In the mood for a nice, big merlot? Planning to bring a fancy pinot grigio to that party this weekend? Fingers crossed you'll get a nice bottle of White Zin for your birthday? Probably not. And we understand why: This sounds like a list of what not to order. And indeed it used to be. But times change, and guess what? All these bottles are coming back. Here, we look at seven wines that have gone from lead role to character actor to bad guy—and back to center stage—over the past few decades.
1. Lambrusco Comes Out of the Ice Age
Back Story: In the late 1960s, a company called Banfi was looking for an entry-level Italian red wine for American consumers. They found it in Riunite, a slightly sweet, frizzy, fruity wine made from Lambrusco, a grape well-known only in Emilia. With an insistent campaign slogan, "Riunite on ice—that's nice," Banfi sold 25 million cases in 1985 alone. Embarrassed wine aficionados, of course, would never admit to drinking any wine on ice. Lose the ice, however, and critics and sommeliers today are taking second sips and falling in love with the (mostly) dry and traditional Lambruscos. The New York Times' Eric Asimov gushes, "I have been on a genuine Lambrusco kick for some years now, and I've been delighted to see delicious evidence of its rebirth!"
Conversational Tidbit: The commercials have long been silent, but Riunite on ice never really went away. It's still in the top 10 of American wine imports.
Recommended Bottles: NV Cleto Chiarli Grasparossa di Castelvetro Lambusco Amabile (pictured); 2011 Fiorini Terre al Sole Grasparosso di Castelvetro Lambusco; 2011 Fattorio Moretto Grasparossa di Castelvetro Lambrusco Secco.
2. Chianti's Still a Basket Case
Back Story: Pick up any old wine book that features the Chianti region, and there will be a photo of village women weaving straw baskets around bulbous, bottom-heavy, green wine bottles. And when World War II soldiers returned to America from Italy, Chianti and its straw baskets—unfortunately called fiascos—quickly followed them. An empty Chianti bottle sporting a red candle dripping wax became the café-table icon for the Beat Generation of artists and intelligentsia who preceded the hippies. Too bad the wine was thin and acidic. It was gradually replaced during the 1970s with "good Chianti" in a regular bottle sans straw. But now, the squat bottles with the wicker wrapping are weaving their way back—perhaps a touch of nostalgia and reverse authenticity is in the air? Look for them in high-volume wine shops as well as mom-and-pop Italian restaurants that don't have sommeliers or white table cloths.
Conversational Tidbit: The original Chianti bottles were made of very thin glass prone to easy shattering. Straw baskets were added as a protective measure.
Recommended Bottles: NV Bell'Agio Chianti (pictured); 2011 Mellini Chianti.
3. White Zinfandel's No Longer Blushing
Back Story: Napa Valley's Sutter Home was among the first premium producers of Zinfandel wines in the 1970s, often bleeding off a bit of almost-clear juice—a process called saignée—to increase the intensity of the red wine. Then they decided to make this unwanted juice into a rosé and call it "White Zinfandel." It was dry at first, but in 1975 an incomplete fermentation left it somewhat sweet—and sweet it stayed. Little old ladies who sipped cooking sherry loved it. Critics hated it, and one current wine writer still calls the idea of an upscale White Zin "an oxymoron." And yet premium winegrower Turley has produced one. Why? White Zin is essentially a rosé, and dry rosés have risen in popularity over the past decade. These premium White Zins may not be called White Zinfandel on the label, but a Zinfandel rosé by any other name is still a White Zin.
Conversational Tidbit: Rosé was considered such a "bleh" name in the 1980s that the term "blush wine" was introduced to describe the lightly colored, sweet White Zins.
Recommended Bottles: 2012 Turley Napa Valley white zinfandel; 2012 Jelly Jar Lake County zinfandel rosé (pictured).
4. Every Rosé Has Its Thorn
Back Story: Rosé wines have always been enjoyed in Europe, but not so much in the U.S. That changed in the 1960s, when Mateus rosé arrived on American shores from Portugal. At first it was welcomed as a more acceptable alternative to cheap novelty wines, such as Night Train and Richards Wild Irish Rose. Suddenly, baby boomers were drinking "sophisticated" imported wine in a squat bottle that looked like a perfume dispenser on steroids. It was very fruity, somewhat sweet, and frankly anyone who knew French rosés called it a travesty. Nothing changed until about a dozen years ago, when critics started recommending rosés for summer drinking. Now consumers love them too, annual sales are up, and Brad and Angelina are making a Provence rosé at Château Miraval (pictured, right)—we kid you not.
Conversational Tidbit: Many rosés have fewer calories and less sugar than white wines. For example: A five-ounce glass of Pinot Grigio has about 122 calories, but a rosé has only 82.
Recommended Bottles: 2012 Château Miraval Côtes de Provence rosé (pictured); 2012 Chêne Bleu vin de pays de Vaucluse rosé; 2012 Tablas Creek "Patelin de Tablas" Paso Robles rosé.
5. Merlot Gets Its Groove Back
Back Story: Merlot started life in California with a clean slate. In the 1970s, Napa Valley was crazed with making 100 percent pure-breed (varietal) wines instead of blends, and it was even more obsessed with making wines better than the French. Cabernet Sauvignon took on Bordeaux, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir competed with Burgundy. But Merlot? No expectations. By the 1990s, it was so popular that it was flying high above all critical radar. Then the 2004 movie Sideways shot it down, as the flawed hero Miles raved about the nobility of Pinot Noir and ranted against the commonality of Merlot. Sales took a double-digit dip. But loyalty has slowly brought it back. Most premium producers stuck by their Merlot, and today its reputation and sales have regained altitude, though it takes balls to order a bottle in some circles.
Conversational Tidbit: Although Sideways is entertaining, Miles' logic was often impaired. Pétrus, one of the most revered Bordeaux makers, is made almost entirely from Merlot.
Recommended Bottles: 2010 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Merlot; 2007 Macari North Fork of Long Island Merlot Reserve (pictured); 2008 Petrus; 2010 Trefethen Oak Knoll of Napa Valley Merlot.
6. The New ABCs of Chardonnay
Back Story: In the 1980s, an order for a "glass of white wine" meant "pour me a Chard." Familiarity soon bred contempt—the wines were too alcoholic, too bland, too sweet, and certainly too oaky, critics claimed. By 1995, the late wine journalist Frank Prial wrote, "There is in this country a loosely knit group of wine enthusiasts whose guiding principle is expressed in the letters A, B, C." The letters stood for "Anything but Chardonnay." What had happened to the wine that was once America's darling? It grew too big too fast, standards declined, and it fell way out of vogue—until recently, when fans, recognizing that it doesn't have to feature massive vanilla and oak notes, re-embraced it. Fact is: Chardonnay continues to be the best-selling American wine.
Conversational Tidbit: Although Chablis is often cited as the ultimate un-oaky Chardonnay, most higher-quality grand cru and premier cru Chablis spends some time in oak barrels.
Recommended Bottles: 2011 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay (pictured); 2011 Keenan Spring Mountain Chardonnay; 2011 Pollak Monticello Chardonnay.
7. Pinot Grigio Gets a Second Opinion
Back Story: Pinot Grigio was taboo even before it was trendy. For years, when wine critics talked about the white wines of northern Italy, they always reserved a few words like insipid or common for Pinot Grigio. No matter—it invaded America like kudzu and became the most popular wine-by-the-glass option over the past decade. Sommeliers fought back, begging customers to please try something—anything—else. But, as often happens, some influentials are now taking a somewhat different tack, imploring, "If you must drink Pinot Grigio, at least drink the good stuff from Alto Adige and Collio in northeast Italy—and from Alsace in France, where it is called Pinot Gris." Image rehab continues.
Conversational Tidbit: In Alsace, Pinot Gris is one of four grapes recognized as being "noble," along with Riesling, Ggewürztraminer, and Muscat.
Recommended Bottles: 2012 Alois Lageder "Dolomiti" Alto Adige Pinot Grigio (pictured); 2011 Domaine Ostertag "Barriques" Alsace Pinot Gris; 2012 Marco Felluga "Mongris" Collio Pinot Grigio.