Last week I focused on what I called “weird” wines, by which I meant wines using less well-known grapes. The point was that while there are good reasons that many popular varietals are popular, the grapes you don’t recognize are where the action’s at.

Reason 1: Taking the road less traveled by is valuable on its own: You learn things you wouldn’t have otherwise, you expose yourself to more of the world. Reason 2: The popularity of certain taste profiles leads inevitably to conformity and narrowing: Unless you’re very careful and informed, the marketplace steers you toward wines whose characteristics have been engineered to please “customers” instead of humans.

Wines outside that process are made not in disregard for customers, but in a spirit that honors the grapes and land of origin themselves, filtered through the particular soul and skills of the winemaker. At the price levels I try to stick to in this column, you have better chances of finding such idiosyncratic, honestly made wines when you explore unconventional varietals.

So, here’s what I really mean when I say “weird”: The wine is above all exciting. It doesn’t make you say, “Hmm, that’s pretty good … not bad for ten bucks …” Instead, it elicits a thrill in the drinker; it makes one grateful to inhabit a world with this fruit and the people who can do this with it. The wines themselves are vibrant, alive, fresh. They encourage you to keep drinking them because of that thrill.

Cantina Tre Serre Cortese 2008, Piemonte, Italy, $10 (Crush). I watched a woman sit at the bar of a small, casual-but-lovingly-tended Portland pizzeria and ask for a glass of Chardonnay. The restaurant, bless ’em, didn’t have one. Even more blessable is the expert way the bartender politely steered her toward trying a Cortese instead. If only more restaurants had this combination of principle and informed staff.

A perfect summer-in-Maine white, this Cortese is to-the-brim with refreshing acidity, balanced with a softening mouthfeel that avoids the some-Cortese-pitfall of being too darn “lite.” The seashell salinity of the initial punch rounds into a faint sweetness that’s made for the table: try it with intimidatingly-hard-to-pair vinegary salads, smoked salmon appetizers, olives, or such geographically appropriate cheeses as Raschera, Gorgonzola, even Taleggio. Alcohol is a low 11.5 percent, so food pairings are honored rather than battered and you don’t have to hold back.

Berger Gruner Veltliner 2009, Neiderosterreich, Austria, $14 (SoPo). That’s $14 for a liter; for 750ml it would be $10.50. There is no better wine to bring to a potluck than this, and not just because it’s a large bottle with a beer top! No, it’s because of Gruner Veltliner’s justly famous flexibility: minerally and herbal, but with white peach and Meyer lemon too, it’s a fascinating mix of viney-vegetal with very subtle sweetness at the end. This means it matches the actual flavor profile of challenging vegetables (kale, fennel, eggplant), mayo-y and vinegary things, grain salads. Also, it was dynamite when I made herb-heavy crab cakes (again, the green with the sweet).

Botromagno Gravina 2008, Puglia, Italy, $9 (National). Disregard the random/boilerplate label-notes. In fact, it’s a mix of Greco and Malvasia, lush and aromatic with all sorts of beautiful flavor notes: brown butter, hazelnuts, candied orange, golden raisins, vanilla. The possible meal pairings are legion: scallops, coconut curry, non-spicy Indian food such as dal, crispy tofu, Swiss Gruyere, roast chicken (especially slathered in butter, Julia-Child-style). Way underpriced.

Joe Appel’s day job is doing lots of different things at Rosemont Market and Bakery. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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