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TASTING NOTES : Bargains in the Bins


A surplus of wine in California, Australia and Europe has combined with improved winemaking techniques to put good wine on store shelves at very reasonable prices.

In many cases, the wines are so reasonably priced that consumers will be startled by their quality.

Here are four wines--two whites and two reds--that have a suggested price of $6. In most cases, the wines will be found at about $5 at discount shops.

1992 Parducci Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc--John Parducci, who just turned 75, has always made archetypal Sauvignon Blanc from grapes grown on his ranches in Mendocino County. The wine is cold-fermented in stainless-steel tanks and not aged in oak casks. Thus this wine retains all of the fresh grass/hay varietal character with notes of lemon and grapefruit. It is delightful with light seafood dishes--a superb wine at a very fair price.

1992 Oxford Landing Chardonnay--A brand of the Yulumba Winery of Australia, Oxford Landing offers wines that are excellent values. This wine is fresh and delightful, with a lemon-apple aroma and surprising complexity for such an inexpensive wine. Some discounters have priced it near $5; try it side by side with similarly priced domestic Chardonnays and see which you prefer.

1990 Chateau De Baun "Chateau Rouge"--An excellent wine to match with lighter foods. It is 80% Pinot Noir (most of it from the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County) with 12% Nebbiolo from Amador County. It is not heavy or concentrated, but the fruit flavors are excellent and there is a nice tartness in the finish.

1991 Napa Ridge Pinot Noir ($6)--I haven't tasted a Pinot this good for this low a price in years. The Napa Ridge brand was once used by Beringer Vineyards to market good-quality "pop-premium" wines, but in the past three years it has been moved into a separate facility in Sonoma County, and winemaker David Schlottman has been allowed to show his skill, buying grapes from any vineyard he desires. This new release is absolutely marvelous. Made from grapes grown in the Carneros area and in Mendocino County, it was aged in French oak barrels. It offers deep Pinot aromas of cherries and herbs and a rich, rewarding finish. (The company is hinting that Napa Ridge's $6 wines will be priced at $7 by summer.)

The following wines, though priced higher than the aforementioned quartet, warrant serious attention:

1991 Gary Farrell Pinot Noir ($16)--One of the finest Pinot Noirs I have tasted, and a relative bargain. This Sonoma County wine offers the absolutely classic Russian River Pinot aroma of cherries and strawberries, with gorgeous flavor and a silky, complex finish. Farrell, The Times' Winemaker of the Year for 1991, also has a superb 1992 Sauvignon Blanc ($10) and a remarkably complex 1990 Merlot ($16).

1991 Andrew Will Cellars Merlot ($18)--Washington state's Columbia Valley grows some of the country's best Merlot, and this is an excellent example from a new, small Seattle-based producer who already has outlets in the Los Angeles area. The wine has classic Merlot flavors of green tea and herbs with black-cherry and spice notes. I love the aftertaste. Here's a wine that will be better for a year or two in the bottle but can be enjoyed now.

1990 Laurel Glen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)--Winemaker Patrick Campbell's small, rock-strewn vineyard atop Sonoma Mountain arguably makes Sonoma County's best Cabernet Sauvignon--though vintage variation can occasionally make a lesser wine. This is one of the best Campbell's made, a stylish, deeply complex, cassis-laden wine with plenty of spice and jam-like notes. Drinkable now, the wine will reward a decade in the cellar.

1990 Mommesin Volnay "Taille-Pieds," Premier Cru ($23)--One of the best buys I have tasted from the excellent 1990 Burgundy vintage. This wine has rich fruit of violets and plums and a marvelously deep aftertaste. Mommesin, out of the West Coast market for two years, is back with an excellent lineup of '90 Burgundies, including a delightfully fresh, crisp 1992 Chablis ($11.75); a lean, delicate 1992 Macon-Villages ($9) with superb flavor; a 1990 Charmes-Chambertin ($45) that is deep yet graceful with seductive, sweet fruit and round toasty-smoky notes; a 1990 Savigny-Les-Beaune ($15.50) with charming fruit, and a spicy, violet-scented 1990 Beaune Les Cent-Vignes, Premier Cru ($20).

1990 Fetzer Vineyards Merlot "Eagle Peak" ($8)--If there's a better Merlot for the price, I haven't seen it. My choice for the best bargain Merlot of 1992 was Fetzer's Bel Arbors Merlot; this new wine has more depth and complexity from aging in oak. Remarkable wine for the price.

1989 Napa Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon "Reserve" ($11)--A first for the Napa Ridge line, a reserve wine, and an excellent buy. The wine, aged for 19 months in French oak barrels, has an amazingly complex violet, berry and cassis aroma and deep, complex taste.

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