Beyond Cabernet: 10 Cool Things to Know About ‘Other’ Wines

Christopher Stagnitta explains wine at a Maryland wine tasting
Christopher Stagnitta explains wine at a Maryland wine tasting
There’s a whole world of red wine out there beyond Cabs. Christopher Stagnitta, wine consultant at Prestige Beverage Group of Church Hill, Maryland, provides wine to many of the Chesapeake Bay’s high-end restaurants and has the inside scoop on both reds and whites. 

Pinots popped into popularity because of the movie, “Sideways.” A character in the popular 2004 movie trashed Merlot and sales crashed. “Sideways made our lives hell for two years,” says Christopher Stagnitta. Red wine drinkers turned to Pinot noir and distributors ran out of Pinot. Many wineries ripped out their Merlot vines and planted Pinot noir, harvesting the grapes after the first year. Stagnitta calls wine made out of young grape vines “grape juice.” Pinots are supposed to be peppery. If they’re aged properly, you’ll taste fruit when you first sip the wine and then you should taste a peppery finish.

Super Tuscans

Chianti’s had a bad rep’ for a long time due to Italian restaurants of the 1960s that became quitchy in the 1970s & 80s. Then, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” wanted to eat someone with “some fava beans and a nice chianti.” People started trying it again. Italian vintners created a chianti on ‘roids and called them Super Tuscans. They’re assorted grape blends from the Tuscan region of Italy.


The movie “Sideways” nearly killed merlot sales. Or rather, the people who followed the advice of a fictional character. Meritage came of age as a result. It’s a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The percentage of the five may change, and one may be left out now and again, but it’s consistently these five grapes blended together. And it’s pronounced: mer-eh tēgh (like ‘his’) not mare-reh-tahge (like India’s Tag Mahal). But don’t piss off your friends by correcting them; just use this as a interesting tidbit.

Sparkling Wine/Champagne

Sparkling wine and Champagne are the same thing. They use the same method to become wine. Stagnitta says the high cost of champagne versus “sparkling wine,” or Prosecco, is often due to marketing.

BTW — Some Champagne is made in the US. The United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which maintained that “Champagne” only comes from the Champagne region of France. That changed with a new treaty in 2006, but wineries already using the term are allowed to continue as long as the label includes the grape’s growing region.

If you like to experiment, try a smaller grower of Champagne or sparkling. The brand names are so well known that they’re trapped in providing the same taste. Lessor-known brands will vary depending on the growing season and tweaks in the fermentation process. It can be as good, much cheaper and more fun.

Bottle of Prosecco with Severn River in the background
Bottle of Prosecco with Severn River in the background

The Inside Scoop on Champagne:

  • The smaller the bubbles the longer the wine has been sealed in the bottle (ie. better quality). And, the quantity of bubbles has more to do with the type of glass you’re using to drink it from than the quality of wine. Some restaurants will lightly scratch the inside bottom of the glass to create a furious bubbling effect. The bubbles are simply reacting to the scratch.
  • There are seven categories of sparkling based on how much sugar in the wine. They are (in order of dry to sweet): brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry, demo-sec, doux. Sugar is often added on the demo-sec & doux end. These are all sparkling wines/champagnes. Any number of white wine grapes can be used to make sparkling wine. The bubble effect is caused by how it’s fermented, not by the type of grape.
  • You can store sparkling longer in the bottle than the average white wine, but you still don’t want to hold it overly long (years) waiting for that special occasion, otherwise you might have some sucky wine at that special occasion.
Champagne Alternatives

Prosecco is the Italian version of champagne. It’s often sweeter because that’s type that sells best in the U.S., but you can find dry Prosecco.

Consider Sparkling Rose instead of Prosecco or Champagne. “If you think (Rose) is sweet, you’re old,” says Stagnitta. In a blind taste test, you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between a dry Rose and another red. Rose is the name of a grape, not of a style of wine. It’s pink because fermentation is stopped half-way through. (Wine changes color depending on the grape skin and how long the skin is fermented with the wine.) The color has nothing to do with sweetness, dryness or alcohol content. Those are determined by the wine-making process


Granache is a type of grape and, made into wine on it’s own, tastes like “sucking dirt,” according to Stagnitta. However, when blended, it evens out other grapes and gives the wine a deeper flavor.


Zinfandel has been growing in the U.S. since the California gold rush, when it’s believed that immigrants brought it with them from Croatia. It’s usually the first wine that new wine drinkers like, because white Zin is light, sweet and lower alcohol content. However, red Zins can be dry, bold and 14-17% alcohol.


Old Vine Zins

This is a unique category to consider. The “old” vines have to be a minimum of 40 years old. They produce a small fruit and the flavors are more intense. Vineyards get only a ton or two per acre compared to younger vines that produce five to six tons per acre. The wine is smoother and more flavorful.

Box Wine

Don’t dis on the boxes. Yes, some people are still adjusting to screw tops. But boxes are here to stay. The wine is held in a bladder inside the box. There’s virtually no air inside.  And better quality plastics are being developed, that means higher-end wine can pour for months and not lose quality. With a bottle, you have to drink the wine within days, maybe a week or so with a fancy stopper. In Europe’s pubs and U.S. “wine bars”, you’ll find good quality wine served from a tap like beer. And there are good boxed wine being sold in the U.S., often served as the ‘house wine’ at restaurants.

Stagnitta says the next generation of wine distribution is keg wine.


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