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A sommelier's guide to independent wine labels

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Selecting wines for dinner from a retail wine department can be a daunting task. There are at least 10,000 different wines sold by distributors in Michigan. In the Lansing area, there are 15 distributors that sell wine. 

There is no easy narrative as to what makes “good” wine. This, among other reasons, is what drives corporate wine sets to work more closely with larger distributors which house big corporate brands. The relationships are easier to maintain this way, certainly. And the sets are generally more straightforward, with a lot of popular labels and the nondescript-but-omnipresent red blends.

This leaves many small producers on the outside looking in. Generally, those wines are sold by savvy wine consultants at independent retailers — who carry a real passion for championing small wines labels.

Most certainly off the radar comes one of my favorite rosés of this past year: San Silvestro’s Monferrato Chiaretto. It sounds like a mouthful, but it’s summed up succinctly by calling this wine pretty, fresh and dry. It’s practically begging for strawberries and a front porch to join it for a warm spring day. The 2018 vintage should cost about $15 retail; I’d honestly buy it for $20.

Monferrato is a small village located in the region of Piedmont, Italy. Chiaretto — pronounced with a hard “k” sound at the beginning — is a lighter, paler version of rosé that is made throughout northern Italy. This bottling is made entirely from the barbera grape.

Heading south to Tuscany, many store shelves and corporate wine lists focus on Chianti and Chianti Classico for their Italian selections. Occasionally, you may see Brunello di Montalcino out in the wild as well but they can get more pricey in comparison. 

Enzo Tiezzi’s “Poggio Cerrino” Rosso di Montalcino ($25) is a great entry point to the small region. Make no mistake — this wine is for Italian and earthy wine lovers. This is not a wine that’s going to pull Meiomi pinot noir fans over to the Italian section. It’s a funky, 100 percent sangiovese bottling that is full-bodied with heaping amounts of ripe cherries, jammy raspberries and smoky flavors.

And I know, I know ... it might be weird to say this wine smells like a forest. But it does.

Moving on to a white wine, it’s incorrect to surmise that there’s anything obscure about the chardonnay grape. It’s a workhorse grape that much of American wine consumption has been built on. Chardonnay cromprises some of the most prestigious and famous vineyards (e.g., Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne in France).

Every time you walk into a “big box” retailer, you’re going to see probably 75 to 100 chardonnay options. It’s overkill, but people are still buying it.

One of my favorite places in the world for chardonnay is Australia, specifically Margaret River. Far away from the bustling cities of Sydney and Melbourne, Margaret River is in coastal Western Australia, amidst generally warm temperatures and maritime winds. 

Robert Oatley’s 2015 chardonnay is an outright steal at about $18. It doesn’t possess fat fruit or opulence. It’s a refreshing wine and, honestly, it’s kind of hard to say that about chardonnay. Most of the time. I love this wine for its combination of flavors that hint at granny smith apples, peaches and lime. 

If your local independent retailer does not carry these wines, beg them to. They are highly compelling for a low cost. 

If you ask for some recommendations similar to the aforementioned wines at local outlets like Vine & Brew, Dusty’s Cellar, Tom’s Party Store or Horrocks, you’re bound to get some good options.

Justin King is an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and was named Wine & Spirits Magazine 2017 Best New Sommelier. He is owner of Bridge Street Social in DeWitt, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant, as well as Bar Mitena, set to open this year on Lansing’s east side.

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