Top International Wine Picks
Sky Restaurant sommelier Charles Ford recommends his favorite global sips.
When it comes to interesting international wines, sommelier and general manager Charles Ford of Chicago’s Sky Restaurant is an advocate for the unexpected and under-the-radar varietals. Roam asked Ford for his best wine picks, including from unexpected Canadian, Lebanese and Spanish vineyards. We love wine as a travel souvenir: nothing allows you to revisit a great trip like opening a bottle of Greek or Spanish or French wine you picked up on your travels. And when you don’t have the time or funds to travel, wine is a sensory immersion in place that can make you feel connected to France or Italy, or Spain in the simple act of opening a bottle.
Though some of these wines will only be available overseas, you can look for many of them at www.wine-searcher.com to find Ford’s recommended wines (if available).
Roam: Are there some under-the-radar countries or regions where people might be surprised by the quality of the wines?
Canada, Mexico and England are really starting to bubble up in the wine industry. Canada is producing top level pinot noir and chardonnay (Norman Hardie), gamay (Pearl-Moissette Estate Vineyards), some really great producers out there! Mexico is a little bit more under the radar, but the Valle de Guadalupe is producing great red blends (Vena Cava winery), chardonnays, and even nebbiolo (Corona del Valle winery). I particularly love the sparklers that are being made in England (Digby Fine English wine). These wines are incredibly mineral driven and have a laser style focus. They align themselves on the level of quality that Champagne has perfected. However, I will make the statement that no region on Earth has become as synonymous with class like Champagne has.
Roam: Tell us your favorite international wine at the moment and why.
Undoubtedly the most difficult question of the lot. Perhaps a better answer is what international wine do I always look forward to buying upon its arrival to the States? It is indeed the Chateau Musar Jeune Rouge. You can buy it for around $20, the equivalent to going to the symphony for a night.
Roam: Is wine a good travel souvenir?
Wine is a great travel souvenir! The only tips I’d offer is that when picking some up for a friend back home, make sure it’s not available stateside. When you give the gift of wine, it’s safe to assume that whoever got it is going to Google it. Make sure you do your homework.
Roam: What are your go-to sources for international wine in the States?
Flickinger Fine Wines in Chicago has an outstanding collection of great international wines, and their vintages go pretty deep. The prices are fair too. The most important thing to do is to create a relationship with someone you trust at your local wine retailer. I’ve known Hunter at Vin Chicago (my local shop) for over five years now, and it all started when he asked me if I wanted any help one day. I’m privileged to call the guy a friend. I’m a professional sommelier by trade, and I’m telling you it’s OK to say "yes, please help me!"
Roam: What are some of the next-wave varietals people should keep on their radar?
Look for viognier to make some waves. A seriously misunderstood grape as far as the general American population is concerned. And it’s not their fault, viognier’s reputation kind of got ruined by California’s big and flabby interpretations (I’m sure I’ll catch flack for that statement but it’s true). French viognier is an absolute dime of a wine when you can find it, most of the good stuff is in limited availability here in the States. Spanish verdejo (from Rueda) continues its climb into the spotlight. It’s a great alternative for those becoming a little tired of sauvignon blanc. It’s pretty easy to find a great value verdejo (most are about $10-$15 retail). My big red crush for this year has already started, it’s grenache. There is so much outstanding grenache coming from all these countries: Australia, Spain, U.S.A.
Charles Ford’s Top International Wine Picks
Buil & Giné 2014 Nosis Verdejo – Rueda, Spain
This old vine wine packs a zesty punch, an under-the-radar favorite. Because the vines get up to around 40 years old this wine has incredible concentration of both savory, herbaceous flavors and plenty of tart green and tropical fruits. Don’t expect this wine to cost a lot either—retails around $15. Rueda is a seriously underused wine that packs a wonderful surprise for people who like drinking sauvignon blanc and to some extent even chardonnay.
Seresin Estate 2014 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon Blend – Marlborough, New Zealand
This wine will make a sauvignon blanc drinker out of anyone. A percentage of this blend is fermented in oak barrels, and it has a huge effect on the finished product. Oak fermentation (even if it’s a percentage) provides weight and body to a grape that typically has a laser-like edge on its palate.
Norman Hardie 2014 Niagara Peninsula Chardonnay – Ontario, Canada
Norman Hardie, another region so close to the Finger Lakes! There’s something great going on in this part of the world. This is the kind of chardonnay that convinces folks of the wonders of new oak. At the end of fermenting this chardonnay they transfer the wine from stainless steel to oak barrels, a few of them brand new. The wine shows an incredible sense of balance. Drinking balanced wine is what makes your mouth happy! No more comparing wines like this to the Burgundian motherland. Norman Hardie’s wines are their own beautiful representation of what Canada’s premier wine growing regions have to offer.
El Enemigo 2011 Bonarda – Mendoza, Argentina
This estate makes its wines with a constant reflection of "the enemy" within, that one needs to battle to produce a stellar product. Looking past the argument of Bonarda’s heritage, this estate makes a wonderfully rustic and unapologetic wine from this historic grape. The finished product is so elegant. El Enemigo doesn’t use new oak barrels, it uses second and third use barrels. Older barrels allows the grape to take center stage.
Finca Villacreces 2009 Tempranillo – Ribera del Duero, Spain
I buy a bottle of this every time at the wine store. Perfectly aged eight-year-old tempranillo (blended with small amounts of cabernet sauvignon and merlot) that sees a heavy dose of new oak, all for under $25 retail. This bottle is excellence in regards to texture and mouth feel. Not to mention, this property has got to be one of the most beautiful locations along the Duero River, it’s absolutely stunning.
Chateau Musar 2012 Jeune Rouge – Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Allow me to introduce you to the benchmark of Lebanese winemaking. The Hochar Family is legendary in the winemaking business. Rest in peace Serge, who passed away in 2014. The wines made at Chateau Musar rival the complexity of France’s best labels. The Jeune Rouge selection is an incredible value at retail, typically sub $20. The wine is made from mostly cinsault with a little bit of syrah and cabernet mixed in. A wonderful wine for spring, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Nino Negri 2012 5 Stelle Sfursat Nebbiolo – Valtellina, Italy
A truly unknown GEM to the ordinary wine drinker, in Valtellina they’ll tell you it’s chiavennasca. This wine is made in such a way that the only outcome is perfect beauty. Some people will tell you these styles of wines can’t match Barolo or Barbaresco but I believe they go further than either of those regions in regards to what the true definition of complexity is. When this wine is on the menu, I make sure not to pay attention to my wallet—been worth it every time.