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Drinking Out Loud

The Contrarian Cellar

Why? Because you'll drink far more interesting wines
Photo by: Jon Moe
For something new, Matt Kramer pulls an old Loire gem from the cellar.

Matt Kramer
Posted: April 18, 2017

Here's a true story from life in the dining trenches. I regularly dine in San Francisco with a pal who's well-acquainted with most of the world's greatest and most famous wines. You name the trophy, and he's bagged it, often many times.

However, when we get together, my (self-assigned) job is to bring wines that he likely—read assuredly—has never heard of or tasted. Of course, given the audience, these wines have got to be more than just pleasing. The bar is set high, somewhere between revelatory and astonishing.

It's an enjoyable exercise because where he's pursued the big-game trophies from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the like, I've got the rest of the world's wines at my disposal, the vast majority of which he knows nothing about. Also, it helps that he's got a fine palate and is a good sport.

Anyway, last week my opening round was, if I may say so, one of my best shots yet: a 1981 Bonnezeaux from Château de Fesles in the Loire Valley. Of course he hadn't heard of it. In fairness, few wine lovers have, which is both a pity and—hey!—an opportunity.

Before opening the bottle I explained that Bonnezeaux is one of two great vineyard sites in the larger Loire district of Coteaux du Layon. The other is Quarts de Chaume which, in a first in the Loire Valley, received grand cru status in 2011 after an unusually aggrieved legal wrangle. It's a small (133 acres) island of vines inside the much larger Coteaux du Layon district.

Bonnezeaux, for its part, is the other island of greatness in the Coteaux du Layon. Larger than Quarts de Chaume, but still relatively small at 257 acres, Bonnezeaux has not yet been elevated to grand cru status. But everyone knows that it's only a matter of time and the necessary (political) perseverance, as it has been recognized as an exceptional site for centuries.

Both Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume are 100 percent Chenin Blanc. Both are always produced as sweet wines. Both are capable of aging and genuinely improving for decades. They are marvels of agricultural acuity, centuries-old chartings of ancient recognitions of distinctions of place.

So what happened? Fireworks! I bought a case of that 1981 Bonnezeaux from Château de Fesles a long time ago and it's been lying in the cellar for years. Why? Because I just didn't have many occasions to reach for a sweet wine. Happily for me, a Bonnezeaux can soak up time like a tortoise. No rush, baby.

The color alone was shocking: a bright, almost fluorescent yellow chartreuse with no browning tinge whatsoever. It was a deeper shade than a young Bonnezeaux, but age had only given the color more saturation rather than degradation.

The scent and taste were mature yet improbably vital, a full tide of classic Chenin Blanc flavors and scents of anise and minerals and subtle fruits such as quince. Nothing stood out; everything cohered, which is one of the benefits and attributes of successful wine maturity (and probably our own, too).

Although the wine retained its classic sweetness, that too was subsumed as part of the larger flavor whole. It was extraordinary. We had it at the beginning of the meal, by the way, with a handsomely complementary blue cheese pizza that deftly offset the moderate sweetness of the wine, rendering it clean-tasting and refreshing. The characteristic high acidity of Chenin Blanc also helped that cause.

This was a triumph of what I call the Contrarian Cellar. And if I may be further assertive yet, I think you should have one too. These days, most of us are out of the running for today's trophy wines. At most they are mere tasting experiences, and for some only virtual, vicarious experiences imagined from somebody's online tasting notes.

But the Contrarian Cellar is real. And feasible. And affordable. All it takes is a willingness to be, well, contrarian. You have to ignore what others are buying and touting and instead pursue the unknown, unfashionable or obscure.

Just where to look depends upon your access to the world's wines, your willingness to do some research and, not least, your availability to buying and drinking what others aren't. (That last point may seem shallow, but so much about wine breeds—and feeds off—insecurity.)

What wines should fill a contrarian's cellar? Surely you have your own nominations, and I look forward to hearing them.

Myself, I remain enamored of the Loire Valley, as the preceding saga would suggest. And today's Loire wines are better than ever before, with new, young, ambitious producers delivering cleaner, more site-specific wines than any previously seen.

Loire prices are still absurdly low for the quality. And the 2014 and 2015 vintages are good to downright great, depending upon the location. (At 200 miles long, the Loire Valley pretty much never has a uniformly great vintage for all sites and all grapes. But between them, 2014 and 2015 get closer to that ideal than most years.)

What else? Southern Oregon wines are worth pursuing. You'll be surprised. Ditto for Ontario and British Columbia. I've previously banged the drum for the Canary Islands, Tasmania and, above all, Portugal.

The list of possibilities for what might be called a triumphant Contrarian Cellar is lengthy. You can zero in on great producers of less-than-renowned grape varieties such as Austria's Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt. Or Hungary's Furmint and Juhfark.

Other possibilities—very promising ones, I think—are satellite districts orbiting more famous wine zones. We're now seeing an uptick in interest in the northern Piedmont districts of Ghemme, Gattinara and Lessona, among others, as prices for Barolo and Barbaresco have soared. Look also at nearby Liguria, as well as the likes of the Asti area and Monferrato.

You get the picture. Do you have a Contrarian Cellar? If so, what's in it? Is a Contrarian Cellar really the best approach for anyone of moderate means and an active wine interest? Obviously, I think so. Do you?

Michael J Long
London, England —  April 18, 2017 4:29pm ET
Dear Matt,

I’ve always enjoyed your philosophical musings on wine, and your column on the ‘The Contrarian Cellar’ really struck a chord with me. There are so many alternative wines out there that are just as good or even better than many of the top trophy wines and at a fraction of the cost.

For the record, I enjoy and appreciate almost all types of wine, but my favorites are full-bodied red wines that are rich and complex. Also for the record, I used to be religiously devoted to Bordeaux, but after stocking up on the 2005 vintage, Bordeaux fatigue began to set in. Since then I have discovered many excellent, non-trophy red wines which I enjoy immensely and which are starting to take up more and more of my limited wine-storage space. Nowadays I’ll still buy an occasional half-case or two of Bordeaux from a good vintage, but as a rule I’ve pretty much gone off Bordeaux simply because I enjoy my new discoveries much more.

So here are my nominations for a contrarian cellar:

Cigalus, Gerard Bertrand, Sud de France (France)

Quinta do Vallado, Douro, Touriga Nacional (Portugal)

Quinta do Vallado, Douro, Field Blend Reserva (Portugal)

Quinta das Carvalhas, Douro (Portugal)

Alvaro Palacios, Priorat, Les Terrasses Velles Vinyes (Spain)

Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo, Villa de Corullón (Spain)

(NOTE: Reviews for all of the above wines can be found on Winespectator.com)

Kind regards.
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  April 22, 2017 12:09am ET
Wonderful and encouraging article for those who can not afford or get access to the cult and top priced wines. For every rare $200 bottle there are several around $50 or less just as good. I have a good collection of Portuguese reds... though they are starting to creep up in price there are still many excellent wines for under $20.
Similar to your story about the aged Bonnezeaux, on a lesser scale, a couple nights ago I pulled out a 5 year old low price 87 rated Picpoul de :Pinet that was past the "official" drinking range. It too was a beautiful ale color and had lost a bit of the acidity so it was wonderfully balanced. Secondary flavors of apricot/peach and herbs had developed. It was a wonderful pairing to the pan fried halibut steak with lemon and olive oil that my wife made for us that night.
Thanks for a great and thought-provoking article!!

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