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WINE

The Littlest Wines

June 08, 1995|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

To some people, the world of wine divides up quite simply: There's Chardonnay, a rich white wine, or hearty Cabernet Sauvignon.

The fact is, over the centuries more than 1,000 grape varieties (many times 1,000, by some estimates), have been made into wine worldwide, though most of these wines are never seen outside their own regions. More than likely you'll never encounter a Kadarka (widely planted in Hungary), a Saperavi (Russia and Bulgaria) or Xinomavro (Greece).

Are these wines popular? Locally, they are all the rage. In 1990, I was a judge at an international wine competition in what was then Yugoslavia. In the final round of judging, I voted for one of the finest Merlots I had ever tasted. However, six of the 21 judges were local, and they helped tilt the sweepstakes voting in favor of a sweet red wine from Macedonia called Vranac.

Frankly, I thought it was bizarre, but enough judges loved it to give it the top award, proving once again the truth of a statement made decades ago by the late Louis M. Martini: "We like best that to which we become accustomed."

That doesn't mean, though, that you can't find enjoyment in a wine you've never heard of. So if you're traveling this summer, don't turn up your nose at a Norton, Vignoles, Seyval, Pinot Gris, or even a Madeline Angevine. In fact, when I'm traveling, I seek them out.

Although California makes some 85% of the wine produced in the United States, 44 other states also make wine, and I love drinking the local wines in any region I visit. There is excitement in tasting wines at their source--before poor shipping and storage can ruin them.

One of my fondest memories in wine was unrelated to an exalted chateau or 50-year-old cellar treasure. It was a simple bottle of a young Saumur-Champigny, a Loire Valley red wine, that I sipped with cheese on a terrace at the gardens of Villandry, just down the road from the winery where it was made.

So if your travels take you to any of the following states, look for locally produced wines, especially from grapes that have no notoriety. In general, you won't be disappointed.

Oregon

Pinot Noirs get all the publicity here, and many are excellent. But when I'm in Oregon, the first thing I seek out is Pinot Gris, a white wine with the delicate spice and floral qualities that needs no oak aging.

Pinot Gris also may be found in the Alsace region of France, in Germany (where it's called Ruhlander) and in Italy (Pinot Grigio), but often the spice element is mute in these three areas. Oregon's better Pinot Gris are excitingly spicy with faint tropical fruit overtones. One of my favorites is from the new King Estate, about $15.

Missouri

Yes, Missouri has an extensive and vibrant wine country. Some 30 wineries operate here, and the wine heritage dates back to before 1850, making it older than the California wine industry. When visiting Missouri, especially in the steamy summer heat, there's no better sipping wine than a glass of well-chilled Vignoles.

Vignoles (VEEN-yole), once called Ravat, is a French-American hybrid grape that makes an intensely spicy white wine. It reminds me of Gewurztraminer and Muscat, but with a peach/apricot compote sort of fruit aroma. Made dry or nearly so, the stuff is great with spicy Asian foods.

However, one of the most exciting styles is the sweeter version , which invites patio sipping with hors d'oeuvres, or serving with fruit-based desserts. The newly released 1994 Stone Hill Winery Vignoles ($10) is an amazing off-dry wine worth looking for in St. Louis' finer restaurants. Diehard Ram fans who still attend "home" games should appreciate this.

Incidentally, since Missouri and California have a reciprocal wine shipping agreement, you may order this wine direct from the winery: (800) 909-9463.

Another wine to look for in the midwest is Norton (occasionally labeled as Cynthiana). This very dark, deeply flavored red wine isn't as tannic as it looks from its pitch-black color, and it has intriguing anise and earthy elements that make it good with steak and game.

Washington

Wine lovers everywhere already know of the great Columbia Valley wines being made from Merlot, Semillon, Riesling and Syrah, but only locals know about Lemberger.

A dozen wineries make delightful red wine from this Middle-European grape variety, which is known in Austria as Blaufrankisch. Among the better Lembergers are the oak-aged version from Kiona Vineyards ($10) and the more Beaujolais-like wines of Hyatt Vineyards and Worden Winery (about $8 each).

And lovers of real orphan wines will seek out Mt. Baker Vineyards' lovely off-dry Madeline Angevine ($10) and Hoodsport Winery's exotic Island Belle ($6). I know of no other places on Earth where these grapes are grown.

New York

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