Plenty of blends are well worth exploring

Vintage Point

Wines: California vintners are mixing many grapes to produce everything from rough-and-ready, inexpensive bottlings to pricey, sophisticated knockoffs of classics.

April 07, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

One of the great feats in American marketing was teaching wine consumers to recognize grape varieties and buy accordingly. It's a concept that until recently was largely foreign to Europeans, who tended to identify their wines by a region rather than a grape. But in the span of a few decades, the California wine industry has taught even casual wine drinkers the vocabulary of the vine -- chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and many others.

Now, many California winemakers are trying to get us to unlearn that lesson. They're making wines that are blends of many grapes and selling them under proprietary names. Most are red wines, although a few are white.

Some of these are traditional blends of cabernet, merlot and other Bordeaux varietals -- often sold under the made-up name of Meritage. But some of the most successful of these wines are blends of lesser-known varieties from southern France and Italy -- often melded with California's own zinfandel grape.

These blends range from rough-and-ready, inexpensive blends of whatever happens to be growing in the vineyard to pricey, sophisticated knockoffs of such classic wines as Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

A recent sampling of some of the non-Meritage red blends on the market uncovered some world-class wines, some excellent values and a few bitter disappointments. In spite of the unfamiliar terrain, it's a category of wines that's well worth some explorations and experimentation.

Among the best are:

* 1994 Marietta Alexander Valley Angeli Cuvee ($22). This deep, concentrated red wine is stuffed with blackberry and black pepper. It combines grace and complexity with terrific complexity and power and finishes with exceptional length.

* Sean Thackery Pleiades VI Old Vines ($27). This exquisite nonvintage blend, which includes a dollop of virtually every top-notch grape from Italy or the Rhone, manages to be both old and new. It has a lush, full freshness about it, but also nuances of well-aged wine. This complex, lush, classic blend resembles a great Rioja from Spain.

* 1997 Ca' del Solo Il Fiasco, California Red Wine ($15). An imaginative blend of Italy's sangiovese and barbera and the Rhone Valley's syrah has produced a medium-bodied, spicy wine with intense flavors of black cherry, smoked meat and herbs. It's a bit raw and rustic right now, but with a year or two of age, it should smooth out to produce a complex, long-finishing Tuscan-style wine.

* Marietta Old Vines Red, Lot 22 ($10). I believe I've been tasting this wine at least back to Lot 6, and never have I had a bottle that wasn't an excellent value. Lot 22 isn't the best that's come along, but the Old Vines Red is still a spicy, ripe wine with flavors of blackberry, black currant and cedar.

* 1996 Francis Coppola Rosso ($12). This ripe, gripping Tuscan-style red is a masterpiece of value from the famous film director turned vintner. It offers generous flavors of black cherry, black raspberry and smoked meat.

* 1994 Trentadue Sonoma County Old Patch Red ($15). This isn't a particularly complex wine, but it does offer loads of ripe blackberry flavor, smoked meat and leather. It has a pleasant, soft texture but not great grip.

* 1996 Laurel Glen Reds ($8). Here's a good, solid, medium-bodied hamburger red at a reasonable price. Nothing complicated, just good, straightforward, black currant and oak flavor.

The following three wines are usually reliable values but not quite in line with their price tags:

* 1996 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant ($25). I have long been a fan of Bonny Doon and winemaker Randall Grahm, but this Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style wine doesn't seem to have the pizazz of past bottlings. The 1996 gives hints of complexity, but it's so closed down it's difficult to discern a reason to pay $25 for it.

* 1996 Zaca Mesa Cuvee Z, Santa Barbara County ($17). This Rhone-style blend of grenache, mourvedre and syrah offers plenty of blackberry fruit, a touch of black pepper and a hint of charcoal. Alas, it doesn't linger too long on the palate.

One of the wines that should be avoided:

* 1996 Rabbit Ridge Allure, Rhone Style Red Wine ($9). A funky nose and a hint of volatile acidity cancel out the fruit. It's more repellent that alluring.

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