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WINE

The Littlest Wines

June 08, 1995|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

There are so many exciting things happening in New York it's difficult to know where to start. On Long Island, there are excellent Cabernets and Merlots. Riesling and Pinot Noir from the Finger Lakes are rapidly gaining converts, and French-American hybrids make excellent wines in the Hudson Valley.

For a real treat, however, try a wine called Seyval (also called Seyval Blanc, though I can't figure out why, since it's impossible to make a red wine from this white grape). The mild grapefruit aroma and strong acidity make for a wine particularly well suited to chicken dishes. One of my favorites has been the oak-aged version from Wagner Vineyards (a steal at $5), which in blind tastings can pass as Chardonnay.

Many New York wineries also make a Vignoles in a late-harvest, dessert-style wine, and one of the best is from Swedish Hill ($12/half bottle). You may also see a Vidal Ice Wine, another French-American hybrid grape made into a dessert wine and often exciting because of high sugar combined with high acid.

Wisconsin

The best of Wisconsin's 11 wineries is Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac. Bob Wollersheim makes, among other wines, an array of stunning red wines from the Marechal Foch grape, also called Kuhlmann.

One of my favorite wines is called Prairie Blush ($7), an almost iridescent pink wine that is dry on the palate despite 1.6% residual sugar. A companion Prairie Red ($6.50) has a similar strawberry-ish fruit quality, but is deeper and darker, more suited for game. But the value of the Foch line is a wine called Domaine du Sac ($10), a deep, dark, rich red wine with Rhonelike properties. A wine certain to fool a wine snob.

Virginia

The nearly four dozen wineries of Virginia are making smashing wines from traditional grapes such as Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Merlot, but one of the more dramatic efforts is a grape called Malvasia, which once was widely planted in both Italy and the Rioja of Spain but which is declining in acreage there and never has been very popular in the New World.

In Virginia, at Barboursville Winery, Malvasia grapes are harvested late in Indian summer, with lots of sugar. Fermentation is arrested early so the wine has 8% sugar, and then it is aged in oak barrels. The result is a dessert wine of astounding character, so much so that even British wine writer Hugh Johnson has praised it. The wine sells for $15.

Texas

Chardonnay, Cabernet, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc have become widely successful among the 30 wineries of Texas, but Ed and Susan Auler's Fall Creek Vineyards near Austin makes a wonderful Carnelian Rose ($7) with charm and intense fruit. It's a wine to sip on hot days with barbecue ribs.

*

And if you're not planning to leave California this summer, but will be visiting California's Central Coast, try the fresh and delightful Sylvaner at Rancho Sisquoc Winery in Santa Maria. At $8.50 it's a good value. Almost no one makes Sylvaner (also called Franken Riesling) any more except Rancho Sisquoc, which makes 1,000 cases a year.

Wine of the Week

1993 Santa Rita 120 Merlot ($5)-- With California Merlot in such demand these days and prices for even mediocre Merlot rising rapidly, I was amazed when this wonderful wine finished first in a group of nine wines tasted double-blind in mid-May. I tasted it again last week and it was even better.

The wine has a raspberry jam aroma with perfect varietal notes of green tea; a warm, ripe taste, and perfectly balanced texture, packed with fruit. Second in the tasting was 1993 De Loach Vineyards Merlot of Sonoma County ($14), a more intense and powerful wine with oak evident in the aroma.

The "120" designation is used on lower-priced wines from Santa Rita, a 115-year-old Chilean winery. It pays tribute to Gen. Bernardo O'Higgins, who led a Populist revolution against Spain in 1814.

After losing the battle of Rancagua, O'Higgins and his 120 men hid in the cellars at Santa Rita, escaped capture and eventually returned to win the revolution. O'Higgins became a national hero and the first president of the first republic of Chile.

Santa Rita makes three levels of wine including a mid-priced line called Reserva ($7) and an upper-echelon line called Medalla Real ($9).

I have seen this 120 Merlot, from grapes grown in the cool Maule Valley, selling for less than $4.

Another Santa Rita wine, the 1994 Chardonnay "Reserva" ($7), is also an exceptional value, with bright, clean fruit and excellent acidity, a perfect match for a wide variety of foods.

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