2 Gems Hide Under Low Prices

After all the smoke about the tasting and evaluation of wine has cleared, one of the essential questions remains: How much do you think this wine would cost, if you didn't already know?

This question is important only because the winery's asking price can be so influential to your opinion of the wine's worth. It's the old story: If a winery demands a high price, some people will think the wine is worth it.

Conversely, too low a price can tempt customers to dismiss very real qualities simply because the winery doesn't demonstrate sufficient self-esteem. Theoretically, blind tasting (where the labels are covered) should avoid this problem, but it's a very rare blind tasting where the participants don't know at least the general category (Burgundy, Barolo, Bordeaux, California Chardonnays) of the wines under review. Besides, not everything can--or should--be tasted blind.

Of course, it's important to note that some very expensive wines can pass this test with ease. A privileged handful of wines--and not just from France--are indeed worth the stratospheric prices they command. It's not entirely because of intense demand against scarce supply.

Instead, in the very best wines, an even greater scarcity is at work: a uniqueness of expression. A few wines tell us something about the specific place they come from that no other wine quite equals. For those who like to listen, this extreme rarity of expression justifies a comparably rarefied price.

More often, though, the winners in that question will be less important wines that deliver distinction far in excess of their cost. Suffice it to say that if blind-tasting either of the wines that follow I would have guessed a higher price than actually asked.

Italian makers of dry white wines have made enormous strides in quality. Today, Italy produces some attention-getting dry white wines. The problem, however, is price. The best bottlings successfully command premium prices, more than $20 a bottle. For real aficionados, they are worth it.

The trick, as always, is finding lustrous gems that aren't quite so precious. Casal di Serra is one such jewel. Casal di Serra is the name of a 25-acre vineyard owned by the family firm of Umani Ronchi. Properly, the wine is called Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, which is a district in the Marches region. The Marches region is located along the Adriatic Sea, at what might be described as the calf of the Italian boot.

Verdicchio (pronounced vair-DEE-kee-oh) is a white grape native to the area that is only now getting the limelight it deserves. In really fine bottlings, such as Casal di Serra, it is capable of delivering a crisp mineral taste reminiscent of a good French Chablis. That's no small feat.

This achievement, however, is new. For decades, maybe even centuries, Verdicchio was blended with other varieties such Trebbiano and Malvasia, both of which dilute Verdicchio's intriguing qualities. Not least, the winemaking was often dreary and the quality was diluted by overproduction.

But in the last decade, several producers in the zone resolved to do better, overhauling their winemaking techniques, eliminating the blending grapes and lowering the yields on their Verdicchio vines. The results have been revelatory, nowhere more strikingly so than with Umani Ronchi's single-vineyard Casal di Serra bottling.

This is a white wine meant to be savored with all sorts of fish, shellfish and any other food that cries out for a crisp, mineral-scented dry white wine. Verdicchio, it should be noted, is not a variety that rewards aging. It's best drunk young, cool and fresh. The 1994 Casal di Serra is as enjoyable right now as it ever will be, and that's plenty good. At a street price of $8.95 a bottle, you will have to look hard to find a more distinctively flavorful dry white wine for the money than this one.

* 1995 Co^tes de Gascogne, Domaine du Tariquet ($6.95): France abounds in obscure wine districts that rarely come to public notice. This is fair, if only because many of these districts make ordinary wines that deserve no more notice than you'd give to junk mail.

Co^tes de Gascogne is one such district in Southwest France. Actually, the area has gotten attention, but not for its wines. It is famous under the name Armagnac, the distinguished brandy distilled from Co^tes de Gascogne wine.

One traditional grape of the area is Ugni Blanc, which is more familiar to us under its Italian name, Trebbiano. The other is the Colombard variety. Each usually creates something bland and dull.

But Domaine du Tariquet is another matter altogether. Simply put, this is wonderfully flavorful dry white wine, a real eye- (and mouth-) opener. An ancient estate that has long issued an Armagnac under its own name, Domaine du Tariquet has recently created a dry white wine that typically is a blend of 60% Ugni Blanc and 40% Colombard.

Frankly, you would not expect such flavor intensity from such a blend, as neither grape variety is known to be especially forceful. Yet Domaine du Tariquet's owner-winemaker, Yves Grassa, employs a fermentation technique that extracts more flavor from this blend than this observer, anyway, would have thought possible.

In brief, his approach involves a carbonic maceration technique (unusual for white wines) in which the berries are left uncrushed, and fermentation rather magically occurs inside the intact berry. This is the method used to make Beaujolais (from the Gamay grape).

This wine is then blended in roughly equal proportions with more conventionally fermented wine, made by crushing the grapes and leaving them in contact with the skins overnight. Such skin contact is a bit unusual for white wines, although not unknown.

Those are the technicalities. The taste is what counts, and the 1995 Domaine du Tariquet is strikingly flavorsome, the more so considering the generally dreary performance of the two grape varieties that compose this blend. It delivers a beautifully balanced, crisp, fruity white wine so good that it can make you sit up and take notice. That it can do this for just $6.95 a bottle is nothing less than a cause for rejoicing.

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