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.