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Bottom Feeding for Values

Buying wine, like picking stocks, is a matter of how you want to play the game. You’ve got your blue-chips: classed-growth Bordeaux, French Champagnes, grand cru Burgundies.

And you’ve got your insider deals, those new growers reportedly making great wines at bargain prices because nobody knows about them yet. California and Burgundy are the preferred playgrounds for this action, as promising new wineries seem to emerge with every vintage in both areas.

Then there’s the “overlooked” school of savvy wine buying. Here, the trick is not so much finding a flat-out cut-rate wine as it is finding a terrific one from an area better known for something dull or merely cheap.

At first glance, this doesn’t make sense. How can a dull wine area suddenly make interesting wines? The answer differs with the place.

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For example, much of southern France, the area colloquially called the Midi, has long been the French equivalent of California’s Central Valley. It confined itself to bulk production, cranking out floods of insipid wines, many of them from cooperatives. But such a huge area contains numerous nooks and crannies, especially in the hills, that could do much better if different grapes were planted by more ambitious owners. That’s just what’s happening, spurred by a steep decline in demand for bulk wines.

Alternatively, you can find deals in good wine areas where properties are so small that many owners simply don’t make enough wine to market it on their own. Or where small growers need quick cash. Such a situation exists in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and even in long-established premium wine regions, such as northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna.

The wines listed here are not creations of individual growers but of smart, ultra-competent shippers who have a vision of the kind of wine they want to offer and then set out to make it happen. For each shipper, this ambition was to put together something better than anyone has a right to expect from the appellation, something extraordinary for the money.

1995 Merlot, Jacques and Francois Lurton ($6.95): Exceptions exist for every rule, and this Merlot is about as exceptional a rule-breaker as I’ve come across in years. As is well known, Merlot is the hottest red grape variety around. In one year alone, from 1994 to 1995, Merlot plantings in California increased by more than one-third. Prices are at a painful premium.

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And yet here’s a rich, deep-colored Merlot that really tastes like one--good solid fruit, that distinctive whiff of bitter chocolate--selling for a pittance. How is this possible?

The producers of this wine, Jacques and Francois Lurton, belong to one of Bordeaux’s most famous wine families. There are scads of Lurtons, since the family has four branches, each of which has numerous children. Collectively, Lurtons own no fewer than 26 cha^teaux. Sons and daughters are further expanding the empire. This Merlot represents one such effort.

The label declares the wine to be a Vin de Pays d’Oc. This almost meaningless appellation embraces a huge swath of southwestern France along the Mediterranean from the Spanish border to the Rho^ne River. It encompasses 865,000 acres of vines, with 60,000 growers, making it the world’s largest wine region. Not surprisingly, there are hundreds of winegrowers’ cooperatives there.

For a wine shipper, such a huge reservoir of wine offers endless opportunities, especially for cooperatives trying to upgrade. The Lurtons are well-connected and nothing if not savvy; they know where to look. What’s more, for this wine they were aided by the 1995 vintage, which was one of southern France’s best in years.

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Let me put it simply: I don’t know of a better Merlot for the money than this brand-new release.

1995 Firesteed Cellars Pinot Noir ($9.95): Oregon is not on anybody’s list as a source of boat loads of good, inexpensive wines. The reason is that the state’s wine industry is tiny. Three-quarters of its 75 producing wineries make fewer than 5,000 cases a year. The largest Oregon winery would barely make it into the mid-size category in Napa Valley.

Pinot Noir, the state’s claim to fame, accounts for fewer than 3,000 acres, which is not much by any standard. In short, Oregon is not set up as a source of inexpensive wines designed to be sold in ample quantity, let alone for Pinot Noir.

Yet Firesteed Cellars has carved a place for itself as a source of delicious Pinot Noir selling at unquestionably reasonable prices. Now, there is no physical place known as Firesteed Cellars. What happens is that various lots of Pinot Noir--anything from grapes to finished wines--are delivered to Flynn Vineyards, which custom-crushes and blends them.

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The 1995 Firesteed Pinot Noir has recently been released. It’s not as dense as the ’94 (from a year which was, after all, Oregon’s finest vintage); in fact, it would not be too far off the mark to describe it as a very dark rose. But its weight is deceptive, because the ’95 packs a considerable punch of Pinot Noir scent and taste. This is a wine to drink young and slightly chilled, the better to enhance its fragrant berry-like scent and taste. Look for a street price as low as $8.95.

Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano, Medici ($15): Italy’s best-kept wine secret is dry Lambrusco. Sweet Lambrusco is well-known in America thanks to the extraordinary sales of a nondescript wine called Riunite. It’s one of the world’s biggest wine brands.

But there’s another world of Lambrusco to be discovered: the intensely flavored dry Lambrusco, which is simply one of the most invigorating, palate-pleasing red wines you can taste. This sort of Lambrusco is virtually unknown outside its local area of production in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, which encircles the cities of Bologna and Modena.

There, locals visit small growers who bottle the Lambrusco wines in dark, heavy bottles. These bottles are secured like champagne, with knobby corks held down by wire cages. That’s because traditional Lambrusco is a fizzy red wine. It’s not as effervescent as Champagne, but enough to make a froth when first poured into your glass. Then it settles down quickly, leaving a creamy, slightly prickly sensation on your tongue as you drink it.

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This Lambrusco, brand-named Concerto, is the kind of Lambrusco that I’ve otherwise found only in the area of production. The shipper had a clear model in mind: not the commonly seen sort of Lambrusco, but one like the original artisanal version.

This is the real thing, a deep red, slightly fizzy wine invigorated by Lambrusco’s characteristic high acidity (the better to knife through Emilia-Romagna’s famously rich cuisine) and balanced not by added sweetness but by a rich fruitiness. It should be served cool (though not cold) in order to preserve its spritzing bubbles. Worth noting is the packaging, which is as elegantly curvaceous as a bowling pin.

This is distinctive, authentic Lambrusco intended to go with foods for which it was created, such as rich pasta dishes (especially cheesy, creamy ones), veal (sweetbreads would be ideal) or many pork and chicken dishes. Or you could serve it, as the locals do, while nibbling on room-temperature chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.


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