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A pink champagne that whispers ‘I love you’

Although some occasions call for inexpensive bubbly, Valentine’s Day is the time to splurge on the good stuff, rosé champagne, the most romantic drink in the world. With gorgeous pale pink color and strawberry or raspberry overtones, it is a sensual drink that goes well with a wide variety of foods, including chocolate. It is also delectable by itself.

Most champagne is made from a white grape, chardonnay, and two red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier. By pressing the grapes gently and removing the skins immediately, the juice remains clear, even from the red grapes, since the color comes from the pigments in the skins. (You can prove this to yourself the next time you buy red table grapes. Squeeze one gently; the first drop of juice is clear. Keep squeezing and the juice turns red as the skin is disrupted). Yeast ferments the sugar-rich juice into white wine and carbon dioxide that dissipates into the atmosphere. The winemaker blends these white still wines and starts the secondary fermentation. To make rosé champagne, winemakers usually add a small amount of still red wine, made from pinot noir, to the blend and then start the secondary fermentation as usual by adding a little sugar, more yeast, and corking the bottle. With the bottle corked, the carbon dioxide generated is entrapped in the wine as bubbles.

Billecart-Salmon, a house that has always been known for its stylish rosé, makes a deliciously luxurious non-vintage one that delivers intense red-fruit flavors, yet retains suaveness and bright balancing acidity (about $85, also available in half-bottle, $44).

Duval-Leroy, a family-owned champagne firm headed by a dynamic woman, Carol Duval, is one of the few firms that uses a different method to produce its rosé. It presses pinot noir grapes and lets the juice and skins remain in contact briefly, one to two days, until they achieve the desired pink color. The winemaker removes the skins and continues fermenting the pink juice until it is a dry rosé wine. After blending with other rosé still wines, the yeast and sugar are added for the secondary fermentation. The result, called Rosé de Saignée, is airy and divine (about $43, also available in half-bottles, $21.50).

Billecart-Salmon is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000; Duval-Leroy by MS Walker, 800-238-0607.

February 10, 2005.

’03 Summer Heat Spurs Ripe, Varied Selections

The blistering heat in Europe during the summer of 2003 explains the character and the enormous variability of the wines made that year. Most parts of France recorded the earliest harvest on record as searing temperatures ripened grapes rapidly. Winemakers in Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhone Valley all told me that they had never experienced conditions like those in 2003. They expected that some producers would make superlative wines from very ripe grapes, while others’ wines would have astringent tannins and be out of balance.

Locales within the southern Rhone Valley faired better than many other regions because the usual Mediterranean climate gives winemakers there more experience dealing with the heat. Still, there is significant variability among the wines labeled Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages. Vines planted in clay soil, which retains moisture, were less parched by the heat and drought than those planted in well-drained spots. Older vines, whose roots penetrate deeply, weathered the effects of the heat better. This is definitely a time to rely on advice of your local wine retailer, who has tasted and purchased only those wines from producers who handled this unusual year well.

In theory, wines labeled Cotes du Rhone Villages are supposed to be higher quality than those labeled Cotes du Rhone because they come from any one of 95 villages that have the potential to produce more distinctive wines. But the skill of the producer, especially in 2003, trumps location and many Cotes du Rhone wines deliver more enjoyment than their more prestigious cousins do. Winemakers use the usual cast of Mediterranean characters grenache, syrah, and cinsault, among others to make these powerful, ripe wines that have overtones of spice. Those from talented producers, such as the four listed below, are perfect for serving with casseroles and other hearty fare because the tannins are ripe, lack astringency, and balance the fruit and spice flavors.

Grand Veneur, Cotes du Rhone, 2003 (About $11, distributed by Atlantic Importing Co., 508-665-4274).

Roger Perrin, Cotes du Rhone, Vieille Vignes (old vines), 2003 (About $14, Ideal Wine & Spirits, 781-395-3300).

Chateau de St. Cosme, Cotes du Rhone, Les Deux Albions, 2003 (About $17, Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100).

Chapoutier, Cotes du Rhone, Bellaruches, 2003 (About $19, United Liquors, 800-445-0076).

February 3, 2005.

Rich, potent vintage or tawny port will take the chill away

In wine, freezing temperatures mean it’s time for port, a fortified wine made from grapes grown in Portugal’s Duoro River Valley. Port starts life like any red wine: Up to five kinds of red grapes are harvested and crushed, sometimes still by foot, which allows the sugar-laden juice to come in contact with yeast so fermentation can begin.

After three days, the winemaker adds brandy, which raises the alcohol to 20 percent (hence, the term ”fortified”) and kills the yeast, stopping fermentation before all the grape sugar has been converted to alcohol. The resulting wine has an engaging combination of fire and sweetness. The wines are shipped down the Duoro River to Oporto (which explains the origin of the name port), where they are aged.

Drinking vintage port, which captures the limelight but accounts for only about 2 percent of the region’s production, is an exercise in serious devotion. A bottle needs 20 or more years of aging in a cool cellar and careful decanting to rid it of the sediment, accumulated from aging, before serving. And, despite the practice in restaurants of offering a glass of vintage port from a bottle that has been opened for weeks, vintage port, like all fine wine, deteriorates rapidly after opening. A bottle should be consumed in one or, at most, two evenings, which, given its alcohol content, means you need a large gathering.

Enter aged tawny port. Aged in barrels for 10 to 40 years after it’s made, tawny port takes on a brown-brick hue (hence, its name) with flavors of nuts, caramel, and dried fruits on top of the sweetness and fire. It has left its sediment in the barrel so decanting is not necessary. Since it has been exposed to air for years while in the barrel, a little more won’t hurt it. You can have a glass, recork the bottle, and enjoy another glass a week or a month later.

W.J. Graham is one of the great port houses. It produces exquisite vintage ports and sublime aged tawny ports. Its 10-year-old tawny (about $28) has remarkable complexity and its 20-year-old (about $50) is gloriously rich. A glass of either after dinner will help dissipate winter’s chill.

Graham’s Ports are distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607.

January 27, 2005.

2002 Vintage Burgundy is the Best in Years

The 2002 vintage was terrific for both white and red Burgundy, the best since 1990. Consumers should snap up those remaining on retailers’ shelves because few are available from the wineries. And those that are will be purchased using dollars that are far weaker than when the 2002s were bought initially. Furthermore, prices for the 2003 Burgundies, a far less consistent vintage, will be dramatically higher because, in addition to the falling dollar, a small harvest resulted in half the normal amount of wine.

The best wines usually come from grapes grown in the best sites, those classified by French regulations as premier or grand cru vineyards, and are priced accordingly. But in 2002, even wines made from grapes grown in less-renowned vineyards have real character. Since pricing of French wine in general is based on location, this vintage allows consumers to drink excellent Burgundy without paying premier or grand cru prices.

The AOC (appellation d’origine controllee) regulations identified most of Burgundy’s villages and best vineyards in the 1930s. Santenay, the southernmost village in the Cote d’Or, the heart of Burgundy, was omitted during the initial classification because its wines were not considered distinctive enough. It received official status as a wine village and for its premier cru vineyards only in 1970. In the past, its wines had the reputation for rusticity, but today quality-oriented producers like Maison Louis Jadot are changing that.

Although Jadot purchased the Clos de Malte vineyard only in 1993, it has made excellent wine there for decades from grapes they purchased from the previous owner. Jadot planted some chardonnay in the Clos de Malte, but like most of Santenay, this is red wine (or pinot noir) country.

You can savor the extra dimension imparted by exceptional growing conditions during 2002 even in a wine from a non-classified vineyard, such as Jadot’s Santenay Clos de Malte. With red fruit intertwined with earthy flavors, it has for Santenay unusual suaveness. It is more distinctive than many producers’ premier crus and will go a long way in changing the perception of the village’s wines.

Maison Louis Jadot, Santenay Clos de Malte (red), 2002.

About $25. Distributed by Horizon Beverage Co., 800-696-2337.

January 20, 2005.

White Marsannay is subtle and satisfying

White Burgundy, made almost exclusively from chardonnay, is one of the most sought-after wines in the world.

Despite tremendous advances in California and other New World locales with chardonnay, white Burgundy remains the benchmark for wines made from that grape. But buying Burgundy is not easy. It is expensive because worldwide demand far outstrips the supply that this narrow strip 100 to 200 miles southeast of Paris can produce. And price, sadly, does not ensure quality, which is highly variable. Many of the greatest wines I have tasted came from Burgundy, but so did the ones that have disappointed me the most. Labeling the wines by the village or vineyard where the grapes grow, instead of the name of the grape, adds to the risk and confusion of buying Burgundy.

Louis Latour’s 2002 white Marsannay shows that the producer — the person or firm that made the wine — is the most important factor when buying Burgundy. Latour, one of Burgundy’s stellar producers, has been based in Beaune, in the southern part of the Cote d’Or — the heart of Burgundy — since 1797. It makes outstanding wines from throughout Burgundy either from grapes grown in vineyards it owns or from grapes purchased from others. Latour’s $100-plus a bottle Corton Charlemagne, one of Burgundy’s greatest white wines, is consistently superb and a dazzling expression of chardonnay.

Almost a suburb of Dijon, Marsannay is in the northern-most part of the Cote d’Or. As a wine village it has a poor reputation, known mostly for its rose. Since price follows pedigree in this part of the world, its wines are inexpensive, at least by Burgundy standards. Only about 10 percent of Marsannay’s production is white wine, usually from chardonnay, although regulations allow producers to include pinot gris.

Despite its lowly pedigree, Latour’s 2002 white Marsannay is captivating because of the talent of the producer. Though made entirely from chardonnay, it is very different from the rich, sometimes overdone California versions. Latour’s Marsannay has an attractive minerality and cleansing citric finish that makes it ideal with our region’s seafood.

Maison Louis Latour, Marsannay (white), 2002. About $15. Distributed by Boston Wine Co., 617-666-5939 and M. S. Walker, 800-238-0607. 

December 2, 2004.

French connection lifts Chilean wine

Although Chile is located in the New World, its wine industry is rooted in France. During the prosperity of the mid-19th century, Chilean families who had acquired great wealth, often from mining, imported vines and sometimes winemakers from Bordeaux.

Over 100 years later, in the late-20th century, another emigration of Bordeaux wine talent has reinvigorated the Chilean wine industry. The French connection, both originally and now, explains the appealing style of so many Chilean wines made from cabernet sauvignon, a principle grape variety of Bordeaux.

These wines have an engaging combination of fruitiness characteristic of California and other New World locations, beautifully intertwined with structure and elegance that epitomizes great Bordeaux. Prominent Bordelais such as Paul Pontallier, from the famed Bordeaux property Chateau Margaux, and Michel Rolland, perhaps Bordeaux’s most famous consulting winemaker, are involved deeply in Chilean winemaking projects.

Both branches of the famous Rothschilds have invested in vineyards and wineries as well.

In 1988, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) invested in Los Vascos in the Colchagua Valley, another prime area for grapes. Now, after over a decade of reinvigoration, modernization, and winemaking, Christophe Salin, president of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), says the vineyards are making wines of which they can be proud.

The Los Vascos 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon is a splendid $10 wine. With refinement and suppleness, it is an excellent everyday choice. What may be a better value, despite the higher price, is their 2001 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Richer with more layers of flavor, it has the signature Lafite smoothness and grace.

Los Vascos, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003 (about $10) and Los Vascos, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, 2001 (about $16).

November 25, 2004.

Sauvignon blanc lightens the atmosphere

The combination of August’s heat and humidity with even mildly spicy fare, like chicken fajitas, is an impediment to enjoying the rich white Burgundies or California Chardonnays. Lighter and zestier wine, such as sauvignon blanc, is the order of the day.

Although grown around the world, perhaps the best-known locales for distinctive sauvignon blanc-based wines are the Loire River towns of Pouilly sur Loire, home to Fume Pouilly, and Sancerre. California also produces excellent sauvignon blanc, named either by the grape or as fume blanc, a moniker invented by Robert Mondavi, the man who more than any other individual was responsible for popularizing California wine. In contrast to Sancerre, with its signature mineral-infused flavor, the range of sauvignon blanc from California is broad and can be bewildering, depending on whether winemakers age it in oak or blend it with semillon in an attempt to tame its potentially pungent character.

Since I have failed to find a consistent stylistic difference between those labeled Fume Blanc – they do not resemble Pouilly Fume – or Sauvignon Blanc, I suggest consumers focus on remembering the name of the producer whose style they enjoy.

Robert Pepi started his eponymous Napa Valley winery in 1966 and sold it in 1994 to Jess Jackson, of Kendall Jackson fame, who changed the name to just Pepi. Since the grapes for the Pepi sauvignon blanc come mostly from Lake County with lesser amounts from Napa and Sonoma, Kendall Jackson could have labeled this sauvignon blanc with the more prestigious North Coast appellation, rather than just California. But George Rose, a spokesman for Kendall Jackson, said that their research showed a California appellation actually had more recognition among consumers than did a North Coast one.

Pepi’s sauvignon blancs are typically pure and vibrant, and their 2003 fits that mold beautifully. With an attractive edge, it’s a perfect choice for a muggy August evening. If you don’t finish the bottle, the screw cap allows you to reseal it easily and sip it a day or two later.

Pepi, Sauvignon Blanc, 2003. About $10. Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007, and M S Walker, 800-238-0607.

August 19, 2004.

Bouchard chardonnay refined and refreshing

Chardonnay, America’s favorite white wine, is an especially good choice in the summer to accompany our abundance of local seafood. Its traditional home – and the place where the world’s best chardonnay is made – is Burgundy. The 2002 vintage there, the best since 1990, is a compelling reason to discover – or rediscover – these wines.

France’s mantra regarding wine – location, location, location – explains why they label their wines by where the grapes are grown, not by the name of the grape. Hence, French wines traditionally carry only the name of the region, town, or vineyard on the label. In Burgundy, chardonnay is the only white grape regulations allow to be planted. (A tiny amount of pinot blanc grows in Burgundy, but it can not be replanted).

Regulations also stratify vineyards according to quality. Wines from the best 1-2 percent of them, the grand cru vineyards, such as Le Montrachet, are frightfully expensive ($100-plus a bottle). The next level, still encompassing only about 10-15 percent of production, is premier cru. (The remaining 85 percent are labeled by name of the town, such as Beaune, or the region, Cotes du Beaune- Villages). The ranking of the vineyard notwithstanding, the single most important determinant of quality is the producer. When you combine a great producer, such as Bouchard Pere & Fils, with premier cru vineyards, especially in a superb vintage, the result is sublime.

Bouchard, a venerable firm dating from the 18th century, is the largest owner of grand and premier cru vineyards in Burgundy. Their wines took a leap up in quality in the mid-1990s after Joseph Henriot, a talented producer from the Champagne region, purchased and revitalized the vineyards and winery. Breaking with tradition, Bouchard uses a proprietary name, Beaune du Chateau, for this wine made from grapes grown in several of their premier cru vineyards in Beaune. It has sold in Europe since the early 20th century, but the 2002 vintage marks its introduction to our shores. More refined than the typical chardonnay from California or Australia, it’s a captivating wine. Its richness, intermingled with mineral and earthy flavors and balanced by refreshing acidity, reminds us why everybody loves chardonnay.

Bouchard Pere & Fils, Beaune du Chateau, 2002. About $30. Distributed by Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100.

2000 deemed a good year for red Bordeaux — at all price levels

Robert M. Parker Jr., the world’s most influential wine critic, declared 2000 “a phenomenal year that might turn out to be one of the greatest vintages Bordeaux has ever produced.” The Wine Spectator magazine called it the best vintage for red Bordeaux since 1961.

The marketplace must agree because the prices of these wines, high when they were sold as futures three years ago, continue to rise. (Unlike commodity futures, people who buy wine futures want to take delivery. They buy the wine the spring after the harvest, even before it’s bottled, at a lower price, and take delivery about two years later.) The wines from the most famous properties – such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which started at near $300 a bottle – are currently selling for more than $600 a bottle. And these are wines that will not be ready to drink for another decade at least.

One of the great aspects of the 2000 red Bordeaux is that they were excellent across the board, at all price levels. An advantage of the less prestigious properties, in addition to their affordability, is that their wines are ready to drink sooner. Since Bordeaux chateau make relatively large quantities of wine, at least compared to Burgundy, much is still in the marketplace.

The French government has classified the chateau of the Medoc, a major subregion of Bordeaux, according to quality. The top group, known as the Cru Classe, includes just 60 chateaux, about 3 percent of the properties.

Be prepared to pay for these wines and have patience, since they need years of aging before they are ready to drink. The next level down, the Cru Bourgeois, encompasses roughly another 10 percent of the properties and represents great value. These chateaux often make higher-quality wines than their prices suggest.

Chateau Plagnac, one such Cru Bourgeois, made a great wine in 2000, whichis enjoyable now.

A blend of roughly two-thirds cabernet sauvignon and one-third merlot, it conveys ripe, broad flavors supported by supple tannins.

Try it the next time you are grilling steaks.

Chateau Plagnac, 2000; about $15 (distributed by Ruby Wines, 508- 588-7007)

Sauvignon blanc lightens the atmosphere

The combination of August’s heat and humidity with even mildly spicy fare, like chicken fajitas, is an impediment to enjoying the rich white Burgundies or California Chardonnays. Lighter and zestier wine, such as sauvignon blanc, is the order of the day.

Although grown around the world, perhaps the best-known locales for distinctive sauvignon blanc-based wines are the Loire River towns of Pouilly sur Loire, home to Fume Pouilly, and Sancerre. California also produces excellent sauvignon blanc, named either by the grape or as fume blanc, a moniker invented by Robert Mondavi, the man who more than any other individual was responsible for popularizing California wine. In contrast to Sancerre, with its signature mineral-infused flavor, the range of sauvignon blanc from California is broad and can be bewildering, depending on whether winemakers age it in oak or blend it with semillon in an attempt to tame its potentially pungent character.

Since I have failed to find a consistent stylistic difference between those labeled Fume Blanc – they do not resemble Pouilly Fume – or Sauvignon Blanc, I suggest consumers focus on remembering the name of the producer whose style they enjoy.

Robert Pepi started his eponymous Napa Valley winery in 1966 and sold it in 1994 to Jess Jackson, of Kendall Jackson fame, who changed the name to just Pepi. Since the grapes for the Pepi sauvignon blanc come mostly from Lake County with lesser amounts from Napa and Sonoma, Kendall Jackson could have labeled this sauvignon blanc with the more prestigious North Coast appellation, rather than just California. But George Rose, a spokesman for Kendall Jackson, said that their research showed a California appellation actually had more recognition among consumers than did a North Coast one.

Pepi’s sauvignon blancs are typically pure and vibrant, and their 2003 fits that mold beautifully. With an attractive edge, it’s a perfect choice for a muggy August evening. If you don’t finish the bottle, the screw cap allows you to reseal it easily and sip it a day or two later.

Pepi, Sauvignon Blanc, 2003. About $10. Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007, and M S Walker, 800-238-0607.

Riesling keeps its balance

Riesling is the world’s most versatile wine. Its riveting acidity cuts through spicy Asian cuisine as easily as it balances meaty olives, cheese, and anchovies in this pasta salad. Riesling gets a bad rap because consumers think it is a sweet wine. Many, especially from Germany, are a touch sweet, but even with those wines, their sweetness is balanced by the grape’s inherent tartness. California Rieslings are more problematic because the warm climate there is conducive to producing very ripe grapes with lower acidity. Even the image of Riesling from Alsace, arguably the home to the best Riesling in the world, is deceptive. The tall, slender bottles are suggestive of German — that is, slight sweet — wines. In reality, these Rieslings are usually bone dry with enamel-cleansing acidity, perfect for these warm-weather salads.

American consumers should embrace wines from Alsace because they are named by grape name, as in California, as opposed to the customary, and confusing, French system of naming wines by where the grapes grow. We in New England do like these wines. Jean Trimbach, whose family has been making fabulous wines in Alsace for several centuries, notes that New England is their largest market in the United States.

A new entry to these parts, not to be missed, is Domaine Metz’s Rieslings. They make two, a regular Riesling from younger vines planted in a variety of vineyards, and one from a single vineyard, Fruehmess, whose vines are over 35 years of age. Older vines typically produce fewer, but more flavorful, grapes, which translates into more flavor-packed wine.

Metz’s 2002 Rieslings are both well-balanced, beautifully made, refreshingly dry wines. The regular Riesling shows pure mineral and stone fruit character that is the hallmark of wine made from this grape. The 2002 Fruehmess Riesling is a bigger, more intense version.

Domaine Metz, Riesling, 2002. About $12. Domaine Metz, Riesling Fruehmess, 2002. About $18. (Distributed by Atlantic Importing Company, 508-229-0014.) 

June 3, 2004.

In Chianti, tuna kebabs have met their match

The standard rule of white wine with fish, though not inviolate, works most of the time because the subtle flavors of fish generally will be overwhelmed by red wine. A common exception to this food and wine-matching dictum is a meaty, full-flavored fish such as tuna or salmon, which can easily support a red wine.

Chianti, Italy’s most well-known wine, is a perfect foil for these tuna kebobs because its inherent lively acidity cuts the fattiness of the fish. Named for the hilly region in Tuscany surrounding Florence and Siena, Chianti has a bad connotation among many in the over-50 crowd who remember insipid wine poured from pot-bellied, straw-covered bottles. Since the early 1980s, the quality of wines from this region has risen meteorically, and Chianti, especially those made from grapes grown in the smaller Classico subzone nestled between Florence and Siena, are counted among the world’s best.

Winemakers use a blend of grapes, chiefly sangiovese with up to 15 percent merlot or cabernet sauvignon, for Chianti. The best grapes are destined for the bigger, more powerful — and expensive — wines, labeled Riserva, which are best saved for when you are grilling meat or serving pasta with a hearty sauce. For a flavorful fish like tuna, look for those labeled simply Chianti Classico.

Vignamaggio, a wine estate located in the heart of Chianti Classico, just celebrated its 600th anniversary. Owned by Tuscan noble families for centuries, the estate was the birthplace of the woman who was the model for Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” An Italian lawyer, Gianni Nunziante, purchased the estate in 1988 and with the help of the current consulting wine maker, Giorgio Marone, is making wonderful wines. Vignamaggio’s Chianti Classico Riserva, called Castello di Monna Lisa [the Italians spell it with a double n), is sensational, but for these tuna kabobs, I would select their regular — and less expensive — 2000 Chianti Classico. Made entirely from sangiovese, it has the almost magical combination of intense flavor without heaviness. This is definitely not your father’s Chianti.

Vignamaggio, Chianti Classico, 2000. About $25. (Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007). 

May 27, 2004.

As a match for seafood, zesty white is a good catch

Both red and white wine go well with seafood with olives and tomatoes. The meatiness of olives and the intensity of tomatoes support a light red wine, such as Ruffino’s 2001 Fonte al Sole, a Chianti-like wine from Tuscany (about $10), or a Valpolicella by Masi (about $12). Although I am drawn to Italian reds when I think of a sauce of tomatoes and olives, any lighter-style red wine from other countries, such as a breezy Beaujolais, or a California pinot noir, would also work well.

A white wine with zesty acidity, such as Orvieto, is a welcome match to balance the richness of seafood and cut through the pungency of the sauce. Orvieto, a hillside town in Umbria perched midway along the main Rome-to-Florence highway, has been a source of inexpensive, and often innocuous, white wines. Made from a blend of grapes, it has a reputation for blandness because many producers aim for quantity over quality.

Sergio Mottura is not one of those producers. His 2003 Orvieto Tragugnano reminds us why Orvieto once had such a good reputation. Made from grapes grown in his Tragugnano vineyard, this Orvieto is distinctive even though it does not come from the central and more prestigious Orvieto Classico subregion. He relies less on trebbiano and more on grechetto and other grapes that provide substance and character.

The heat during the summer of 2003 reduced yields and concentrated flavors even more. Mottura’s 2003 Orvieto Tragugnano is satisfying with slightly nutty overtones, an unexpected richness for Orvieto, and a lively citric zing. Stock up on it for the summer.

Sergio Mottura, Orvieto Tragugnano, 2003. About $12. (Distributed by Violette Wine Imports, 617-876-4126.)

May 13, 2004.

Valpolicella evokes red wine’s good old days

Andrea Sartori has his work cut out for him. A fifth-generation winemaker in his family’s firm, he is trying to remind the wine-drinking world what Valpolicella tastes like. Valpolicella was once a highly regarded wine. But over the last several decades, this red wine, which takes its name from the hills near Verona in northeast-

ern Italy, has become dilute and characterless as giant companies churned out every increasing quantity. Producers such as Sartori, Masi, and Allegrini, to name a few, are trying to reverse that trend. They limit the vine’s yield and as a result produce less wine than government regulations allow. This practice, embraced by quality-oriented winemakers around the world, results in wines with more flavor and substance. A combination of factors including the type and quality of grapes, where they are planted, and aging also determines the quality of the wine.

Valpolicella producers use a blend of indigenous grapes, primarily corvina, rondinella, and molinara. Just as a chef uses different ingredients for a sauce, a winemaker blends the wines that he made from the individual varieties of grapes until he achieves the desired style. Producers aiming for quality over quantity typically include more corvina in the blend, despite its expense. The best grapes, which represent about half the total Valpolicella production, come from the original, or Classico, sub region. Regulations for Valpolicella do not require producers to age the wine before release. However, the better wines, those made from riper grapes and aged for at least a year, are labeled Superiore.

Sartori’s best Valpolicella is made from grapes grown in a single vineyard, Montegradella, located in the Classico sub zone. Like Masi and Allegrini, Sartori uses a high proportion of corvina in the blend for this wine and ages it for a year before releasing it. His 1999 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Montegradella reminds us why Valpolicella was so popular in the past. Rich with intriguing dried fruit character, it bears no relation to the mass-produced Valpolicella saturating the market. Devoid of harsh tannins or astringency, you can enjoy it the next time you have pizza or other take-out Italian food. It’s also great with a simple steak.

Sartori’s 1999 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Montegradella, about $13. 

April 8, 2004.

Cabernet sauvignon is a classic match for lamb

Mature red Bordeaux have always been a classic match for roast lamb. These Cru Classe wines – from the Medoc subregion, where cabernet sauvignon reigns – include

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Lynch Bages, and Chateau Lagrange. To allow their glory to shine, they need to sit for at least a decade in the wine cellar. As the wine ages, the tannins (polyphenolic compounds extracted from the grape skins and seeds that act as a natural preservative), become supple and smooth. The tannins in young red wines, especially in cabs, often impart astringency, which explains why these wines are not good before- dinner drinks. If you’re selecting Bordeaux from the already legendary 2000 vintage, avoid the prestigious properties and focus on the more reasonable Chateau Bonnet (about $11) or Chateau Beaumont (about $20), which can be enjoyed now. Good alternatives are cabernets from Australia, California, or Chile, whose lush fruit flavors and tamer tannins make them ready by the Easter parade.

A world of cabernet Penfolds put Australia on the world wine map with their stupendous Grange, a shiraz-based wine, which disappears from retailers’ shelves despite its $200-plus price tag. They also make luscious cabernet, including the flagship Penfolds Bin 707 (a former Qantas marketing manager came up with the name). About a decade ago the Australian winery introduced a more affordable cabernet. The 1999 Penfolds Bin 407 has the winemaker’s signature balance. It’s an engagingly rich wine infused with black currant fruit and wrapped with supple tannins. About $27. (Distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000 and MS Walker, 800-238-0607.)

Simi’s Landslide Vineyard, located in the Alexander Valley portion of Sonoma Valley, supplies the majority of the cabernet sauvignon for their consistently excellent Reserve Cabernet (about $75). Four years ago, Simi bottled some cabernet from Landslide Vineyard grapes separately. The result is a staggeringly good 2000 Landslide Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe and rich, without being overdone, it is polished and layered with flavor. About $35. (United Liquors, 800-445-0076.)

The winery Casa Lapostolle, owned by France’s Marnier Lapostolle family – of Grand Marnier fame – is one of the best in Chile. The family relies on Michel Rolland, a gifted Bordeaux winemaker, as a consultant to the vineyard and the cellar. Their regular cabernet, at about $11, always provides good value. A more upscale version, called Cuvee Alexandre, is made from better grapes and delivers more power and grace. Supple and packed with black fruit flavors, the 1999 Cuvee Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon is outstanding. About $20. (Carolina Wine & Spirits and United Liquors.)

April 7, 2004.

Vacqueyras at the front of the class

France’s southern Rhone Valley has always been home to great values in wine, and still is. This is red wine country with only small amounts of white wine production. The wines from the region’s most famous town, Chateauneuf du Pape, just north of Avignon, have become extremely popular over the last 20 years, and quite predictably have increased in price, now often commanding more than $30 a bottle. The natural response to this sticker shock is to search for nearby villages whose wines are less well known and are priced the way Chateauneuf du Pape was priced a decade or two ago.

Vacqueyras, a sleepy Provencal hill town, had been lumped together with 16 other villages in the area and labeled as a Cotes du Rhone Villages wine until 1990. It was then “promoted” to its own appellation, which allows the wines to be labeled solely with the name of the village, because growers convinced government regulators that their wines were sufficiently distinctive. Wine makers in Vacqueyras (pronounced vac-key-ras) use the same basic blend of grapes, grenache, syrah, cinsault, and mourvedre as their colleagues do in Chateauneuf du Pape, just down the road. But wines from Vacqueyras are more rustic, less polished.

There are exceptions, as the Domaine Le Clos de Caveau proves with their classy Vacqueyras. They attribute the quality of their wine to the exclusive use of syrah and grenache for their blend, their organic grapes, and the location of their vineyard. All of their grapes come from their organic vineyards, which are located in the hills at a higher elevation where it is slightly cooler. As a result, the grapes ripen later, giving them more time to develop flavors. The higher elevation also means greater exposure to the cleansing winds of the mistral, which makes their job of having an organic vineyard easier.

The year 2000 was the third in a string of four great years for southern Rhone Valley wines. Not surprisingly, the 2000 Domaine Le Clos de Caveau is outstanding. Rich and intense, it is suave and balanced without aggressive tannins or a sense of heaviness. Have a glass or two with a winter roast and relax after work.

Domaine Le Clos de Caveau, Vacqueyras, 2000, about $18. 

April 1, 2004.

A confusing name that you’ll want to know

France’s Loire Valley is known, justifiably, for its broad range of excellent white wines, such as Sancerre, Vouvray, and Muscadet. It is France’s second-largest producer of bubbly wine, after champagne. But it also produces red wines. Since they are less well known, the reds can be excellent value.

The middle of the Loire River valley, between Angers and Tours, is where the cabernet franc grape thrives and produces stylish red wines, which take their names from the towns of Bourgueil, Chinon, or Saumur-Champigny. Many wines from Bourgueil and Chinon need time to resolve their tannins before their glory shines. Wines from Saumur-Champigny, on the other hand, are more forward and user-friendly in their youth. Cabernet franc is well suited to this northern clime.

Producers aid ripening by limiting yields, so that the sun’s energy is focused on fewer grapes. The company Langlois-Chateau, founded in 1855 by Edouard Langlois and his wife, Jeanne Chateau, may confuse us who are more familiar with chateau as a building, not a surname. Although best known for its excellent, well-priced Loire Valley sparkling wine (about $15), Langlois-Chateau also produces a few impressive red still wines.

The 1999 Chateau de Varrains, devoid of harsh tannins, is polished and conveys pure fruit flavors and a nice mineral quality. It is not overbearing, and would be a good choice for take-out roasted chicken or pizza after work.

Langlois-Chateau, Chateau de Varrains, Saumur-Champigny, 1999. About $18. (Distributed by Commonwealth Wine & Spirits, 508-262-9300)

March 4, 2004.

Corvo a complex wine without the high cost

Two decades ago, Corvo captured the hearts, and more importantly the taste buds, of Americans to became one of the leading wines imported to the United States. Sicily’s only widely exported wine at the time, it was a fixture in Italian restaurants across the country because it delivered consistent quality at a low price. Corvo became a casualty of the worldwide privatization phenomenon, though, and lost its dominant position in the US market. Quality plummeted when the company that produced it lost focus as it slowly morphed from a quasi-independent entity under government control to a private company.

Illva Saronno, best known for their liqueur, Disaronno (formerly known as Amaretto), saw an opportunity, purchased Corvo, and hired the famous Italian winemaker Giacomo Tachis as a consultant. They still own no vineyards, relying on growers throughout the island for grapes, a practice that should allow them to achieve a consistent blend every year. The quality has returned, still at a low price, an incredible feat considering the vastly increased competition from a rapidly ballooning number of excellent Sicilian producers. Those include Planeta, Donnafugata, Morgante, Rapitala, Benanti, and Cottanera – all names worth remembering – whose wines are available in Massachusetts and other parts of the United States.

Corvo Rosso is made from a blend of red, indigenous Sicilian grapes, mostly nero d’Avola combined with smaller amounts of pignatello and nerello mascalese. Tachis eschews the use of small oak barrels for aging the wine so as not to mask its fruity character. Still, the 2001 Corvo Rosso has more than just simple fruit flavors. Subtle smoky or gamy overtones, probably from the nero d’Avola, add complexity not usually seen in this price range. A great everyday choice for take-out pizza or pasta, it also would go well with casseroles or roasted meat. At this price, Corvo makes us an offer that’s hard to refuse. Corvo Rosso 2001, about $10.

January 29, 2004.

For the novice or expert, wine books help demystify

To learn about wine, there is no substitute for tasting and drinking it. However, books help unravel the cloak of mystery that often surrounds that beverage. These two books, “Wine for Dummies” and Michael Broadbent’s “Vintage Wine,” while at the two ends of the oenological spectrum, would make fine gifts for the committed or aspiring wine lover in your life. My only complaint about Ed McCarthy’s and Mary Ewing-Mulligan’s 3rd edition of “Wine for Dummies” (Wiley) is the title. Without question, it is an excellent starting place for people who know nothing about wine. It’s easy to read, full of understandable concepts, and devoid of pretentious winespeak. Just as important, it teaches the oenophile a thing or two. To write a book that appeals to both the novice and the expert is a rare talent, but it is not surprising given the background of these authors. McCarthy was a high school English teacher and a highly regarded national wine writer. Ewing-Mulligan, one of only 19 Americans to have received the prestigious Master of Wine degree, runs the International Wine Center, a New York-based wine school.

They deliver detailed information when necessary — such as recommending specific producers, especially important in the maze of Burgundy where the person who makes the wine is more important than the names of vineyards — without being boring or tedious. The pronunciation guide, essential for ordering French and Italian wines, is superb. Their chapter describing strategies for ordering wines in a restaurant is reason enough to buy the book. The detailed index makes it easy to use as a reference the next time you find a wine you like and want to know more about it.

Now, if you want to know whether that 1986 Chateau Lagrange is ready to drink this New Year’s Eve, buy “Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine” (Harcourt). It’s indispensable for anyone who has ever wondered when to pull the cork of that special bottle and great reading for everyone else with a serious interest in wine. Broadbent, hired to head Christie’s wine auctions in 1966, probably has tasted more fine and rare wine than anyone else. He tasted, and drank, the 1870 Chateau Lafte Rothschild on 16 occasions.

“I packed . . . them up (41 magnums of 1870 Lafite) for a great sale at Christie’s in 1971,” he writes. “Naturally, to make sure that the wine was all right, I opened one at a dinner in the boardroom before the sale. . . . A lively drink.”

He has organized his notes for this book, “not . . . to be a gazetteer of every chateaux of every vintage . . . (but) to demonstrate the progress of wines from cask to bottle, thence to maturity.” His 50 years of notes on thousands of wines, mostly French, though he devotes a page to New Zealand and another to Chateau Musar from Lebanon, is captivating reading. His definition of quality in wine is the best I’ve read and something winemakers would be wise to remember: “Quality can be measured by length of flavour, and the way it expands in the mouth and lingers on the palate.”

Sprinkled among his notes is sound advice, such as when to serve a sweet wine (not with dessert, which makes the wine taste dry, but rather with cheese to highlight its sweet richness). Equally important, Broadbent’s assessments allow you to know how a grand wine is developing so you can save your precious cache until it’s ready to drink.

By the way, Broadbent describes the 1986 Lagrange as having “lovely texture and flavor. Complete . . . an unpredicted high mark. 4 (out of 5) stars. Drink now until 2012.” For those lucky enough to have any left, New Year’s Eve would be a good time to drink it.

December 18, 2003.

When is pinot blanc not pinot blanc?

The French proclivity for precise, some would say rigid, regulations regarding their wines makes pinot blanc from Alsace an aberration. Almost all the best French wines are named not by grape name but by the village or vineyard where the grapes grow.

Alsace, the easternmost part of France bordering Germany, is an exception. There, labels of the best wines carry the name of the grape. Maybe because Alsace has been passed from Germany to France and back again repeatedly, for vinous matters, they embrace the German tradition of putting grape names on the label.

Following that logic, a pinot blanc, from the eponymous, widely planted grape in Alsace, should be analogous to a Riesling or a Gewurztraminer from that region and be made from the named grape. If only it were that simple.

Jean Trimbach, who, not surprisingly, is knowledgeable about wines from Alsace since his family has been making them there since 1626, explains that the wine, pinot blanc, need not be made exclusively, or even at all, from that grape. In Alsace, the rules for making pinot blanc are uncharacteristically flexible. The winemaker can use auxerrois, another white variety known for its lushness, as well as any of the grapes in the pinot family, such as pinot gris. They can even include juice from the black-skinned pinot noir since it, too, is a member of the pinot family and, when pressed gently, still delivers clear juice, the color emanating from the skins.

Bob Harkey, owner of the superb wine shop The Millis Package Store, and a local Alsace specialist noted that decades ago the wine we now know as pinot blanc was named, more accurately, pinot d’Alsace.

Although the Trimbach firm is justifiably known for its sensational Rieslings, the 2001 pinot blanc is equally exceptional in its own right. Jean Trimbach describes his 2001 pinot blanc succinctly as “deliciously uncomplicated.” It’s an apt description for what to me is their best pinot blanc to date and one of the best white-wine values in today’s market.

Composed of auxerrois and a number of members of the pinot family (Who cares what grapes they used?), its lovely floral aromas, unusual richness, and citric zing make it hard to resist. It’s a great aperitif after work or an informal and affordable complement to take-out rotisserie chicken.

Trimbach, 2001 pinot blanc, about $12.

December 4, 2003.