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Middleweight Greats
By Michael Franz
Mar 6, 2018
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In any category that includes lots of different things, those falling in the middle often get overlooked, simply because they don’t stand out like those situated at the extremes.  For example, in the category of political opinions, the most strident views tend to get the most attention, whether they lean left or right, whereas moderate views just don’t seem “loud” enough to draw much media coverage.  Similarly, in wine, the biggest wines hogged the limelight for the past two decades, though now the publicity pendulum is swinging toward counter-revolutionary wines with strikingly high acidity and notably low alcohol.  Such shifts are to be expected, but still, savvy consumers should never neglect moderate middleweights:  These are precisely the wines that appeal to the widest spectrum of personal taste--since people actually taste them--and also the ones that will prove most versatile at the table.

It is also worth noting that wines in this weight class have some “seasonality” to them.  They are especially appropriate for spring and autumn, when temperatures are likewise moderate and when the foods we favor are commensurately weighted.  Almost all higher-end restaurants change their menus for spring and fall, shifting away from the hearty fare of winter and the light dishes emphasized during the hottest months of summer.  Good home cooks do the same, and of course, the cardinal rule of wine- and food-pairing is to get a balance of relative “robustness” between the two, so that neither the wine nor the food overwhelms the other. 

It follows that the wines most likely to succeed in spring and fall will be…you guessed it…the middleweights.  By extension, it also follows logically that middleweight wines are the least “seasonal” of all, in the sense that they can still work well during summer and winter.  This point may make it seem that I’m trying to “have it both ways” when advocating for wines in this range, but hear me out.  Admittedly, the classic “winter wine” is probably something like a very powerful Cabernet Sauvignon served on a snowy night alongside some slow-cooked lamb shanks.  However, nobody eats lamb shanks or cassoulet or beef stew every night--no matter how cold the weather.  Everybody shifts to somewhat lighter foods sometimes, and when you choose duck or veal or pork or pasta in January, you’ll be far better off with the wines featured below than with the big-ass Cabernet.

I could extend this point and make the case for remembering middleweights during summer, but I’m sure you already get the point.  I may indeed extend the point in my column next month, featuring some go-to middleweight whites that will serve you well when spring turns to summer.  But for now, here are some red varieties that should always be up on your wine radar screen, profiled below in alphabetical order.  I’m leaving out Sangiovese and Tempranillo, the most famous red varieties from Italy and Spain, respectively, simply on account of their fame.  The varieties below are notably less well-known, but often just as good, and usually more affordable:

Cabernet Franc:  This grape variety has never really gotten its due, but my strong sense is that this is changing…and changing fast.  It has long been valued by vintners in Bordeaux, but never gained traction because it is submerged in blends with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (which is actually its offspring).  To the north in France, in the Loire Valley, it plays the lead role in the wines of Chinon and Bourgueil.  However, wines from those appellations have swung wildly from excellent to undrinkable over the decades, doing very well in warm years but turning out green and weedy in cool or wet ones.  Climate change has altered this markedly during the past decade, and today, Chinon and Bourgueil have become two of the best appellations in all of Europe in their ability to offer very high ratios of complexity to selling price.

With that said, there’s excellent reason to believe that the true breakthrough zone for this grape will be South America.  Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are all turning out superb renditions, and dong so at all price levels.  Some vintners in California and Washington state are also getting very good results from the variety, though my impression is that South American producers are quicker on the uptake, perhaps for the simple reason that they are less hardened in their presumptions…and more likely to go ahead and bottle excellent Cab Franc rather than blend it.  Of all North American locations where this potentially great grape is being given its due, Virginia is actually in the lead.  The top wines are not easily found outside of the Commonwealth or nearby Washington, D.C., but they are worth a search…or a shipping charge.

Grenache / Garnacha:  Although this is the most widely planted variety in the Southern Rhône, and the main grape responsible for famous wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it still languishes in relative obscurity.  This is predominantly because wines from that region are almost all labeled by reference to the appellation rather than the principal variety, and also because the wines usually incorporate smaller portions of Syrah, Mourvedre, or other varieties.  Millions of vines are also planted in Spain, but the sad fact is that many consumers don’t know that “Garnacha” is the same variety (and indeed, odds are that they French got it from Spain rather than the other way around).  As in France, lots of Garnacha gets blended (as in Rioja) or--where it predominates, as in Aragón--it is labeled by reference to the appellation (most notably, Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Calatayud).

But enough of the sob story.  Generations of smart consumers have known that even moderately priced bottles of Côtes-du-Rhône is among the most delicious and versatile wines in the world.  The fact that many of them didn’t know that they were drinking Grenache doesn’t matter all that much.  Nor does it matter much that most people who open a $12 bottle of Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Calatayud are in for an eye-popping experience when they discover how much quality they’ve just gotten for their money.  If you can just remember these three Spanish regions and ask the sales consultant in your wine shop to point you toward the southern Rhône section, you’re ready to improve your life…by drinking better wine that tastes better with your food and costs less money…than almost anything else you’ve been drinking.

Merlot:  We don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining why Merlot is currently under-valued, as we can distill this down to a single word:  “Sideways.”  The movie bearing that title crushed the variety’s reputation, and at the time, most Merlots had it coming, as it had been in vogue for a decade…with the predictable result that lots of it was being made from very young vines that were being over-cropped.

Well, funny how things turn out.  “Sideways” famously praised Pinot Noir, which was then over-planted and over-cropped (or blended with Syrah or dosed with Mega Purple), quickly deserving thereby the derision that the movie had heaped upon Merlot.  By contrast, those then-young Merlot vines have now matured, and are making much better wines in California and Washington, while also making lovely middleweight wines in New York and Virginia.  Merlot remains the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux, and is the predominant player in the appellation of Pomerol as well as many bottlings of Saint-Émilion and its satellite appellations.  The variety makes superb wines along the coast of Tuscany, but savvy Italian wine lovers know to look to Friuli for excellent renditions that are much more affordable and often labeled by the grape’s name.  A last point regarding value is this:  Just as all investors know, the mantra is, “buy low.”  Merlot won’t stay down forever, simply because of its inherent potential, so start buying now…while the “Sideways” hangover is wearing off.

Nebbiolo:  The grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco can make very expensive wines that are worth every penny asked for them, but that’s not the end of the story with this variety.  For one thing, it is still possible to buy very good renditions of Barolo and Barbaresco that don’t carry the name of a particular growing site or “cru.”  Climate change has made these wines much more consistent, though it is still important to buy from the best producers.  Learning who the better producers are isn’t difficult, and you can start right here on Wine Review Online, as my colleague Ed McCarthy and I write about Barolo and Barbaresco quite frequently (have a look at our article archives, which can be accessed simply by clicking on our names on the lower left of the WRO “Home” page).

For even less money, you can also find very good wines made in the same district from younger vines.  These are labeled as Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba, and again, buying from reliable producers is important simply because Nebbiolo is challenging to grow and make well.  Nebbiolo is also the variety used to make the DOCG wines of Roero, Gattinara and Ghemme, and though these aren’t so easy to find in many locations, the good news is that most of the ones that get exported were purchased by exporters for good reason.

Nebbiolo usually shows color of a light-bodied wine but also packs the tannic punch associated with full-bodied wines.  Add those two up and you’ve got a middleweight, but one that is always better with food--especially food with at least some dietary fat.  That may seem confining to some consumers who are accustomed to drinking their reds cocktail-style before sitting down to eat.  Granting that point, I’d still insist that Nebbiolo is among the greatest of all red wines at the table.  By the way, almost nobody in Italy drinks red wine like a cocktail, and the Italians know a thing or two about how to enjoy wine.

Northern Rhône Syrah:  Syrah is almost always a full-bodied wine when grown in the Western or Southern Hemispheres, and Aussie renditions of Shiraz are about as “full” as full-bodied gets.  Nevertheless, the variety makes highly complex, wonderfully versatile wines in a middleweight style in the relatively cool climate of France’s northern Rhône Valley.  Fully ten times as much wine is made in the Southern Rhône as in the north, so these wines are nowhere near as famous as southerly cousins like Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas.  However, I find them more complex, less obviously fruity, more “individuated” one from another, and more age-worthy.

Another great thing about Northern Rhône Syrah is that it can be enjoyed at prices as low as $15 but--from there--you can work your way up to some of the world’s most majestic wines (priced at $300 or more) as your interest increases.  Almost all of what you’ll find comes from just five appellations, which are priced roughly in this (ascending) order:  Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Cornas, Côte-Rotie and Hermitage.  Almost all are 100% Syrah, though a little Viognier is co-fermented in some renditions of Côte-Rotie and a little Marsanne and/or Roussanne is included in some red Hermitage.  There are white wines made from Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Hermitage, but they’re far more rare than the reds, and nowhere near as reliable…so just circle back to learn about them after you’ve fallen for the reds.  And fall you will, as these are wonderfully aromatic and full of flavor without being hard.  The simplest, most affordable renditions show endearing fruit flavors recalling raspberries above all, whereas the top wines show compelling savory complexities and a character that is “meaty” without seeming heavy….

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Comments or questions?  Write to me at michael@franzwine.com