Category Archives: Boston Globe

A unique way to learn about sake

By Michael Apstein – Globe correspondent  | February 25, 2019

When I taught the introductory wine course at The Boston Center for Adult Education, I suggested, as “homework,” for the students that they drink one type of wine exclusively for a month. It made no difference which kind of wine — California Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, or Muscadet — they just needed to immerse themselves in it to see the theme and variations. For extra credit they could read about the grapes, the region, critics thoughts about the category in general, or the individual producers. It was homework that the students enjoyed. I also employed that exercise during a recent 18-day visit to Japan with my wife and two adult daughters to learn about sake, a beverage I had always wanted to explore, but never had the in-depth opportunity until now.

Over the two-plus weeks, we drank a broad range of about 30 different sakes. Some were poured from what appeared to be a milk carton, while others came from small jars with pop-tops. Many were poured with great ceremony into cutting-edge designer ceramic ware. I even sampled sake from an open barrel positioned outside a sushi restaurant where patrons were enduring the two-hour wait, unsurprisingly, without complaint. I selected many of the sakes randomly, since the Japanese-only drink menu was incomprehensible to me. Others were recommended by a restaurant staff member, and some were selected because it was the only one offered. (At an upscale Tokyo steakhouse there was a choice among four beers, but only one sake.)

The most important take-away message for me was that the quality level of sake and expense didn’t always provide maximum enjoyment. Still, it is important to understand the broad categories of sake (premium versus regular) and the levels of quality within the premium range, if for no other reason than you can be sure that you will see these terms on labels and on restaurant sake lists in the United States. The more refined sake, made from more highly polished rice, will always be of higher quality and more expensive. But surprisingly, it may not be the one you prefer.

What you drink with ramen or udon noodles is not necessarily the same as with sushi or sashimi, both of which may call for a more delicate or refined sake. But frankly, sake is versatile, so I would not obsess with “food and sake pairing.” All types of sake turn out to be a surprisingly good match for a wide variety of food, from robust ramen dishes to velvety and meaty Wagyu beef. Get The Weekender in your inbox: The Globe’s top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.

Sake in restaurants will be served either from a large (1.8-liter) or standard-size (720-milliliter) bottle poured by the staff into either a fancy or utilitarian ceramic bowl or from a small decanter and then poured by one of the diners into a small glass. Sometimes the server will pour directly into a small glass, invariably filling it to the brim to demonstrate abundance and generosity, but also making it impossible to pick up without spilling it. Sometimes the small glass is seated in a small box which catches the overflow and prevents it from flooding the table. Alternatively, the sake might arrive at the table in a small (180-milliliter) bottle, to be poured directly into the small glass. Though the overall atmosphere of the restaurant — casual or highly refined — determines how the sake is served, one rule prevails regardless of the elegance of the meal. You never pour sake for yourself. When your glass is empty, an alert companion should refill it. So be observant regarding your companions’ glasses. When pouring for a guest, you do not need to fill it to the brim.

Many restaurants or izakaya (what we might call a gastropub) offer sake to be served either warm or chilled. Although warm sake helps take the chill out of the winter, I found it also removed subtle nuances and so preferred to drink it slightly chilled.

Sake and Japanese culture are intertwined and have been so for centuries. Indeed, the Japanese word for alcohol is sake. During important holidays, sake producers (known as brewers) send colorful and elaborately decorated barrels to major shrines and temples.

Sake is a unique alcoholic beverage made from rice. Though sake has some similarities to wine and is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as “rice wine,” it is not wine, even though fermentation generates the alcohol. It also bears no resemblance to vodka — even though rice, like potatoes, is a complex starch — because sake is not distilled. Sake’s alcoholic content varies between 15 percent and 17 percent (30 proof to 34 proof), comparable or only slightly higher than many New World wines.

Like wine, sake has many nuances, levels of quality, and differences based on the quality of the rice, the water, and the talent, dedication, and compulsiveness of the producer or brewer.

The top level, known as premium sake, is defined by the Japanese government and represents only about 25 percent of sake produced. It is the one most commonly found in the United States. Premium sake contains only rice, koji (the mold added to the rice that converts the rice’s starch to sugar so the latter can be fermented by yeast), and sometimes a small amount (less than 10 percent) of distilled alcohol. The remainder, or regular sake, can be made with additives and a large amount of added alcohol. Although I had many regular sakes in Japan — I’m certain the one sitting in the barrel outside that sushi restaurant was in that category — I suggest you stick to the premium category.

Premium sake can be stratified according to how much the rice is purified by “polishing.” The grains of sake rice, of which there are hundreds of different varieties, are typically larger than those of table (eating) rice with more starch in their centers. The outside part of the rice, containing impurities, is removed carefully by a process known as milling or polishing. The koji breaks down the inner kernel of starch, containing fewer impurities, into sugar that the yeast can then ferment to alcohol.

The amount of polishing is critical to the style, quality, and price of the sake. The more external portion of the grain that is removed, the purer and more precise will be the flavor of the sake. Rice that has been polished leaving 70 percent of the kernel can be labeled honjozo. A small amount of alcohol is always added to honjozo sake. Although it sounds like adding alcohol is “cheating” because it dilutes it, in reality, a little added alcohol can make sake more aromatic and drier. From a practical point of view, little honjozo sake is imported into the United States because the US government taxes it at a higher level since it is considered a fortified beverage. Rice that has been polished leaving 60 percent of the kernel is labeled ginjo. When only 50 percent is left, it is labeled daiginjo. The amount of polishing will always be on the label, even if everything else is in Japanese. The lower the number, the higher the quality — and the price — of the sake. But remember, trust your palate because drinking a daiginjo won’t necessarily give you more pleasure than drinking a ginjo. Brewers can opt to add a small amount of alcohol to ginjo and daiginjo sake for stylistic reasons. If brewers add no alcohol to the sake, it will also carry the word junmai on the label — junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo, for example. Most sake imported into the United States will be junmai because of the added tax burden when even a little alcohol is added.

Another term seen on labels of premium sake is tokubetsu, which literally means special, but has no legal definition. Brewers use it if they have polished the rice more highly — so only 40 percent is left, if they have used special brewing techniques or special rice.

Though I am not recommending particular sake in this article, I do recommend trying several made by the same producer to see and taste for yourself the difference in quality. For example, tasting a ginjo and a daiginjo made by the same brewer (i.e., the same brand) allows you to see the difference polishing the rice to a greater degree makes. In contrast, if you compare a ginjo and daiginjo from different producers, you’ll not know whether the differences you are tasting are related to the amount of polishing or the talent and style of the producer. Similarly, if you can find them, try a junmai ginjo or daiginjo and a non-junmai ginjo or daiginjo made by the same brewer to see how a little added alcohol alters the taste and texture of the sake.

All types of sake turn out to be a surprisingly good match for a wide variety of food, from robust ramen dishes to velvety and meaty Wagyu beef.

An impediment to learning about sake, in contrast to wine, is the obvious one. Most of us will have far fewer opportunities to taste or drink it. And while sake is the obvious beverage when eating at a Japanese restaurant, few Americans frequent them more than a couple of times a month. Sake is an especially fine choice for Japanese food because it complements and cuts through the plethora of flavors — from pickles to grilled fish — that are frequently on the table at the same time. It’s the clear choice for sushi since it goes equally well with robustly flavored uni (sea urchin) as with more delicately flavored hotate (scallop). But, in addition, it works well with Western fare. Glenn Tsunekawa, an American who has lived in Japan for decades, recommends sake as the perfect accompaniment for grilled salmon or grilled tuna as well as a mixture of sautéed vegetables. W. Blake Gray, a San Francisco-based wine writer and sake expert who lived in Japan for years and is married to a Japanese woman, finds it the perfect drink for the sashimi that he and his wife prepare at home. He realizes, of course, that not everyone has access to high-grade raw fish, and notes that they find that it also goes very well with take-out rotisserie chicken.

When first learning about sake, I suggest buying it in as small a bottle as possible so you can try many types. Often, you’ll find sake sold in a 180-milliliter bottle, about 6 ounces, the typical portion for one person, but the range of sake in that size bottle will be limited. You’ll have a broader choice buying the a 720-milliliter bottle — the standard size sold in the United States — which contains enough for a couple to enjoy over two nights. An open bottle of sake will keep its freshness and flavor for up to a week as long as you put the screw cap back on and keep it in the refrigerator.

So, if you want to learn about sake, try my one-wine-a-month exercise.Michael Apstein can be reached at [email protected].

California Syrah Adds Warm Shine to Winter

Syrah is the new merlot. The explosion in plantings of this grape shows how hot the wine is. In 1985, there were about 100 acres of syrah vines in the United States. Now, there are about 20,000 acres.

The controversy over the origin of the grape explains its two names. One theory holds that it came to France from Syracuse in Sicily, hence the name syrah. Others believe it originated near the city of Shiraz in present-day Iran before moving to St. Francis Winery and Vineyards, established in 1971 in Kenwood in the heart of the Sonoma Valley, has long been known for their sumptuous merlots, cabernets, and zinfandels. They, like many wineries in California, are relative newcomers to syrah. Since they have few mature plantings of syrah in their own vineyards it can take several years after planting before a vine produces they buy grapes from their neighbors in Sonoma. Their 30-plus-year history has allowed them to forge relationships with grape growers and gain access to superior supplies of fruit. Blending wines made from grapes grown in different parts of Sonoma County adds to the complexity of the finished wine.

St. Francis has fashioned a spectacular syrah in 2002 by adding, as in the southern Rhone tradition, a little wine made from other Mediterranean varieties, mourvedre and grenache. The result is a multilayered wine with an exotic edginess and engaging suppleness that is unusual in a wine this size. Despite having more than 15 percent alcohol (most table wine runs 12-13 percent), which reflects the ripeness of the grapes and intensity of the flavors, it remains balanced and harmonious. This warming wine is perfect for wintry fare.

St. Francis, Syrah, Sonoma County, 2002 (about $19). Distributed by Horizon Beverage Company, 800-696-2337.

Author’s Expertise Makes Book an Intoxicating Read

Paul Lukacs, author of “American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine” (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), has written another great book about American wines that every wine lover, especially Francophiles, should own. The beauty of his new book, “The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages” (W.W. Norton, 2005), is that Lukacs avoids the common trap of selecting the greatest single wine a winery has to offer. Instead he selects wines, such as Shafer’s Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, that are consistently delicious but also have historical or regional importance in the development of the American wine industry. Lukacs, who is rapidly becoming our leading expert on domestic wine, explains with engaging prose how these wines, and the people behind them, have been essential to the coming of age of American wine.

The reader learns a lot about wine in general, almost by accident, because Lukacs’s style sucks you in. There can be no better description of syrah than from John Alban, whose “Reva” Syrah is profiled. Alban notes that syrah “always tastes a little wild. Compare it with Cabernet. A first-class Cabernet is like an investment banker, a polished gentleman in a three-piece suit. But Syrah is a cowboy in a tuxedo. It’s like Clint Eastwood all dressed up. He looks great, but he’s not completely polished. There’s always something raw about Syrah.” Reasonable tasters can quibble whose syrah in any particular year is “the best.” But all agree that the current high quality of American syrah is due in large measure to Alban’s devotion to the grape over the past two decades.

Similarly, Lukacs succinctly defines great Napa Valley cabernet with Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon by quoting Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez, the winemaker: “We had to learn to listen to the vineyard. We needed to stop trying to make a wine that was like something else. We needed to learn how to be ourselves.” Lukacs rightly points out that Napa cabernet has evolved from a wine whose greatest accolade was that it resembled a great Bordeaux to that exemplified by Shafer’s Hillside Select, a wine with “vibrant fruit yet pliant tannins. . . that has an identity all its own.”

December 29, 2005.

This poor man’s Barolo is surprisingly rich

Barolo is the king of Italian wines. Made from the nebbiolo grape grown in a small, sharply delimited area surrounding the village of Barolo, near Alba in Piedmont, it requires a king’s ransom to put some in your cellar. Even after paying $50 to $100 a bottle and often more, you need plenty of patience because it’s a wine that needs many years of bottle aging before its complex glories emerge.

Unlike cabernet sauvignon, which thrives in many locales, nebbiolo grows poorly outside of Piedmont. Early experience with it in California suggests that the Italians don’t need to worry about competition from Americans. The combination of nebbiolo and climate makes Barolo unique and explains why its fans are willing to invest time and money to enjoy it.

However, nebbiolo also grows in down-market areas of Piedmont, where it can make delicious wines, especially in a hot year like 2003, suitable for those with thinner wallets and less patience.

Renato Ratti makes consistently lush, layered Barolo from its Marcenasco vineyards that sell quickly even at more than $50 a bottle. Ratti also owns a vineyard planted with nebbiolo, named Ochetti, outside of the Barolo area, across the Tanaro River in the Roero district. Since it comes from this less-exalted area, the wine can be called only Nebbiolo d’Alba. But in 2003, the weather transformed these grapes into a poor man’s Barolo.

Nebbiolo needs lots of warmth and sunshine, especially at the end of the growing season, to ripen adequately, otherwise the wines are hard and astringent. The 2003 growing season all over Europe was hot, which gave a big boost to the nebbiolo planted in the Roero district, a distinctly cooler area than the more renown Barolo zone across the river.

Ratti’s 2003 Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti is a terrific wine even without further aging and is an excellent introduction to this unique grape. Its robust flavors complement wintry fare such as stew or pasta.

Renato Ratti, Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti, 2003 (about $20, distributed by M.S. Walker, 800-238-0607) 

December 22, 2005

Enjoy a vintage Port without the waiting

Vintage Port, though one of the world’s great wines, is made the same way as all Port. The grapes are harvested, crushed, and fermented for only three days, instead of the usual 7-10 days for red table wine. At that point, the winemaker adds brandy, which raises the alcohol to 20 percent and kills the yeast, stopping fermentation before all the grape sugar has been converted to alcohol. The resulting wine is a yin-yang type balance of sweetness from unfermented grape sugar and fire from the brandy.

Ninety-eight percent of Port is a blend of several years’ harvests that producers age in wood barrels for 5 to 40 years to soften its edges, rid it of sediment, and transform the grape flavors into nuances of spice, nuts, caramel, and coffee. The remaining 2 percent is vintage Port, wine made from only the best grapes from a single, and exceptional, year, and bottled after only two years of barrel aging. Although it represents the pinnacle of Port, it requires the consumer to age it for 20-plus years after purchase to allow its flavors to evolve. Moreover, you must decant it carefully before serving, leaving the accumulated sediment behind.

Over the last two decades, the trend of consumers to drink vintage Port soon after it was released prompted George Sandeman, seventh generation of the family and current chairman of the House of Sandeman, to craft Vau Vintage Port, a vintage Port suitable for earlier consumption. This brilliant idea gives Sandeman, one of the venerable Port houses, a new Port to add to its already stunning range.

Still made only in exceptional years and from only the best grapes, Sandeman’s Vau Vintage, rounder and easier on the palate when young, needs no decanting. Succulent, ripe primary fruit flavors and an ideal balance of fire and sweetness makes Sandeman’s 2000 Vau Vintage Port a welcome after-dinner drink as the temperature plunges. Its youthful flavors and preserving alcohol mean you can have a glass and recork the bottle. Still, it’s best to finish it within two days, which makes the half bottle (375 ml) a convenient size.

Sandeman, Vau Vintage Port, 2000 (about $40 per half bottle). Distributed by United Liquors, 800-445-0076. 

December 15, 2005

2001 Io has plumlike and peppery contrast

Back in the ’80s, when syrah, grenache, and mourvèdre were hardly known outside their traditional home in France’s Rhône Valley, a group of winemakers advocated growing them in California.

One of these Rhône Rangers was Byron ”Ken” Brown, who introduced Rhône varieties into the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County while working at Zaca Mesa Winery. He started his winery, Byron Vineyards & Winery, in 1984, and, ironically, produced exceptional pinot noir and chardonnay — grapes native to Burgundy, not to the Rhône Valley.

Byron Vineyards was eventually acquired by the Robert Mondavi Winery. One result of that acquisition was the formation of Io (pronounced ”eye-oh,” after the princess in Greek mythology), a winery in Santa Barbara that would produce a Rhône-style red wine, with Brown as winemaker.

The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys in Santa Barbara are excellent sites for premium grape-growing despite their southern — and potentially too-hot — California location. These valleys lie between mountain ranges that run east to west, as opposed to the usual north-south, opening directly onto the Pacific Ocean, which means that the temperature in the vineyards varies depending on the proximity to water.

A blend of mostly syrah mixed with a pinch of mourvèdre and grenache, the 2001 Io is an exceptional wine. It’s always surprising to me how small components — 3.5 percent each of mourvèdre and grenache in this case — have such a large influence on the finished wine, imparting layers of flavors. Brown captured additional complexity by blending wines made from syrah grown in different vineyards, one slightly warmer than the other, to utilize the grape’s adaptability. When syrah is grown in cooler climates, the wine has peppery flavors as opposed to the ripe, plumlike flavors found in syrah from warmer locales.

The 2001 Io, silky and smooth, has plush, plumlike flavors mixed with peppery notes and an alluring smoky component. Although not inexpensive, it’s an excellent value in this price range.

Io, 2001 (about $35). Distributed by Martignetti Cos., 800-872-9463, and Horizon Beverage Co., 800-696-2337. 

December 1, 2005

A French Connection Lifts Oregon Vineyard

Although the film “Sideways” highlighted Southern California as pinot noir country, Oregon is also a leading source of superb wine made from that grape. Many comparative tastings have shown that Oregon’s pinot noirs rank with the world’s best, and to many consumers it has become that state’s signature wine.

But Oregon also produces stylish chardonnay, a grape that grows side by side with pinot noir in France’s Burgundy region. These two grapes thrive in Oregon, as in Burgundy, because the generally cooler climate allows them to ripen slowly and develop more flavor.

A milestone in the Oregon wine industry was when Robert Drouhin, head of Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s top producers, purchased land, developed vineyards, and established the winery Domain Drouhin Oregon. Drouhin thought Oregon had potential for producing great pinot noir as early as the 1960s, when he was traveling there to promote the Burgundies of Maison Drouhin. He became friends with David Adelsheim, one of Oregon’s top pinot noir producers, and, with his help, found suitable undeveloped land in the Red Hills of Dundee in the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s premier location for growing pinot noir and chardonnay, just outside of Portland.

Robert’s daughter, Veronique, studied enology at the University of Dijon in Burgundy and worked with leading Oregon producers Adelsheim, Bethel Heights, and Eyrie to gain more experience with the locale. She was the natural choice as winemaker when Domaine Drouhin Oregon was founded in 1987. She and her team have made silky, luscious pinot noir since 1988, their first vintage. Although they started making chardonnay in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t until the 2001 vintage that they produced enough to sell nationwide. (They still have more than five times as much pinot noir as chardonnay planted).

The 2002 Domaine Drouhin Chardonnay, called Arthur (pronounced ar- tour) after Veronique’s son, is a captivating wine. Oregon’s cooler climate and Veronique’s deft hand impart a creamy richness balanced by a vivacity that avoids the heaviness or overripe character sometimes found in California chardonnay. It would go equally well with a simple roasted chicken or a more elaborate linguine with shellfish.

Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Chardonnay, Arthur, 2002 (about $26). Distributed by M.S. Walker, 800-238-0607.

November 24, 2005

A cabernet sauvignon for an occasion

Frank Altamura, the winemaker at his eponymous property in California, is a farmer at heart. ”The big fun is in the vineyards,” he says.

With no formal winemaking training, he learned by doing, first at Sterling Vineyards and then at other notable Napa Valley properties: Trefethen, Caymus, and Dunn. He and his wife, Karen, founded their winery in 1985 on land in the hills in the southeastern corner of the Napa Valley that the Altamura family has owned for 150 years. Twenty years later, it remains a small winery producing about 3,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon annually from about 65 acres of vines. (For comparison, Château Lafite-Rothschild, one of Bordeaux’s most famous properties, produces about 20,000 cases of wine a year.)

Although California winemakers use the same red grapes as their counterparts in Bordeaux, some winemaking practices differ. In Bordeaux, winemakers blend wines made from up to five grapes — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec — to achieve the final product. It is rare to find a red Bordeaux made exclusively from one variety. The final blend has broader, more interesting flavors than any of the individual wines. Blending wine is also common in California, even in those wines labeled with a single grape name, such as cabernet sauvignon. (By law, only 75 percent of the wine must come from the grape listed on the label.) But many California producers, such as Altamura, make wine exclusively from cabernet sauvignon.

Altamura’s 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon is a staggeringly sumptuous wine with great power and complexity. The vineyard achieves the broad layers of flavor by blending different batches of cabernet sauvignon made from grapes grown in different parts of the 400-acre property. Each vineyard contributes subtle differences to the wine because of different soil, elevation, and exposure to the sun, according to Altamura.

The resulting blend is silky and supple. Its price means most of us will save it for a special occasion, but when that time comes, it will be a great match for a celebratory steak or rack of lamb.

Altamura Vineyards and Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001 (about $69). Distributed by Martignetti Cos., 800-872-9463.

November 10, 2005

A $10 Spanish Red That’s Easily Sipped

Although Spain has been producing wines since the Phoenicians settled there, they have become fashionable only recently. The modernization of Spain’s wine industry and leap in quality come from an influx of investment after it joined the European Community in 1988. The Spanish, like the French, name their best wines by where the grapes grow. Government regulations recognize 64 regions, 62 of which are known as DO (Denominacion de Origen). Two other regions, Rioja in the north and Priorat near the Mediterranean coast just southwest of Barcelona, are recognized as being on top of the quality and price pyramid and have been awarded a higher status, Denominacion de Origen Calificada or DOC (sometimes written as DOCa). This hierarchy of areas does not mean that all wines from a DOC are better than all wines from a DO. Montsant, a DO, practically encircles the more up-market Priorat. Regulations require the same Mediterranean grapes as in Priorat. But Montsant’s wines are less captivating and less expensive, in part because the vineyards are at a slightly lower altitude. Elevation is key throughout Spain, since the temperatures exceed 100 degrees during the day. If the nights weren’t cool largely because of elevation, most Spanish wine would be heavy and uninteresting. Cool nights retard ripening, allowing grapes to develop more flavors. Celler el Masroig, a large cooperative founded in the early 20th century, initially focused on large volumes of high-alcohol wine. But with more than 300 growers, many of the vineyards are nicely situated and the coop now sees the value in higher-quality wine. The 2003 Sola Fred is a winner and a bargain. A moderately intense wine, it is not marred by the heaviness or coarseness commonly found at this price.

Celler el Masroig, Sola Fred, 2003 (about $10). Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007.

November 3, 2005

A vintage champagne that’s affordable

Like other fine wine, champagne can improve with age, as Duval-Leroy’s nearly 10-year-old vintage champagne demonstrates. Although 1996 produced excellent wines throughout France, no region did better than Champagne, where it will rank as one of the greatest vintages ever.

Most champagne is nonvintage; a blend of wine from several years’ harvests aimed at producing a consistent house style year after year. Individual champagne producers have the option to ”declare a vintage,” which means that they will bottle a portion of the harvest separately. (They save the remainder to maintain the consistency of the nonvintage blend.)

Vintage champagne is still a blend of wines, made chiefly from chardonnay and pinot noir grown in a variety of villages, but all the wine is from one year. (Gently pressing pinot noir or other black grapes delivers clear juice because the color comes from the skins.) Some years, such as 1991, only a rare producer will declare a vintage (Philipponnat’s 1991 Clos des Goisses, about $100, is sensational), but in a year like 1996, virtually every champagne house produced a vintage champagne.

By now most have disappeared from the retail market, but Duval-Leroy just released theirs. It’s a welcome addition because the only other 1996s I’ve seen still available are the luxury cuvees, such as Moët & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot’s Grande Dame, and Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or, all excellent but all routinely priced at more than $125 a bottle.

Duval-Leroy’s location in the Côte des Blancs, the best area of the Champagne region for growing chardonnay, helps explain why their chardonnay-dominant bottlings excel. Additionally, the chardonnay for their vintage champagne, which constitutes roughly two-thirds of the blend, comes only from the best, or grand cru, villages within the Côte des Blancs.

Duval-Leroy’s 1996 vintage champagne is classy, seductive, and combines the elegance of chardonnay with the power of pinot noir. The extended aging has added a toasty-yeasty complexity. Its vibrant acidity, characteristic of this vintage, keeps the champagne fresh. With some nonvintage champagnes selling for more than $50 a bottle, this vintage champagne won’t last long.

Duval-Leroy Champagne, Brut, 1996 (about $50). Distributed by M. S. Walker, 800-238-0607. 

October 27, 2005

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is Fruity Yet Sophisticated

Chile, initially known for its well-made under-$10 wines, has entered the upscale market with bottlings in the $60-plus range, such as Almaviva, a joint effort of Bordeaux’s Mouton Rothschild and Chile’s Concha y Toro, Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, and Vinedo Chadwick. These excellent wines upstage many comparably priced Californian cabernets.

But I think where Chile really stands out is with its red wines in the $11-$20 category, which usually deliver far more than their price suggests.

The modern Chilean wine industry traces its roots to Bordeaux, which explains why it excels with wines blended from grapes traditionally grown in that area of southwestern France. The Chilean aristocracy imported winemakers and raw materials, such as vines, from Bordeaux in the mid-19th century as a status symbol. The result was the beginning of a tradition of fine red wine.

In 1856, the Cousino family purchased the established Macul wine estate in the Maipo Valley, just outside of Santiago and home to many of Chile’s best cabernet-based wines. The Macul estate, now a part of Santiago, as that city expanded, remains an important source for Cousino-Macul’s cabernet. But Santiago’s surrounding urban sprawl prevented vineyard expansion and forced them to look elsewhere. In the mid-1990s the family tripled the size of its estate by purchasing another 600 acres of vineyards in Buinv, an area farther south but still within the prized Maipo Valley. The vines there are now sufficiently mature to produce high-quality grapes for their top-of-the-line wines.

In 1927, Cousino-Macul introduced Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon as its flagship wine, selected from its best lots. No longer its flagship Finis Terrae assumed that mantel in 1992 it remains an outstanding wine and an astonishing value. Breaking with the Bordeaux tradition of blending wines made from several grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and merlot, Cousino-Macul’s Antiguas Reservas Cabernet is made entirely from cabernet sauvignon. The 2003 has plenty of fruit flavors, as you would expect from a New World cabernet, but its finesse and complexity scream fine Bordeaux. It’s the best of both worlds.

Cousino-Macul Cabernet Sauvignon Antiguas Reservas 2003 (about $15). Distributed by M. S. Walker, 800 -238-0607.

October 20, 2005

Hungarian Tokaji a dry delight

With wine, as with most of life, it pays to listen to people with experience.

George Bardis, who runs the wine department at Martignetti’s Soldiers Field Road store and tastes thousands of wines each year, recently returned from Hungary where he sampled scores. He recommends a wine not usually seen in the United States — a dry Hungarian Tokaji, which he had purchased for the store.

Tokaji, in the northeastern part of Hungary, has been known for centuries for its legendary sweet wines. During the 18th century, this sweet wine was fashionable and in great demand among French and Russian royalty.

But I had never heard of a dry wine from the region. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that they exist, since every sweet-wine-producing area also makes dry wines.

One of Spain’s leading wineries, Vega Sicilia, was one of those that invested in the area in the 1990s. In 1993, it purchased an estate in the heart of the Tokaji region and renamed it Oremus. Its winemakers replanted the vineyards and renovated the winery to rectify the damage done during the Soviet era, in which corners were cut and quantity was prized over quality. They produce Tokaji Aszu, the name given to the sweet wines, but, according to their website, about 60 percent of their annual production is dry Tokaji, which they call Mandolas. Winemakers use chiefly the furmint grape for both the sweet and dry versions of Tokaji. When the furmint grapes fail to achieve sufficient ripeness — the sugar levels are too low — winemakers use them for the dry wines.

Oremus’s 2003 Tokaji Mandolas, an intense white wine, is clean and fresh. Its honey-like ripeness without the sweetness, atop a base of minerality, makes it an especially good match for take-out Chinese or Thai food.

Oremus, Tokaji (dry) Mandolas, 2003 (about $13). Distributed by M.S. Walker , 800-238-0607.

October 13, 2005

An elite chardonnay without the cost

It’s always a treat to run across a wine that delivers more than it is supposed to. And it’s a special treat when the wine is made from chardonnay, since wines made from that grape can be monotonous.

Although Californian and Australian chardonnay dominate the American market, the finest ones come from Burgundy. The Burgundy wine trade depends on firms that buy either grapes or newly fermented wines from the many growers who have no interest in making and selling wine. The firms, called negociants, finish making the wine, and then age, bottle, and market it under their name. Many negociants own little or no land, but others, like Faiveley, a well-respected family-owned firm founded in 1825, have substantial holdings.

Faiveley has made a name for itself with its outstanding wines from the Côte Chalonnaise, a lesser-known part of Burgundy about 60 miles south of the Côte d’Or, the most prestigious part of Burgundy. But while the towns in the Côte Chalonnaise, such as Montagny, lack the cachet of Burgundy’s best white-wine towns such as Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet, it is still Burgundy. Chardonnay grown here, especially in a year like 2002, can produce a marvelous wine. Precisely because of its lack of pedigree, prices for Côte Chalonnaise wines are lower.

About 15 years ago, Faiveley purchased a vineyard in Montagny, Les Joncs, which it thought had great potential but was underperforming. It not only pulled out all the chardonnay vines and replanted with what it felt was a superior stock, but it relandscaped the vineyard to improve its drainage and exposure to the sun, which should increase the ripeness of the grapes and, hence, the concentration of the wine. (The locals saw the earth-moving equipment and thought the company was building a new highway, according to Faiveley’s export director, Christophe Voisin.)

Faiveley’s vision was correct. Its 2002 Montagny Les Joncs is a stunning wine. With hints of minerals and citric flavors combined with a lush creaminess, it’s a much better wine than its pedigree indicates, a $40 wine with a $20 price tag.

Faiveley, Montagny Les Joncs, 2002 (about $20). Distributed by Martignetti Cos., 800-872-9463. 

September 29, 2005

New Zealand Bubbly Deserves A Toast

Champagne, without doubt the world’s best bubbly, is a good but pricey way to alleviate end-of-summer blues. Often, we must make do with a less-expensive alternative, sparkling wine.

Notwithstanding the label of some California sparkling wines, true champagne comes only from a specified method using chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grown in the Champagne region of France, about 100 miles east of Paris. But winemakers everywhere, using a variety of grapes, can make sparkling wine. And the pop of the cork, a sound that lifts everyone’s spirits, is the same regardless of the grapes.

New Zealand’s largest wine company, Montana Wines, known as Brancott Vineyards in the United States, has been making Lindauer sparkling wine for over 20 years. Although it is New Zealand’s most widely exported wine, according to the company’s website, it is a recent arrival in this country. The grapes pinot noir, chardonnay, and chenin blanc come from vineyards throughout both islands. Even though the blend is atypical for sparkling wine, the grapes work well together to make a clean, fresh wine. Its restrained fruitiness is a relief compared with many inexpensive sparkling wines, and means you won’t tire of it after one glass. It’s one of the best buys in sparkling wines this year.

If this sparkling wine is any indication, New Zealand bubbly will be met with open arms here, just as the excellent pinot noir from Central Otago in the southern part of the South Island has been.

Like champagne and other sparklings wines, Lindauer is versatile. You can have a glass as an aperitif and continue to drink it during a meal. It is especially good with foods that are hard to match with wine, such as roast pork, slightly spicy dishes, or seafood dribbled with butter or olive oil.

Lindauer, Brut, Non-Vintage (about $12). Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007.

September 22, 2005.

Torrontes offers sweet taste of summer

One sip of torrontes, made from Argentina’s most widely planted white grape of the same name, will keep you in the summer spirit; it is the perfect summertime wine.

It is likely the grape arrived in Argentina from Northern Spain, but its precise lineage and origin remain obscure, so don’t bother looking for a European counterpart. It’s a tricky grape to fashion into wine because its floral nature could easily get out of hand. But when you combine, as Susana Balbo has, the lacey floral aromas with its inherent acidity, it becomes captivating.

Although Chile has captured the allegiance of the American wine consumer — Chile’s Concha y Toro line ranks second behind Australia’s Yellow Tail as our favorite import — neighboring Argentina produces more wine. It is the fifth-largest wine-producing country after France, Italy, Spain, and the United States.

Mendoza is its prime wine-producing area, but, paradoxically, the best torrontes hails from Cafayate in the north, an area known more for quantity over quality, at least in red wine. Vineyards over 4,000 feet, where there are dramatic day-night temperature differences, allow the torrontes to hold on to its natural acidity, which balances its naturally aromatic character.

Balbo started making wine in the early 1980s. She was the first Argentine winemaker to consult outside of her country, and she has a worldwide reputation for her craft. She usually uses Crios (literally, offspring) as her ”second,” less expensive, label for wines made from grapes that do not measure up to her standards for her primary label, Signature. But since she makes no torrontes under her Signature label, the Crios torrontes is the only one you’ll see on retailers’ shelves.

Its honeysuckle-like aromas grab your attention, but the bright citric zing keeps you coming back for more. Try it with spicy Thai food or take-out Chinese. It’s so beguiling, you’ll be tempted to drink it year-round.

Crios de Susana Balbo, Torrontes, 2005. About $15. Distributed by Central Distributing Co., 508-755-0360, and Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007. 

September 8, 2005.

La Posta’s 2003 bonarda is a lively dinner partner

By now, many wine drinkers are accustomed to ordering malbec, currently Argentina’s signature wine. But how many know or have even heard of bonarda, Argentina’s second most important red wine grape? As recently as 25 years ago, it was Argentina’s most popular red grape, as growers planted it after they ripped out malbec. That stopped as growers realized malbec’s potential. But they are still planting bonarda because they realize that it, too, has potential to make unique wine.

It’s a grape found in few locales. Northern Italians refer to several varieties as bonarda and consumers will see some hefty Italian wines called by that name, but most experts believe the Italian and Argentine versions are distinct. No matter, even if you count the Italians, the Argentines still have six times more bonarda planted.

Bonarda has some similarities to zinfandel — lots of fruit and spice without a tannic backbone. But unlike California zinfandel producers, many Argentine winemakers capture bonarda’s intensity and flavor while keeping the alcohol reasonable, in the 13 percent range.

The Armando family started its wine business almost immediately after immigrating to Argentina from Northern Italy in 1886. The family planted bonarda in what is now the Estela Armando vineyard 40 years ago. The age of the vineyard helps explain the exceptional quality of the wine, since mature vines generally produce higher-quality grapes. Wines from a single vineyard are still an exception in Argentina, where growers are fearful that localized hail storms can destroy the entire crop. They opt not to put all their eggs in one basket and prefer to make wine by blending the juice from grapes grown in vineyards spread over several areas.

I am glad La Posta del vinatero (literally, the inn of the winemaker) decided not to blend the juice from Armando’s grapes with others in 2003 and dilute their engaging black fruit and smoky flavors. Despite its intensity, La Posta’s 2003 bonarda does not come across as a heavy wine. Its acidity helps keep it lively and assures it remains fresh, not boring, throughout the meal. La Posta del vinatero, Bonarda, Estela Armando Vineyard, 2003. About $17. Distributed by Central Distributing Co., 508-755-0360, and Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007.

September 1, 2005.

2001 Napanook a ‘second’ with first-class traits

Christian Moueix was born with merlot in his blood, which makes what he has done in Napa Valley all the more amazing. His family owns or controls the most prestigious properties in Pomerol, including Chateau Petrus, one of Bordeaux’s finest wines. They don’t own even a single cabernet sauvignon vine since this part of Bordeaux is merlot country. But while earning a master’s degree at the University of California at Davis in 1969, Moueix fell in love with the Napa Valley, where cabernet sauvignon is king.

Moueix wanted to do something different in addition to managing his family’s properties. He searched for land in California and eventually partnered with –and later bought out — the heirs to the famous Napanook vineyard, the grapes from which formed the heart of the legendary Inglenook Cask Selection, historically one of California’s best Cabernets. He formed Dominus Estate and, in the Bordeaux tradition, makes two wines, Dominus and Napanook, both from — Mon Dieu — cabernet sauvignon.

He told me that the challenge in California was that everything — grapes, soil, climate — was different from Pomerol. But it’s clear that the Moueix focus and determination to make superb wine remained constant. Moueix reserves the best wine, about half his total production, for Dominus, which commands about $125 a bottle and needs many years of additional aging in the bottle before its glory shows. He bottles most of the other half under the Napanook label. (He also sells wine that he feels is not up to snuff for Napanook in bulk to other wineries). Made from less-flavor-infused grapes, the product of younger vines or ones planted in less desirable portions of the vineyard, these so-called second wines, like Napanook, are ready to drink sooner than their big brothers. Think of them as junior varsity or ”seconds,” but in this case it’s hard to find any imperfections.

Packed with flavor and surrounded by silky tannins, the 2001 Napanook is perfect now for drinking with a steak. Although some might think that calling Napanook a second wine is pejorative, I think it’s a great opportunity to drink a classy, refined wine at a reduced price.

Napanook, 2001. About $46. Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007. 

August 25, 2005.

N.Y. Riesling lacks cloying sweetness

New York wines lack the cachet of those from California, which is too bad since some, like Riesling, are stellar and more exciting than their West Coast counterparts.

The Finger Lakes region, with almost 100 wineries, accounts for 90 percent of the state’s wine. This region was always known for growing native American grapes, Vitis labrusca, such as Catawba and Concord, which are great for making jelly but not for making fine wine. Winemakers use Vitis vinifera, the species of grape common in France or California, for making premium wine, such as merlot, Riesling, or chardonnay. The Finger Lakes wine industry languished initially because producers thought that Vitis vinifera was too fragile to survive the cold.

It took a German-born, Russian-trained botanist, Konstantin Frank, to show that vinifera vines could thrive in upstate New York. Frank, who had made wine from vinifera grapes in the Ukraine, where the winters are more severe than in the Finger Lakes region, knew that the proximity of the lakes would moderate the climate and protect the vines from freezing. Frank immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, worked under Charles Fournier of Gold Seal Wine, and then founded his winery on the shores of Lake Keuka in 1962. He produces exceptional Rieslings. His 2004 Dry Riesling won a gold medal at the prestigious San Diego International Critics Challenge wine competition this year; the 2003 took a gold at the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition last year.

Riesling, considered by many connoisseurs to be the world’s best white wine, is underappreciated in the United States. Many consumers consider it a sweet wine, an image reinforced by most California versions, which are often cloying because they lack the mouth-cleansing acidity — think green apples — that is the hallmark of great Riesling. And that’s just where Frank’s Rieslings excel. His 2004 has the vibrancy and mineral undertones to balance the peachy flavors.

Riesling in general, and Frank’s in particular, is a versatile food-friendly wine that cuts the summer’s heat and humidity. Try one the next time you opt for spicy Asian cuisine, take-out sushi, or a shoreline clambake.

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, Dry Riesling, 2004 (About $16). Distributed by United Liquors, 800-445-0076. 

August 18, 2005.

Bring on the Lo Mein, but Hold the Corkscrew


Carry-out Chinese food has been one way to get through the worst heat spells this summer. That begs the question of what to drink with it.

Some prefer beer, while others complain that it’s too heavy. Chardonnay, America’s favorite white wine, often lacks the verve to cut through the spices and aromatics of this cuisine. One good mate for the food is

New Zealand sauvignon blanc. These wines have always been great with seafood, and their bracing citric acidity is also a perfect match for Chinese or Thai fare.

Perhaps because New Zealand doesn’t have a grand winemaking tradition, winemakers are willing to think outside the box. They are leading the charge to top bottles with screw caps to eliminate those ruined by bad corks (this is up to 5 percent of all bottles opened). Proponents believe that wines bottled under screw caps taste fresher than those bottled with corks. And while the jury is still out on how wine sealed with screw caps will age and develop over the years, it’s a technique that makes perfect sense for New Zealand sauvignon blancs. These bottles are meant to be drunk within a year or two of the vintage.

Wines with screw caps are a hard sell in this country; some associate that closure with low-end swill. If any wine can change that image, it will be New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc. And with screw caps, you can easily save an unfinished bottle to accompany the white cartons that wind up in the fridge.

SIDEBAR:Island hopping

While Marlborough, on New Zealand’s north tip of the South Island, is known for sauvignon blanc, it did not produce the country’s first sauvignon blanc. That honor goes to Matua Valley near Auckland on the North Island; the year was

1974. Matua currently produces sauvignon blanc made from grapes grown in Marlborough as well. Matua 2004 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (above, about $11) is a great buy.

Also on the North Island, in Martinborough literally a stone’s throw across the strait from Marlborough is the home of the captivating Palliser Estate 2004 Sauvignon Blanc , which has an extra dimension of minerality (about $19).

A winery located in Central Otago, a tiny area in the southern part of the South Island, is best known for its pinot noir, but Mt. Difficulty

2004 sauvignon blanc (about $17) is dynamite. It’s not difficult at all to enjoy its intertwined citric and mineral flavors.

Matua Valley is distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007; Palliser Estate and Mt. Difficulty by M.S. Walker, 800-238-0607.

August 17, 2005.

Critic’s success story is an intoxicating read

Elin McCoy’s ”Emperor of Wine, The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste” ($25.95; Ecco) is an essential book for anyone interested in wine, but it would also be enjoyed by general readers, especially those interested in a uniquely American accomplishment.

McCoy chronicles Parker’s life from his childhood in rural Maryland near Baltimore, when he drank practically no wine (after drinking wine the first time, he vomited into a drawer of clean clothes, to his mother’s chagrin), to his adulthood as one of the world’s most powerful and influential wine critics.

Parker discovered a passion for wine at age 20 visiting his wife-to-be when she was studying in Paris. After slogging through law school, he took a job with the Farm Credit Banks in Baltimore. But his passion remained wine. He had an extraordinary ability to remember what he tasted and, more importantly, described it in terms Americans understood.

In 1977, with a $2,000 loan from his mother and a Ralph Nader-like zeal, he started a local consumer-oriented newsletter, the Baltimore Washington Wine Advocate, reviewing wines and listing their prices at stores. He pioneered the shorthand, 100-point scoring system that is ubiquitous today. The newsletter took off, and was followed by books, a website, and a CD, ”Parker in your Palm.”

Provident Insurance in Tennessee insured his sense of smell and taste for $1 million. He is one of the few Americans, in the company of Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell, to receive France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, directly from the president of France. And his success has come the old-fashioned way, via perseverance and hard work.

McCoy, who has written about wine for 30 years, writes exceptionally evenhandedly and lucidly about this man, who some credit with improving wine around the world and others damn because they believe that winemakers tailor their wines to his tastes to ensure high ratings. They argue that individuality and subtlety are lost in the process. But whatever you think of Parker after reading this book, you can’t help but be a little envious by how he left his mundane legal job to pursue his passion. It’s a story even teetotalers can embrace.

August 11, 2005.

Let Your Palate Pick What’s Fit to Savor

It’s important to trust your palate when it comes to wine. Recommendations from so-called experts and friends are helpful, of course, but should never be the final word because sometimes reviewers disagree. Take, for example, Grgich’s 2002 Chardonnay. A national specialized wine magazine gave it an average score, 76, earlier in the year, but I’ve tasted it twice recently and thought it was terrific. I’ve always loved Grgich’s style of Chardonnay, more restrained with vibrant acidity, and I suspect the divergent opinions stem more from preference than from inherent quality. Another explanation may be that the additional time in bottle, even a few months, allowed its .avors to develop. Originally from Croatia, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich (pronounced gerr-gitch) studied enology in Zagreb and made wine for a variety of California producers before founding his winery in Napa Valley almost 30 years ago. He’s always had a magic touch with Chardonnay. While winemaker at Chateau Montelena, he made its stunning 1973 Chardonnay that, in 1976, wowed French and America critics in a comparative tasting in which it was favored over France’s .nest white Burgundies. All of Grgich’s wines are estate grown. They come exclusively from his vineyards, which means he has total control, from grape growing to wine making. Although he ferments the juice in oak barrels – a common practice that has the potential to result in overly heavy wines – he blocks malolactic fermentation. This prevents the conversion of malic acid, the biting acid present in fruit, to the softer, creamy lactic acid, present in milk. As a result, the tangy edge makes the wine vivacious and balances the engaging nutty flavors. Not as opulent or butterscotchy as many California Chardonnays, Grgich’s 2002 is a wine to drink, not just to taste. Buy a couple of other similarly priced California chardonnays, gather a few friends to spread the cost around, boil some lobsters or grill some fish, and decide for yourself what to buy the next time you consider spending this kind of money for a bottle of Chardonnay. Grgich, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2002. About $45. Distributed by Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100.

July 28, 2005.

A Match for Either Burgers or Lobsters

Chenin blanc gets no respect, and there’s a reason: Most wines made from this grape are insipidly sweet and characterless.

There are exceptions. The Loire village of Vouvray is home to fruity but racy wines made from chenin blanc that are definitely not insipid and go down quite nicely in the summer heat.

But it is rare to find bone-dry chenin blanc except from Savennieres, the tiny area geographically close to, but vastly different from, Vouvray. The soil in Vouvray is mainly limestone while slate dominates in Savennieres. As a result, winemakers produce markedly different wines from the same grape, which vividly illustrates why the French name their wines by locale instead of grape variety.

Domaine Baumard and Domaine du Closel are two of my favorite Savennieres producers because they make consistently excellent wines. Nicolas Joly is another major name in the area because he owns one of its two best vineyards, Coulee de Serrant, but his wines are, in my experience, inconsistent. Sometimes they are magical, other times disappointing, but always expensive. In 2002, a great year for all Loire wines, Joly made three Savennieres, including the Coulee de Serrant (about $80). The least expensive of the trio, the Les Clos Sacres, is simply stunning.

Joly is a vocal advocate for biodynamic production, an agricultural method articulated by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, that ties the vine’s growing cycle and vinification steps to astrologic events. Although many of the tenets sound crazy such as hanging deer bladders from trees in the vineyards others, like transferring the wine from barrel to barrel only during certain phases of the moon, probably stem from generations of cellar experience.

Whatever the reason, Joly’s 2002 Les Clos Sacres has the quintessential elements of great Savennieres, a unique combination of honeylike ripeness but without sweetness intertwined with an alluring minerality. It’s a versatile wine for food because it complements a steamed lobster but can also stand up to tuna and wasabi.

Joly, Savennieres, Les Clos Sacres, 2002 (about $33). Distributed by Martignetti, 800-872-9463.

July 21, 2005.

A carmenere that’s complex without the cost

Some grapes are unique to a locale. Carmenere is one that used to be. Along with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot, it was used in 19th-century France to make red Bordeaux. But it was exported to Chile at that time, when the modern Chilean wine industry was getting started, and now it is found throughout that nation and rarely elsewhere. Continue reading A carmenere that’s complex without the cost

A wine blend from quality grapes

In 1395, Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banned what he called the ”très mauvais” (very bad) gamay grape from Burgundy, relegating it to Beaujolais, a less prestigious area further south. But as with many royal decrees, not everybody listened. So there is still plenty of gamay planted in Burgundy, even though pinot noir is considered the red grape of that region. Continue reading A wine blend from quality grapes

A cheaper option to chic Brunello

Montalcino, a tiny town perched upon a mountain just south of the Chianti region in Tuscany, is home to one of Italy’s greatest red wines, Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello is the local name for sangiovese grosso, a variety of sangiovese, Tuscany’s most important red grape; it ripens well on the surrounding hillsides to produce a wine with power, complexity, and suaveness. Regulations require four years of aging before the wine is released, so the current vintage widely available is 1999, a superb year for Brunello. The demand for Brunello far outstrips the supply from this small area, so prices start at $50 and move up quickly.

Until 25 years ago, when the American-owned Banfi reinvigorated the entire region, there were still only about two-dozen producers. Now the area claims about 200 growers and wineries.

In the mid-1980s, regulations allowed a new wine, Rosso di Montalcino, which, although made from the same clone of sangiovese, could be sold after only one year of aging and, unlike Brunello, was ready to drink upon release. Rosso is made either from grapes grown in vineyards not suitable for Brunello or from grapes grown in Brunello vineyards but that the producer feels are not quite up to Brunello standards.

Even though Rosso di Montalcino never achieves the glory of Brunello, many deliver surprising complexity. But since they command only a fraction of the price of Brunello and are ready to drink sooner, they are worth discovering.

In addition to Banfi’s consistently excellent Rosso di Montalcino, consumers should search for Argiano’s 2003 Rosso, a ripe, succulent wine with an intriguing overlay of herbs and spice (about $24). Another stunning 2003 Rosso, from the respected producer Poggio Antico, has depth and complexity, perhaps because all of the grapes came from Brunello vineyards (about $25). Col d’Orcia’s new winemaker, Pablo Harri, who was hired from Banfi in the late 1990s, made a sensational 2001 Rosso, labeled Banditello, which delivers a classy combination of bright fruit and captivating earthiness ($34).

Argiano is distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607; Poggio Antico is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000; and Col d’Orcia is distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007. 

March 11, 2005.

Spanish wines are life of the party

Although Spain is firmly entrenched in the Old World viticulturally — they label the wines by where the grapes grow rather than by grape name — talented young winemakers are experimenting as though they are working in California, and no region exemplifies the dynamism of Spanish wines better than Ribera del Duero.

Although Spain’s most famous winery, Vega Sicilia, has been producing exceptional wine in Ribera del Duero since the 19th century, the region attained widespread recognition only in the early 1980s, when Alejandro Fernandez released his wine, Pesquera. In 1982, there were nine wineries in this region, which straddles the Duero River (the extension of Portugal’s Duoro River, home to Port) in Northern Spain. Today there are 190. Vineyards have doubled during the same period and cover 50,000 acres, about the same as Napa. It is now the most expensive red wine region of Spain, according to German Munoz Lopez, a spokesman for the agency that regulates the Ribera del Duero wines.

The key to the quality and distinctiveness of the wines from Ribera del Duero is in its climate. The vineyards lie on a plateau 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, which ensures that the vines receive tremendous sunlight, essential for photosynthesis.

Also, the altitude of this arid region contributes to the dramatic difference in day and night temperatures. Warmth during the day assures ripeness, while cool nights conserve the grapes’ acidity, and hence the wines’, which ensures they are lively rather than heavy. The tempranillo grape, Spain’s most widely planted variety and the grape of choice in the region, thrives in this environment, producing rich, intense wines. Regulations allow for inclusion of a small amount of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, and grenache.

Fernandez owns another estate in the region, Condado de Haza, which produces exceptional wines and offers an excellent example of what the Ribera del Duero has to offer without breaking the bank. The 2002 Condado de Haza (about $23), made exclusively from tempranillo, is luxurious, dense, and remarkably supple. Alluring, non-primary fruit flavors add complexity. It’s a warming wine for winter fare.

Condado de Haza is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000.

March 3, 2005.

Suddenly, pinot noir is the star attraction

Red Burgundies, the vast majority of which are made from pinot noir, have tempted wine connoisseurs for decades. And even though excellent pinot noir from Oregon, California, and, most recently, New Zealand has been increasingly available, it has remained a bit of a cult wine. Then came ”Sideways.” Since the release and success of the film, in which pinot noir plays a leading role, it seems that everyone is looking for wine made from this grape.

Winemaking aside, the problem with pinot noir is the cost of the grapes. Winemakers tell me they can make acceptable merlot from vineyards that yield 6 tons of grapes per acre of land. But for pinot noir, as yields climb over 3 to 4 tons per acre, the wine rapidly loses distinction. Hence, the same acre of land produces less wine. Since most of a winery’s expenses are fixed, they must charge more per bottle to compensate for the smaller volume.

Beaulieu Vineyards of Rutherford, Calif., known as BV, always has been — and still is — known for its superb cabernet sauvignons. Its Rutherford Cabernet (about $20) is consistently excellent. Its Reserve Cabernet, known as Georges de Latour Private Reserve (about $100), is one of California’s greatest wines. Even so, Andre Tchelistcheff, BV’s legendary winemaker who was responsible for the reputation of its cabernets, felt that his best wine was a pinot noir, the 1946 Beaumont, made from grapes grown in BV’s Carneros vineyards. (The 1946 Beaumont was not an anomaly. Both the 1947 and 1949 Beaumont, tasted during a celebration of BV wines in 2000, were spectacular.)

The Carneros district, which spans the southern end of the Napa and Sonoma valleys and abuts San Pablo Bay, is an ideal location for pinot noir. This cooler locale, a result of the ocean’s influences, slows ripening, which allows more flavors to develop in the grapes.

Beaulieu Vineyard’s 2002 Carneros Pinot Noir (about $18) may not evolve into the Beaumonts of the 1940s, but it is delicious now. Full of bright fruit and an attractive meaty component, it is flavorful and layered, without being heavy. It’s a great choice for roast chicken.

Beaulieu Vineyard’s wines are distributed by United Liquors, 800-445-0076.

February 24, 2005.

Don’t overlook village Burgundies

In all of Burgundy there are only six white wine vineyards called grand cru, the French government’s highest ranking. Two of them lie solely within Puligny-Montrachet and two, Le Montrachet and Batard Montrachet (literally, the bastard Montrachet), are shared with Chassagne-Montrachet, the neighboring town.

These grand cru white Burgundies are frightfully expensive, $200-plus per bottle, and, like the greatest red wines, need at least a decade of aging for all their glory to unfold. The French consider these wines unique and label them only with the vineyard name. Forty percent of the vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet have been ranked as premier cru, down a notch from grand cru, and are labeled with the village and vineyard name. The remaining half of the wine from Puligny-Montrachet comes from vineyards that are not classified as grand or premier cru and are labeled with the village name only.

In 1879, the villages, which at the time were called simply Puligny and Chassagne, affixed the name of their most famous vineyard to the towns’ names in hopes of elevating the reputation of the village wines. The resulting confusion (deception) persists today. I know more than one person who has purchased a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet thinking it was Le Montrachet. That not withstanding, these village wines should not be overlooked. Talented producers can make excellent wines even from nonclassified vineyards.

In selecting Burgundy, the producer is critically important, but especially when selecting village wines. A producer, such as Olivier Leflaive, buys grapes or newly made wine from growers throughout Puligny-Montrachet, blends and ages the wine in his cellars, and then sells it under his name. The skill lies in knowing what to buy and how to blend and age it.

The talented Franck Grux, Leflaive’s winemaker since 1988, has that skill. With a captivating creaminess intertwined with a mineral backbone, Olivier Leflaive’s 2002 Puligny Montrachet has an uncommon intensity and grace for ”just” a village wine (about $47). If you are contemplating spending that kind of money for a California chardonnay, try this one instead.

Olivier Leflaive’s wines are distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607. 

February 17, 2005.

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.