Originally created 06/26/02

Going outside mainstream of by-the-glass popularity



Well, I'm weary of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, weary of sticker shock, weary of carping and whining about overoaked and high-alcohol wines (pretty weary of tasting them, too).

Today we look at 12 wines, eight of which are priced between $10 and $16. While there are dollops of cabernet sauvignon and merlot in a couple of these blends, we focus mainly on some grapes lying outside the mainstream of by-the-glass popularity, including chenin blanc, cabernet franc, tempranillo, gewurz traminer and - a new one on me - bonarda.

These products should serve just about any purpose for which you need wine this week.

Bonarda. Confusion reigns about Argentina's bonarda grape, which may be related (or not) to three different Italian grapes and may also be the same as the grape known in California as charbono, now sadly in abeyance. In any case, the Alamos Bonarda 2000, Mendoza, sports a ravishing ruby-purple color, lots of intensity and concentration and a huge lively presence. Rich and ripe, very spicy, dry but juicy with blue and black fruit flavors and hints of leather and lavender, it offers Great Character for the Price, about $10.

Cabernet franc. Bring on the grilled rib-eye steak or leg of lamb. The Marc Bredif Chinon 2000, made from 100 percent cabernet franc grapes in the Loire Valley's Touraine district, combines lovely violet and lavender notes under juicy blueberry and currant flavors (and a touch of tart cranberry) with a firm, solid structure of dusty oak and the Amberley Chenin Blanc 2001, Margaret River, Western Australia, richness, ripeness and spice; it's smooth and lemony, surprisingly lush and highlighted with exotic touches of lanolin, magnolia and jasmine. This possesses the structure of a wine to serve with food rather than as an aperitif.

Excellent. About $12.

Gamay. The grape that makes beaujolais what it is contributes luscious blackberry, black currant and black cherry flavors to the Brouilly "Prestige" 2000 from Georges Duboeuf. The vineyard - Brouilly is one of 10 villages permitted to have their names on bottles of beaujolais - lends a vigorous earthy, spicy, floral perfume and terrific depth of flavor and dusty structure. A Great Bargain at about $12.50.

Gewurztraminer. Classic, pure, lovely, the Jean-Baptiste Adam Gewurztraminer Reserve 1999, Alsace, presents a delicate tissue of rose petals and lychee, hints of baking spice, violets, lemon-lime flavors and a touch of wet shale for a sublime aperitif or accompaniment to light seafood dishes.

Excellent. About $20.

Pinot grigio. It's a tribute to winemaker Signe Zoller that one of the world's best pinot grigio (pinot gris) wines comes from Meridian Vineyards. About 20 percent of the Meridian Pinot Grigio 2000, California, is aged for five months in small French oak barrels. The result is a tinge of spice and vanilla and lambent richness supporting the crisp structure; this ripe, vibrant wine displays lovely touches of almond blossom and orange zest, copious amounts of lemon-lime flavors and a hint of bitterness on the bracing finish. All this comes for the Remarkable Price of about $11.

Pinot noir. A clean, fresh beauty, La Crema Pinot Noir 2000, Sonoma Coast, bursts with smoky, earthy notes of black cherry, cranberry and cola; it's inky, elegant and eloquent, offering enticing heft and gravity with winsome touches of oolong tea and macerated raspberries. Excellent. About $25.

Sangiovese blend. Giving the blended wines of Tuscany a run for their money, the Pepi Colline di Sassi 1998, Napa Valley, composed of 58 percent sangiovese, 24 percent cabernet sauvignon and 18 percent merlot, holds warm, toasty oak in check with ripe fleshy fruit that you would swear came straight from a box of chocolate-covered raspberries; dusty damp shale and clean earth support elements of dried thyme and rosemary, lavender and licorice. A lovely drink. Excellent.

About $25.

Sauvignon blanc. Pert and grassy, the Mount Riley Sauvignon Blanc 2000, Marlborough, New Zealand, teems with juicy notes of mango, lemon-lime and melon nestled in a dense powdery texture; its leafy, sun-drenched nature is delightful.

Excellent. About $15.

Tempranillo. Spiced raspberry tea and orange zest, dusty plums and fruitcake distinguish the bouquet of the Marques de Arienzo Crianza 1998, Rioja, made from the region's classic tempranilla grape. Rioja is in northeastern Spain, lying on both sides of the Ebro River. (In Rioja, "crianza" designates a wine aged at least 12 months in oak; this example was aged 18 months in new and older American oak barrels.) Dense, chewy and concentrated, the wine wraps succulent black cherry and currant flavors around polished oak and tannin and a pronounced mineral element. It needs a piece of red meat straight from the grill (or two or three years' aging). Very good and a Great Bargain at about $10.

Tempranillo etcetera. In the Beltran Crianza 1998, made in the Navarra region of Spain by Camilo Castilla, the tempranillo grape is joined by cabernet sauvignon and mazuelo grapes - mazuelo a Spanish name for the French carignan - to produce a wonderfully ripe and luscious yet paradoxically dry, almost elegant red wine that bursts with elements of smoke and tobacco, orange zest, beguiling spice and notes of macerated plums and dried sultanas. All this for $12 to $13, a Great Bargain.

Zinfandel. Absent thee from flamboyance for a while, and revel in the exquisitely balanced Burgess Zinfandel 1999, Napa Valley, a wine that flows so smoothly through the mouth, that is so fully packed with delicacies that we almost forget how forcefully luscious it is, how dark and vivid, vibrant and peppery. It's a model of a zinfandel made from mountain-grown grapes. Excellent. About $22.

Picks of the weekBonny Doon's Ca' del Solo Big House White 2001, California, is a lively blend of sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris and viognier grapes.

Vibrant and very spicy, seductive with almond blossom and honeysuckle scents, dry and bracing with a limestone element but juicy with lime and grapefruit flavors, it would work perfectly as aperitif or with fairly spicy Asian dishes. About $12.

Elsa is the second wine of Argentina's Valentin Bianchi label. The Elsa Malbec 1999, San Rafael, which sees no oak, is completely true to the grape in its pure, spicy smoky qualities. Delicious ripe, fleshy flavors of black currants and plums with a touch of blueberries are bolstered by a dusty structure that supports without upsetting the smoothness and balance. About $9.

(E-mail Fredric Koeppel at koeppel@gomemphis.com or write c/o The Commercial Appeal, P.O . Box 334, Memphis, TN 38101.)