The Littlest Wines

TIMES WINE WRITER

To some people, the world of wine divides up quite simply: There's Chardonnay, a rich white wine, or hearty Cabernet Sauvignon.

The fact is, over the centuries more than 1,000 grape varieties (many times 1,000, by some estimates), have been made into wine worldwide, though most of these wines are never seen outside their own regions. More than likely you'll never encounter a Kadarka (widely planted in Hungary), a Saperavi (Russia and Bulgaria) or Xinomavro (Greece).

Are these wines popular? Locally, they are all the rage. In 1990, I was a judge at an international wine competition in what was then Yugoslavia. In the final round of judging, I voted for one of the finest Merlots I had ever tasted. However, six of the 21 judges were local, and they helped tilt the sweepstakes voting in favor of a sweet red wine from Macedonia called Vranac.

Frankly, I thought it was bizarre, but enough judges loved it to give it the top award, proving once again the truth of a statement made decades ago by the late Louis M. Martini: "We like best that to which we become accustomed."

That doesn't mean, though, that you can't find enjoyment in a wine you've never heard of. So if you're traveling this summer, don't turn up your nose at a Norton, Vignoles, Seyval, Pinot Gris, or even a Madeline Angevine. In fact, when I'm traveling, I seek them out.

Although California makes some 85% of the wine produced in the United States, 44 other states also make wine, and I love drinking the local wines in any region I visit. There is excitement in tasting wines at their source--before poor shipping and storage can ruin them.

One of my fondest memories in wine was unrelated to an exalted chateau or 50-year-old cellar treasure. It was a simple bottle of a young Saumur-Champigny, a Loire Valley red wine, that I sipped with cheese on a terrace at the gardens of Villandry, just down the road from the winery where it was made.

So if your travels take you to any of the following states, look for locally produced wines, especially from grapes that have no notoriety. In general, you won't be disappointed.

Oregon

Pinot Noirs get all the publicity here, and many are excellent. But when I'm in Oregon, the first thing I seek out is Pinot Gris, a white wine with the delicate spice and floral qualities that needs no oak aging.

Pinot Gris also may be found in the Alsace region of France, in Germany (where it's called Ruhlander) and in Italy (Pinot Grigio), but often the spice element is mute in these three areas. Oregon's better Pinot Gris are excitingly spicy with faint tropical fruit overtones. One of my favorites is from the new King Estate, about $15.

Missouri

Yes, Missouri has an extensive and vibrant wine country. Some 30 wineries operate here, and the wine heritage dates back to before 1850, making it older than the California wine industry. When visiting Missouri, especially in the steamy summer heat, there's no better sipping wine than a glass of well-chilled Vignoles.

Vignoles (VEEN-yole), once called Ravat, is a French-American hybrid grape that makes an intensely spicy white wine. It reminds me of Gewurztraminer and Muscat, but with a peach/apricot compote sort of fruit aroma. Made dry or nearly so, the stuff is great with spicy Asian foods.

However, one of the most exciting styles is the sweeter version , which invites patio sipping with hors d'oeuvres, or serving with fruit-based desserts. The newly released 1994 Stone Hill Winery Vignoles ($10) is an amazing off-dry wine worth looking for in St. Louis' finer restaurants. Diehard Ram fans who still attend "home" games should appreciate this.

Incidentally, since Missouri and California have a reciprocal wine shipping agreement, you may order this wine direct from the winery: (800) 909-9463.

Another wine to look for in the midwest is Norton (occasionally labeled as Cynthiana). This very dark, deeply flavored red wine isn't as tannic as it looks from its pitch-black color, and it has intriguing anise and earthy elements that make it good with steak and game.

Washington

Wine lovers everywhere already know of the great Columbia Valley wines being made from Merlot, Semillon, Riesling and Syrah, but only locals know about Lemberger.

A dozen wineries make delightful red wine from this Middle-European grape variety, which is known in Austria as Blaufrankisch. Among the better Lembergers are the oak-aged version from Kiona Vineyards ($10) and the more Beaujolais-like wines of Hyatt Vineyards and Worden Winery (about $8 each).

And lovers of real orphan wines will seek out Mt. Baker Vineyards' lovely off-dry Madeline Angevine ($10) and Hoodsport Winery's exotic Island Belle ($6). I know of no other places on Earth where these grapes are grown.

New York

There are so many exciting things happening in New York it's difficult to know where to start. On Long Island, there are excellent Cabernets and Merlots. Riesling and Pinot Noir from the Finger Lakes are rapidly gaining converts, and French-American hybrids make excellent wines in the Hudson Valley.

For a real treat, however, try a wine called Seyval (also called Seyval Blanc, though I can't figure out why, since it's impossible to make a red wine from this white grape). The mild grapefruit aroma and strong acidity make for a wine particularly well suited to chicken dishes. One of my favorites has been the oak-aged version from Wagner Vineyards (a steal at $5), which in blind tastings can pass as Chardonnay.

Many New York wineries also make a Vignoles in a late-harvest, dessert-style wine, and one of the best is from Swedish Hill ($12/half bottle). You may also see a Vidal Ice Wine, another French-American hybrid grape made into a dessert wine and often exciting because of high sugar combined with high acid.

Wisconsin

The best of Wisconsin's 11 wineries is Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac. Bob Wollersheim makes, among other wines, an array of stunning red wines from the Marechal Foch grape, also called Kuhlmann.

One of my favorite wines is called Prairie Blush ($7), an almost iridescent pink wine that is dry on the palate despite 1.6% residual sugar. A companion Prairie Red ($6.50) has a similar strawberry-ish fruit quality, but is deeper and darker, more suited for game. But the value of the Foch line is a wine called Domaine du Sac ($10), a deep, dark, rich red wine with Rhonelike properties. A wine certain to fool a wine snob.

Virginia

The nearly four dozen wineries of Virginia are making smashing wines from traditional grapes such as Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Merlot, but one of the more dramatic efforts is a grape called Malvasia, which once was widely planted in both Italy and the Rioja of Spain but which is declining in acreage there and never has been very popular in the New World.

In Virginia, at Barboursville Winery, Malvasia grapes are harvested late in Indian summer, with lots of sugar. Fermentation is arrested early so the wine has 8% sugar, and then it is aged in oak barrels. The result is a dessert wine of astounding character, so much so that even British wine writer Hugh Johnson has praised it. The wine sells for $15.

Texas

Chardonnay, Cabernet, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc have become widely successful among the 30 wineries of Texas, but Ed and Susan Auler's Fall Creek Vineyards near Austin makes a wonderful Carnelian Rose ($7) with charm and intense fruit. It's a wine to sip on hot days with barbecue ribs.

*

And if you're not planning to leave California this summer, but will be visiting California's Central Coast, try the fresh and delightful Sylvaner at Rancho Sisquoc Winery in Santa Maria. At $8.50 it's a good value. Almost no one makes Sylvaner (also called Franken Riesling) any more except Rancho Sisquoc, which makes 1,000 cases a year.

Wine of the Week

1993 Santa Rita 120 Merlot ($5)-- With California Merlot in such demand these days and prices for even mediocre Merlot rising rapidly, I was amazed when this wonderful wine finished first in a group of nine wines tasted double-blind in mid-May. I tasted it again last week and it was even better.

The wine has a raspberry jam aroma with perfect varietal notes of green tea; a warm, ripe taste, and perfectly balanced texture, packed with fruit. Second in the tasting was 1993 De Loach Vineyards Merlot of Sonoma County ($14), a more intense and powerful wine with oak evident in the aroma.

The "120" designation is used on lower-priced wines from Santa Rita, a 115-year-old Chilean winery. It pays tribute to Gen. Bernardo O'Higgins, who led a Populist revolution against Spain in 1814.

After losing the battle of Rancagua, O'Higgins and his 120 men hid in the cellars at Santa Rita, escaped capture and eventually returned to win the revolution. O'Higgins became a national hero and the first president of the first republic of Chile.

Santa Rita makes three levels of wine including a mid-priced line called Reserva ($7) and an upper-echelon line called Medalla Real ($9).

I have seen this 120 Merlot, from grapes grown in the cool Maule Valley, selling for less than $4.

Another Santa Rita wine, the 1994 Chardonnay "Reserva" ($7), is also an exceptional value, with bright, clean fruit and excellent acidity, a perfect match for a wide variety of foods.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°