What Shall We Pour on the Glorious Fourth?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Fourth of July is just around the corner, and that means "party" around here. All the neighbors gather to consume massive quantities of burgers, wieners and ribs, potato and macaroni salad by the pound, gallons of beer and a fair supply of wine from the Olkens' larder. We usually seem to have a bottle or three lying around at all times, and we are quite pleased to share. Then if we do not like the Fourth of July wine list, we have only ourselves to blame.

There is always a cross-section of whites--a couple of Chardonnays (it is still the favorite grape in these parts) and a couple of fruitier whites, typically a Pinot Gris or a Viognier. This year we'll have a Riesling because I like Riesling and hope to convince others to give the grape a try before the wineries give it up for lack of interest.

Whites are fine, but the main wines of the day are always succulent, sturdy reds. No need to waste my good Pinot Noirs on burgers and ribs slathered with red sauce. No, the Fourth belongs to solid Syrahs and bold Zinfandels.

At first glance, these grapes would seem to have little in common. Zinfandel is full of ripe, concentrated berryish flavors, usually has low tannins and drinks well when young. Syrah is a more complex, somewhat drier, yet more deeply flavored wine that is just fine for current drinking but has the structure to age. While Zinfandel will reach its peak in three to six years after bottling and rarely improves after a decade, Syrah seems to want age to open up and develop its full voice.

These differences aside, both wines go well with grilled meats. With Zinfandel, you get a kind of perky, open, intense fruitiness that goes with foods that have a bit of sweetness, such as ribs in barbecue sauce. Syrah, on the other hand, has the mass and muscle to cut through the sauce and enough sweetness to hold its own without losing its fruitiness.

Of course, the wines I bring will not be those that need long aging. This is a party where the wines should be approachable and fairly inexpensive. The more massive, age-worthy versions of Syrah and Zin are for another day.

ZINFANDEL

$* 1999 Bogle Vineyards "Old Vine Cuvee," California, $10. In a vintage that has produced so many great Zinfandel values, none is better than this open, outgoing wine, which is just the thing to wash down all the greasy, savory flavors of a summertime barbecue. Its nicely ripened blackberry fruit borrows a bit of range and richness from a dollop of creamy oak, and its tannins are fairly moderate.

$ 1998 Kendall-Jackson Collage, Zinfandel-Shiraz, California, $8. Kendall-Jackson's new, lower-priced label debuts with this 76% Zinfandel/24% Shiraz (Syrah) blend. Its aromas and flavors feature raspberry-like fruitiness and a hint of vanilla in an open, soft-centered wine of middling depth. Look for it at deep discount and buy a bunch when you find it. Your palate, your wallet and your guests will all be pleased.

$* 1998 Perry Creek Vineyards "Zin Man," Sierra Foothills, $11. You could look a long time without finding so successful a foothills wine at such an inviting price. It runs to the typical Zinfandel blackberry fruit in its medium-to full-bodied approach. While fairly open and inviting, it offers a bit of tannic grip in the finish, making it the sturdiest of this easily enjoyed group of Zins.

$ Rosenblum Cellars "Vintners Cuvee XXII," $9. Rosenblum's Vintners Cuvee has always been a boon to budget-minded Zinfandel lovers, and Cuvee XXII meets all the criteria for an easy-quaffing, medium-bodied Zin. It is set apart by a piquant streak in its berryish flavors, and those who seek the refreshment of a bit of tartness in the finish will rush to this inexpensive bottling.

SYRAH (SHIRAZ)

$* 1999 Beaulieu Vineyards, California, $14. Upfront fruit, careful oak and nicely measured spice are the focus of this solid, slightly supple offering. Not one for drama or bombast, it hits all the varietal marks and will be enjoyable now with a plate of sauce-slathered ribs, or it can age a few years.

* 1999 Francis Coppola Diamond Series, California, $14. The Diamond Series has been responsible for more than a few tasty, reasonably priced wines recently, and Coppola scores again with this clean, balanced, moderately weighty youngster. The wine has a fruity, slightly plummy flavor with ample spice and a nice streak of sweet oak, and it carries just the right amount of tannin to fight off all those heavy barbecue flavors.

* 1998 Meridian Vineyards, Paso Robles, $13. This likable, nicely focused wine adds briary spice and black pepper seasoning to ripe berry aromas. It is not for long aging but will make a fine partner to steaks and burgers during the barbecue season.

$* * 1999 Preston of Dry Creek "Estate," Dry Creek Valley, $18. Impressively intense varietal aromas of pepper, berries, black cherries and briary spice are given a considerable boost in richness by lots of attractive oak here and are reflected in the wine's deep and well-centered flavors. Fairly full, supple and palate-coating, this delicious wine will improve for several years even though it's hard to resist now. It may be a little on the pricey side for crowds of party-goers, but it would be the right ticket for smaller, quieter gatherings where the wine has chance to be noticed for itself.

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