As you read this, all of Europe is on an extended vacation. Tradition from Spain to Denmark decrees that workers and their families pack up for the better part of the month and travel to vacation getaways (sometimes only a few miles down the road). It's called Fer'Agosto in Italy. All the windows and doors are tightly fastened. Those too poor to travel still close their shutters, denying the sunshine and feigning their absence. Business stops. Getting anything accomplished in this month can be a nightmare. (I remember trying to get assistance with moving musical instruments, stands and platforms to a next performance site. Frustrating madness!) It's become so endemic that even fancy hotels and restaurants often "give up" in the month of August.
We Americans are not cut out of that cloth. We vacation in August, but we do the same in June and July as well. Our vacations seem to be 10 days here or six days there rather than in a month block. Still, I always bemoan the fact that a mid-August wine column will be missed by a lot of our regulars off in Colorado, Maine or Canada. Who's reading? You are, and so let's do a very special column, chock full of good stuff that you can tell your Isle of Capri indulgents about after they return (or ... maybe not!). Consider this an inside scoop on some terrific value wines for the upcoming months.
A worldwide, eclectic selection of 49 wines was sampled blindly. The only caveat was that they had to retail for $15 or less. This is certainly the price range that most of us longingly want to find gems in. Who has $30 a night to spend on a bottle? A small show of hands. Therefore, when a $7 bottle really bursts out as wonderful stuff, the juices get flowing and we can make plans to drink very well without unnecessary splurging. Some of the wines are unusual and perhaps not geared toward multiple purchase. Yet, they are so individualistic that you may find the event an enamoring experience and hurry back for more. Others are surer bets, wallet-lovingly worthy of a multiple bottle purchase. Their quality and scope, and the evocation of much higher priced examples, will bring a knowing smile and a light heart to each uncorking.
And when your friends return from their Fer'Agosto, you can brag: "Oh, by the way, while you were hang gliding in Baja, Arturo gave us a bountiful list of bargain picks."
2004 Muscadet, Domaine de la Batardiere $10
Austere, flinty, dry, cutting bouquet. Simple, crisp, tart and refreshing. So very mouth cleansing. Not a sipper, but will make simple seafood sing. 85 points
2004 Chardonnay, Concannon, Central Coast $10
Pear- and pineapple-packed beeswaxy bouquet. Flat out fun. A touch sweet, the perfect late summer sipper--food or no food. Somehow reminiscent of some explosive New Zealand sauvignon blancs. If I ran a restaurant, this would be my by-the-glass house white. 86
2004 Chardonnay, McManis, River Junction $10
Sippable tropical mango and passion fruit. It's soft and generous. Not for purists but eminently drinkable. This wine shows well year after year. 86
2005 Chardonnay, Wolf Blass, South Australia $12
Pleasant mélange of tangy orange, apple, flint and a brush of oak. Very brisk, and clean. Light in body and dryer styling than the two previous examples. A scallop Zen master. 86
2004 Pinot Blanc Reserve, Pierre Sparr $12.35
Clean, golden hued, flowery yet tart green fruit. Glides down the throat. Smooth, dry, lingering flavors with a slate-like cutting finish. Classy, universal white for most medium-textured foods. 86
2004 Viognier, Renwood, Select Series $12.35
Subtle apricot fruit bar, jasmine and glycerin nose. Well-balanced flavors with lemony zest, great refreshment and a piquant finish. Great with Vietnamese foods. 87
2004 St. Veran, Georges Duboeuf $11
Chardonnay with a vengeance. Really varietal as wine book descriptors of the grape pontificate. Apple, pear, with a see-through oak backdrop that caresses the vibrant fruit. Fields of grass, flinty and piquant flavors with a full, clean finish. A great match for salmon or a creamy chicken salad. 87
2005 Pinot Noir, Georges Duboeuf, Vin De Pays D'OC $8.50
The bottle is cheesily decorated with a plastic day-glo overcoat, and the wine, in its own way, is carefree as well. Ripe cherry fruitiness with light spice. Simple yet ample straight line flavors. A good quaff that highlights the strength of the 2005 vintage in France. Beaujolais-like, but the pinot grape is "more better." 85
2004 Syrah, Cline Cellars, California $10
Dark, broad, nasal-filling warm climate nose. Comes at you in a circle. Big, intense, alive flavors. Satisfying with good length and finish. 85
2000 Rioja Reserva, Campo Viejo $13
Tawny colored, Medoc-like nose. Not fruity. Smells like wine, not juice. Middleweight, highly pleasurable. Not a "take prisoners" style. Lets food speak. Charming. 86
2004 Garnacha, Castillo de Monseran, Carinena $7
Leafy, gentle and pleasant with light berry fruit on a surfboard of smooth violets, lavender and medium-depth aromas. Eases down your throat with clear, brisk flavors. A perfect wine for red sauce pasta. Spanish Grenache. 86 EXCELLENT BUY
2005 Carmenere, Xplorador (Concha Y Toro) $6.65
Wide, roasted cherries and chestnuts on a beguiling, nose-surrounding bouquet. Heartwarming, full flavors. A bit thick but juicy and soulful. This grape is wonderful in Concha Y Toro's hands--even at their "entry level" bottling. May improve. 86 SUPER VALUE
2004 Morellino Di Scansano, Mandorlae $12.25
From Baroncini, on the southern Tuscan coast; has a wide berth nose of generous, ripe, plummy fruit. Very inviting with Bordeaux Graves-like earthiness. Lingering, middleweight flavors. Trim, not overstuffed mouth feel--but satisfying. Smooth and dry finish. Will improve further. 86/88 GOOD VALUE
2004 Blue Franc, Shooting Star $13.25
Now, for something completely different: The grape is Lemberger (no cracks) from Washington State. A dark berry, peppery nose. Minty, elegant and beautifully perfumed. Perky, engaging, brilliant fruit flavors. Lots of personality from this German grape that thrives in Shooting Star's Northwest. 87
2004 Merlot, Jindalee Estate $8
Spicy berries, snappy, full range boysenberry, currant and refined impressions. Excellent, engaging flavor. A perfect middleweight with long, lingering aftertaste. Great with simple meat or lentil-based, low-spice meals. 88 BEST BUY
2000 Causses De Nizas, Vin De Pays D'Oc $15.25
Overt rounded texture. Spreadable blackberry, licorice and fully ripened exotic spices. Tingly, lively fruit with delightful mouth-awakening texture. Lasting flavors and terrific finish. A beauty. 90 BEST OF TASTING
As you may have noticed, it's always harder to find recommendable whites under $10 rather than reds. I promise to continue the search.
KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER
You've got to be as old as I am to really remember Davy Crockett on television in the mid-1950s, as well as the acquisition of your own "genuine" coonskin cap. Mine was made by an old gent in his basement down the block. What fur he used is thankfully either forgotten or never known. "Younger" folks will remember the Daniel Boone series. ("Daniel Boone Was a Man" went the theme song. Catchy.) But many of you don't know who Fess Parker is, or about his fabulous Santa Barbara winery.
I met his children at a wine presentation a few years back; they were unsurprisingly tall and attractive just like their dad. The winery has recently released a non-vintage "field blend" wine they call Frontier Red, Lot No. 61, California Red Wine (87 points, $11). It's a blend of syrah, grenache, petite syrah, mourvedre, cinsault and carignane, and carries its 15.5 percent alcohol well. It reminds me of the best old-fashioned California "Burgundies" of yesteryear. Intense, gorgeous saturated color with a deep bouquet of rose, violet, iodine field brush, mushroom and moss. Subtle it isn't, but the calm, balanced fullness, ripe texture and, frankly, all-American styling is a treat. This wine is wonderfully good for extravagant, all-day cookouts and, for sheer pleasure factor, my rating may be too low. It's a long way from Davy Crockett's Tennessee to Fess Parker's California, but his 50-year trek has brought nostalgic dividends.
Be sure to look for Arturo's Wine Picks shelf talkers at your favorite wine retailers!
Arturo's column appears the second Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.