The boutique wine stores that have proliferated in Chicago over the past half dozen years don't offer the kind of selection as, say, Binny's. But their owners and managers have personally tasted every wine they stock. When we checked in with some of them about the latest in summer wines, we learned that these retailers are experiencing "downward pressure" on prices from customers, which they think has made people more open to trying new varietals, especially whites and rosés.
We asked each for three picks; here are their tasting notes and recommended food pairings.
Owner, Cellar Rat
1811 W. North, 773-489-2728cellarratchicago.com
Opened in early 2007. Stocks 200-300 wines with a focus on small, family-owned growers and producers using more natural, traditional methods.
Meinklang Gruner Veltliner 2008 ($13): This bright, clean, crisp, fresh, oakless, biodynamically produced white from Austria is more interesting than the usual sauvignon blancs and pinot grigios. Great with grilled seafood, especially spicy shrimp.
Los Frailes Monastrell 2007 ($12): A medium-bodied, classically dry, organic red from Valencia that's less fruity than typical Spanish reds, making it more thirst quenching in hot weather. Hearty enough to stand up to grilled meats, like a pork chop with a dry rub, but not so heavy that you can't drink it on its own.
Librandi Ciro Rosato 2009 ($10): Made from the gaglioppo grape, this organic Italian rosé (from Calabria) has bright berry flavors and a floral nose. Dry but not bone dry, it compares favorably with more expensive rosés and goes well with almost anything, Schlabowske says, though, "I'm a huge fan of it with barbecued ribs because it complements the sweetness of barbecue sauces much better than the hearty reds people usually pair with them."
You can test that pairing at the store's annual Ribs and Rosé barbecue, Sunday, July 18, noon-4 PM. It's free.
Shane and Jill Kissack
Owners, In Fine Spirits
5418 N. Clark, 773-506-9463infinespirits.com
Opened in 2004. Stocks an average of 250 wines with an emphasis in the New World—including South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa—and a preference for the Pacific northwest over California.
Lumos Temperance Hill Vineyard Gewurztraminer 2009 ($18): On the dry side for a Gewurztraminer, with fresh floral aromatics and a bright lychee streak, this organically farmed (but not certified) wine from Oregon's Willamette Valley is perfect for drinking on the patio or with Thai, particularly spicy drunken noodles.
Arcane Cellars Rosé of Pinot Gris 2009 ($15): Also from the Willamette Valley and made from a grape usually used for whites, this dry rosé has hints of wild strawberry and is very versatile with food. Grilled salmon steaks are a good match.
Thurston Wolfe Lemberger 2008 ($17): From Horse Heaven Hills in Washington State and made from an Austrian grape also known as blaufrankish, this red has big cherry and red raspberry flavors with a little vanilla and spice finish that goes well with barbecue.
Don and Sharon Sritong
Owners, Just Grapes
560 W. Washington, 312-627-9463justgrapes.net
Opened in 2004. Stocks 350 wines with a focus on small producers and affordability.
Mont Gras Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($12.99): Light, crisp, and refreshing, with citrus and tropical fruit notes and great acidity, this Chilean white can handle spice-rubbed ribs and also goes with grilled veggies like asparagus.
Biohof Gruner Veltliner 2008 ($15.99 liter): Austrian white with "lean-and-mean complexity," mineral undertones, and a refreshing, racy white-pepper backbone. Good with a variety of foods but terrific with arugula salad.
Big Woop 2008 ($14.99 liter): Full-flavored blend from Australia that brings together the body of chardonnay, floral and tropical fruit tones of viognier, and the acidity of pinot gris. "Fun-loving" white that can stand up to barbecued chicken and burgers. "People approach blends with less hesitation because they're not hung up by expectations for a particular grape, and winemakers approach blends like chefs would a dish," says Don.
Assistant manager, The Noble Grape
802 N. Bishop, 312-846-1204noblegrape.net
Opened last year by Alex Basich and Milan Patel, the Noble Grape stocks 250 wines from all over the globe, with an emphasis on small-batch and boutique producers; 80 percent are $30 or less.
La Playa Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2009 ($10): The high acidity and subtle, fresh, delicate flavors of this rosé from Chile's Colchagua Valley make it an amazing match for a raw bar.
Don Rodolfo Torrontes 2008 ($13): This unusual white from Argentina's Cafayate Valley has a pretty nose of white flowers, orange rind, and hints of grapefruit. Its clean palate with tangy fruits and high acidity makes your mouth water. Great for hot weather; goes with any spicy cuisine, including Thai and Mexican.
Kanonkop Kadette 2008 ($12): A blend of pinotage grapes with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, this deep, dark, smoky red from Stellenbosch, South Africa, is amazingly complex for the price and ideal with grilled skirt steak. "It's currently my favorite wine in the shop," says Smith.
John and Erica Witte
Owners, The Poison Cup
1128 W. Armitage, 773-935-1325poisoncup.com
Opened in April 2009; doubles as an art gallery. Stocks 100-115 wines, many from "passionate wine artisans."
Jurtschitsch Gruner Veltliner Gruve 2007 ($11): Atypically lush gruner from Austria with ripe peach and apricot freshness. Drink on its own or pair with roasted chicken or pork loin.
Castillo de Jumilla Rosé 2008 ($13): Made from the monastrell grape, this pretty pink Spanish wine with both density and acidity is crisp and refreshing, more like a sauvignon blanc, but red fruit flavors add an element of surprise. Drink by itself or with a spinach, strawberry, and walnut salad.
Terra Blanca Red Mountain Syrah 2002 ($22): Stylistically French and silkily elegant, this certified-organic Washington State syrah with a "farmy" first whiff, mouthwatering acidity, and tangy black fruits comes alive with lean, smoky meats like seared venison or bison. "If you're still drinking red in the heat of the summer, this is the red you should be drinking," say Erica.
Sean Krainik and Nathan Adams
Owners, Red & White
1861 N. Milwaukee, 773-486-4769 redandwhitechicago.com
Opened July 2008. Stocks about 240 wines with a focus on natural and organic. More Old World than New World, but some from U.S.
Lambert "Cuvée Mathilde" Rosé 2008 ($16): This cabernet franc rosé from a biodynamic vineyard in the Loire Valley is well-balanced and earthy, with savory herbal tones, brininess, structure, mouth spritz, and acidity that stand up beautifully to charcuterie and cheeses.
Luneau-Papin "Clos des Allées" Muscadet 2007 ($17): From a single biodynamic vineyard near the sea in the western Loire, this extremely dry wine from the melon de bourgogne grape has intense minerality, sharp acid, round lemon tones, and a rich, focused finish. Pair with shellfish and ceviches.
Domaine Maestracci "E Prove" 2005 ($20): Organic Corsican red made from nielluccio (sangiovese) with a touch of the local schiacarello grape, bursting with big, dark berry fruit and a touch of smoke. Goes well with braised and smoked short ribs and anything barbecued.
Owner, South Loop Wine Cellar
1442 S. Michigan, 312-356-0630 southloopwinecellar.com
Opened in 2007. Stocks 150-200 wines with an emphasis on handcrafted over mass produced.
Monowai Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($16.50): This nicely balanced organic wine from a small producer in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, is crisp, light, and citrusy. Good with a goat-cheese-topped salad or chicken.
Elk Cove Rosé of Pinot Noir 2009 ($17.99): "My favorite wine for summer," from the Willamette Valley, "is simply delicious, and I like it with grilled salmon accented by lemon, capers, and spinach."
Bodega NQN "Malma" Malbec Reserve 2006 ($17.99): Rich but not overwhelming, with dark-red fruit and some chocolate, this Patagonian Malbec is at its peak right now. "A match made in heaven with marinated and grilled steak fajitas," says Garman.
Dave and Matt Somsky
Owners, Vrai Amour
953 W. Webster, 773-549-9740vraiamour.com
Opened in 2008. Father-and-son shop stocks 150 wines with a focus on bottles under $20.
Good Harbor Vineyards Pinot Grigio Reserve 2006 ($14.99): A low-alcohol blend of pinot grigio and 20 percent chardonnay from Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, this Italian-style white offers classic citrus notes with mineral components and apple characteristics. Pairs wonderfully with light seafood, including sushi.
Good Harbor Vineyards Trillium NV ($11.99): Blend of Riesling, vignoles, and seyval from the same producer. Semi-dry, with nectarine and grapefruit flavors. Goes well with Italian and Asian cuisine or blackened tuna, or drink by itself; the alcohol is only 11 percent.
Meinklang Pinot Noir Rosé Frizzante 2009 ($15.99): This biodynamic Austrian sparkler with a floral bouquet, slightly off-dry fruitiness, and notes of strawberry and rose petals is a delightful aperitif to serve with light hors d'oeuvres.