What wine snobs ignore

VINTAGE POINT

There's good to be found in what's quirky

January 01, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

It was just a stray remark in a newspaper article -- one British wine writer praising an American wine writer but with the caveat that the Yank didn't have much of a palate for Burgundy.

To some, it was as if the British writer had ground Old Glory in the dust while drinking Chateau Petrus on the rocks.

Fans of the American writer were livid, posting message after message on an Internet bulletin board venting their outrage at the presumption of the Englishman. Critics of the American replied in kind, all but implying he should be sued for critical malpractice if he ever chews on another Beaune.

Isn't it about time we got less serious about wine?

So with apologies to all the wine connoisseurs online, here are some of the world's more quirky categories of wine -- the ones respectable critics seldom deign to taste.

Sweet red sparkling wine

2000 Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto d'Acqui ($21). Surprise, surprise! This is quite an appealing wine, in its hopelessly unfashionable way. It's moderately sweet, a pretty red color and delivers quite appealing cherry and raspberry flavors. This could be a perfectly suitable companion to a chocolate dessert. Go ahead. Mortify a snob.

Retsina

It's a Greek thing, and I don't purport to understand why you'd put resin in wine. Most wine writers seem to think it's more polite to ignore it.

Kourtaki Retsina of Attica ($7). The first impression, to a non-Greek, is how can anyone drink this stuff? It's pungent, penetrating and aggressively dry. But if you can restrain the urge to spit and drink it with some food, especially Greek food, you will find yourself getting used to it. Before you know it, you're on your third glass and are noticing a certain piney charm. Any more, you'll be dancing like Zorba.

That's not the case with every retsina. The Kourtaki is clearly a superior example, with a white-wine base that might have stood on its own.

Mulled wine in a bottle

No serious wine snob should be going anywhere near this stuff. If you're going to slum it and drink warm wine, shouldn't you at least mull your own from an old family recipe?

Yes, except for those who are energetically challenged (lazy). For us, there are commercially bottled mulling wines. And some of them aren't bad.

Gerstacker Nurnberger Markt-Gluhwein ($9/liter). The label for this Bavarian "glow wine" is pure kitsch, but the product in the bottle is amazingly appealing.

It's a German red wine with spices and fruit flavors added. The label advises to warm it to 170 degrees, with no boiling. At this temperature, it displays a light sweetness, intense spiciness and good acidity. It's a guilty pleasure on a cold winter's night and a virtual guarantee of a good night's sleep.

Boordy Wassail ($8). Rob Deford, the owner of Boordy Vineyards, wants to make serious world-class wines, but a Maryland winery has to find some way to pay the bills.

So what do you know? This is darn good for a wassail in a bottle -- on the sweet side but balanced with a well-chosen mix of spices. Boordy has nothing to apologize for if it subsidizes its vineyard program this way.

Linganore Wine Cellars Spicy Regatta ($10). Berrywine Plantations' version of a mulled wine isn't as rich and rounded as the Boordy or as exotic as the Gluhwein, but it's certainly pleasant.

Mead

Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine dismisses mead in a few words: "A fermented alcoholic drink made from honey. A concentrated, impure glucose solution, it has much in common with fruit wine."

Robinson is a wonderful writer, but she needs to get in touch with her inner Druid. After all, while the Italians and Greeks were perfecting wine, her ancestors (and mine) were wearing animal skins and drinking such impure glucose.

2002 Lurgashall Mead, Dial Green, Petworth, West Sussex ($10.49). This is a medium-sweet English mead that isn't all that far removed from a good white port, especially with an alcohol level of 16.5 percent. There's plenty of honey flavor but also spices and orange. It could be served well-chilled as a pleasant, light dessert in warm weather, but it shines in winter as a warm drink.

Bunratty Meade ($15). This Irish import is not a true mead but a white wine infused with honey and herbs. (Don't be shocked; it's been done since ancient times.) It was moderately enjoyable yet simple when served cold, but it really hit its stride as a base for mulled wine. It's expensive, but a real treat.

Sweet red table wine

To purists, red wine should be dry unless it has the excuse of being fortified -- like port. The impure might want to try this treat:

Boutari Mavrodaphne of Patras ($14). Imagine a very fine port, only with about 5 percent less alcohol. That's what you get with this sweet, luscious, well-balanced Greek red wine at 15 percent alcohol. The deep, ripe blackberry and black-raspberry flavors are pure and intense, with hints of chocolate and black pepper. Serve it as dessert. Hold the apologies.

Of course, just because a wine is weird doesn't make it good.

Canadian dessert merlot

1999 Paradise Ranch Late Harvest Merlot, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($44/375 milliliter). According to the label, picked in minus-10-degree weather in January 2000. They should have stayed indoors and watched ice hockey.

The color is a pale pink, and the aroma is candied. Only mildly sweet, but the freezing seems to have concentrated some hard tannin. The sour cherry flavors are unpleasant but mercifully short. The package is beautiful, though.

Dry red sparkling wine

Hardy's Shiraz, Australian Sparkling Wine ($23). Wonder why some 99.9 percent of the world's dry sparkling wines are whites or roses? This red wine shows why. It's not that it's badly made. There are hints of blackberry and chocolate, but then they're gone in one of the shortest finishes in the modern history of wine. Was this someone's idea of a joke?

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