  the current wine world is in love with things food-friendly, traditional, and super-specific, and all three reign supreme in Jerez.

There are many different styles of Sherry resulting from an array of historical processes, vineyard terroir, bodega terroir, cellar process, and age. The range is extensive and the origins of each wine a wholly unique story. But one thing all of these wines have in common is that they do great at a dinner table, and not just with Spanish tapas. From the bright Manzanillas with shellfish, to finos with fried green tomatoes, oloroso and blood sausage, up through the rich PX dessert wines with chocolate. Sherry is a fascinating and exciting category of wines that show their best with – and bring out the best in – food.

For some good old-fashioned, traditional Sherry, start with the wines of Valdespino and then work your way up to the incredibly specific La Bota bottlings from Equipo Navazos.

8. Alto Piemonte: Nebbiolo of freshness and joy

As wine lovers look more and more towards lighter, fresher wines, it is only natural that we look north from Barolo and Barbaresco to the cool, mountain DOCs where Nebbiolo is also King, but made in a lighter, racier, and more versatile (food-wise) style.

A lot of credit here goes to Neal Rosenthal. He’s been importing the much-loved Ferrando from Carema for years. But in the last year or so he has started to import wines from Ghemme, Gattinara, and Lessona as well (the producers are Rovellotti, Monsecco, and Massimo Clerico, respectively). These wines are delicious, great with food, and offering all of the terroir-specific fascination you could possibly want to geek out over.

But the phenomenon is bigger than one man. Old Spannas from Vallana and Gattinaras from Antoniolo, are now being snapped up at auction for three-digit figures, as sommeliers like Levi Dalton have shown the world how brilliantly these Alto Piemonte wines can age. And other importers are discovering gems in nearby DOCs like Boca.

All of these producers are worth trying. But if you want to see how the wines age, check out our vertical of Campo delle Piane Boca, Nebbiolo wines going back to the 1980s!

9. Corsica: Indigenous varieties and ancient tradition finally coming to the U.S.

Corsica has everything for today’s wine zeitgeist: cool climates, indigenous grape varieties, organic and biodynamic farming, and food-friendly wines. Here, heaps of credit needs to go to Kermit Lynch, who imports virtually all the wines that matter, including Abbatucci – suddenly cropping up on all of NYC’s finer wine lists  Domaine d’E Croce, and the more accessibly priced wines of Maestracci.

What makes Corsican wine unique is a combination of history and geography. Although vines have been planted and wine made on Corsica since the time of the Phoenicians, the crucial period came a few hundred years back when the kingdom of Genoa controlled the island and imported Italian grape varieties that now form the nucleus of Corsican wine. This includes Nielluccio (an ancient clone of Sangiovese), Sciaccarello, Vermentino, and Biancu Gentile. Fast-forward a few centuries and Napoleonic France controls Corsica (Napoleon was a native) and the wines are imported throughout the kingdom while French winemaking technique is introduced to the island.

This dual Italian/French winemaking tradition combines with unusual (and unusually good) terroir to make truly distinct wines. Most of the vineyards in Corsica are near the coast but are also planted at high elevations, making them coastal mountain wines. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries increased production was the focus and Corsica contributed mightily to the European wine lake. But over the last couple of decades the best producers have dramatically decreased yields and, as mentioned above, many are farming organically and biodynamically. The results are delicious, distinctly terroir-driven wines.

10. Ribeira Sacra

A decade ago when we spoke about Spanish wine, almost all the serious conversations were about Rioja, with maybe some Ribera del Duero and Priorat thrown in. But now suddenly, everyone is talking about the little corner of Galicia known as Ribeira Sacra.

Why has the Ribeira Sacra become so hot? Well, if you’ve read this far, you can probably guess some of it: there are plenty of old vines in the area, on great, steeply terraced terroirs. What’s more, many of these vines have been unproductive for years, and are now being reclaimed by young Spaniards eager to show off highly specific terroirs in a way that hasn’t been done to a great extent in Spain.

Rather than trying to make wines in the “international style” to please critics, they are working hard to express the true, traditional nature of wine. And like Etna Rosso with its Nerellos Mascalese and Cappuccio, and Corsica with its Nielluccio and Sciaccarello, the Ribeira Sacra has (somewhat) Pinot-Noir-like local grape varieties, like Mencia and, less commonly, Trousseau to work with, so wine circles on this side of the Atlantic have been going agog. Check out the wines of Algueira, Guimaro, and D. Ventura.