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THE AMERICAN ISSUE | WINE

The grape migration

Texas Viognier? Arizona Syrah? The Times Tasting Panel puts wines from rising regions to the test.

July 04, 2007|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

TO discover any of America's emerging wine regions, close your eyes in front of a U.S. map and randomly drop your finger on a spot. Madison, Ind.? They've got Pinot Grigio, Zinfandel and Syrah. Prairie du Sac, Wis.? Sangiovese and Riesling. Louisville, Ky.? Chambourcin and Chardonnay.

Wineries have been popping up all over the country (every state of the union now has at least one) and lately have received significant media attention, even those wineries and vineyards in what might seem like the most improbable places -- say, in the shadow of the red rock spires of Sedona, Ariz.

All this talk of wines from places other than the West Coast piqued the interest of the Times Tasting Panel. Arizona's, Texas' and New York's are the most developed -- and critically acclaimed -- of the emerging regions, but we wondered: How good are these wines? So we recently gathered to taste a selection.

New York's a likely place to start, and though it was Merlot that put Long Island on the wine map, the Long Island Cabernet Francs fared best in the tasting. The standout was a softly luscious Cabernet Franc from Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.

New York's reputation for wine has had its fits and starts, though its Long Island wines still are often overlooked, even by New Yorkers.

"There's a generation of wine drinkers who equated New York wines with kind of a sweet Concord style and never took them seriously," says Rory Callahan, president of Wine & Food Associates, a New York-based consulting firm. "But a new generation not burdened with that history is starting to embrace New York wines." Though even now, he says, "a lot of New Yorkers don't really know they have a wine district in their own backyard."

Most of the New York wines in The Times' tasting were from the North Fork, where Long Island's more than 30 wineries are concentrated. Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and the Peconic Bay surround the narrow peninsula. ("Lo and behold, it's a rather maritime climate," Callahan says, moderate with an extended growing season.) The most planted grapes are Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Chardonnay, another of the most widely planted varieties on Long Island, didn't attract many accolades from the panel, the exception being the 2004 Wolffer Estate Reserve Chardonnay. More appealing -- and interesting -- were the Sauvignon Blancs.

The Texas wines offered up a few pleasant surprises -- delicious Texas Viognier -- who knew? Of a handful of winemaking regions in Texas, the most well-regarded is Hill Country, the area west of Austin and north of San Antonio. It's the second-largest viticultural area in the U.S. -- 15,000 square miles that comprise all or part of 22 counties -- where unique microclimates allow for a variety of wines, including Bordeaux blends and Mediterranean varietals such as Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Syrah and Viognier.

"Most people think of Texas as hot and inhospitable to grapes," says Wes Marshall, author of "The Wine Roads of Texas," "but there are areas where the days are cooler than in Napa and nights that are just as cool. On top of that, it's bone dry, so the vineyards can choose their own level of irrigation. There's really good wines being made.... But Pinot Noir and Zin just don't grow here."

A lot of Hill Country wineries are small producers that focus on tourism for most of their sales, but some of the larger wineries are entering the national market.

Southwest Malvasia

ARIZONA'S wines have been hailed as up-and-comers, and some interesting examples -- not just the wines of Caduceus Cellars made by the lead singer of rock band Tool -- have garnered a lot of interest.

Although a Syrah from Rancho Rossa Vineyards in the Sonoita area showed promise, the only Arizona wine in the tasting that really shone was a Malvasia Bianca from Page Springs Cellars, one of four wineries in Cornville near Sedona.

The Arizona Wine Growers Assn. says the state has 24 vineyards and 22 bonded wineries. Vineyards traverse the state, mostly along a geographic band of purportedly wine-friendly soils that runs from the southeast corner near the Mexico border up to Kingman in the northwest corner. Wines for the all-American tasting included a couple of Syrahs, a Chardonnay, a couple of Cabernet Sauvignon blends and a Malvasia Bianca.

And the 2005 Caduceus Cellars Nagual de la Naga, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Sangiovese? It wowed us at first -- but fell apart once it opened up.

We'd rather have some of that Texas Viognier.

betty.hallock@latimes.com

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We're not in Napa anymore

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