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Odd men out 

Unusual red blends make fascinating drinking

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Consider the square pegs facing the round holes. Those wineries that:

1) Believe in the traditional grapes of their region, the local specialty that speaks history along with the exhilaration of not being internationally styled.

2) Grow Sangiovese in Napa Valley or Shiraz in South Africa, spitting in the face of accepted practice.

3) Accept the challenge that a blend of six unusual grape varieties will get less press and fewer takers than the safety net of cabernet, merlot, Bordeaux or Chianti.

I call these the odd men (or women) out. Wines that fascinate an everyday wine critic such as me, but often languish on store shelves unless a terrific wine merchant (or a terrific review) convinces you to take the plunge. I tried a number of these over the last few days, tasting blindly, not knowing what was in store, only that these were off the beaten track or from areas that the public generally knows precious little about.

The results were a mixed bag. There were some horrendous wines that proved the inadvisability of certain blends in certain regions. (Or was it just bad winemaking?) There were also fabulous wines made from grapes only the studious know, but what thrilling results. Let me mention just one in advance. For the second year in a row, Altano, a Portuguese wine made from two classic Port grapes, tinta roriz and touriga franca, was a knockout. A wine you smell and can't wait to drink. Two years, same 89-point rating and, at a cost of $8 or less, a wonderful wine. Spain and Portugal continue to creep up qualitatively while holding down prices. I am hopeful that many wines worthy of excitement will fall into a more affordable price mold. Some critics might say: "This wine is worth twice the price." Not I. May superb bargains continue to serve both producer and buyer well into the future.

I also think these "under the radar" wines should be supported by the public when the quality is there. Not only does a true surprise await you with these ferociously individual wines, but you'll be supporting imagination, that most esteemed, and rare, of human virtues.

Wines are listed in ascending order of preference.


CIOMPI'S GRADES

91-100: Wine that seems to give all it is capable of, offering terrific complexities and memorable attributes. Wines at 95 points or greater are extraordinary and worthy of a special search.

83-90: Good to extremely good, with genuine flavor interest and highlights constituting a fine wine.

77-82: Average to quite decent. No true defects, but minor problems hinder charm or excitement. The wine is recommended.

70-76: Irritating flaws and weakness take away pleasure. The wine is drinkable.

69 and under: Undrinkable. Aberrant bouquet and flavor. A turnoff and a failure.


2003 The Triple Play, Wattle Creek, Mendocino $28

Tight, with fruit bound up in a leather stranglehold. Cinnamon and sweet spices cry out in the distance. Tight, bitter flavors with a persistently awful aftertaste. (Syrah, petite syrah and viognier.) 65 points

A wine of this low quality should not be released. What can they be thinking?

2003 Prima Voce, Arceno, IGT Tuscany $20

Dirty socks, funky, compost-like. Smells "cooked." A tough, thin, unpleasant drink. (Merlot, cabernet, sangiovese, syrah.) 69

2003 Fifth Leg, Margaret River, Australia $11

Lean, herbal, green and stalky. Drinks very tartly, mouth puckering and nasty. (Cabernet, merlot, shiraz, cabernet franc.) 70

2004 Arabesque Reserve, Bridlewood $24

Shallow nose, prickly light fruit and spice. A mean tasting red, short and bitter. (Seven Rhone grape blend.) 75

2005 Solaz, Merlot-Tempranillo, Osborne $10

Submerged dark cherry, licorice, charcoal with greenish elements. Closed and underwhelming to taste. Passable. 78

2004 Altano Reserva, Douro $18

Ripe core of distant cherry and blackberry. Touch of warm elegance and intimacy. Gripping and tight drink. Showing little pleasure at the moment. Could improve in two to three years? Not nearly as good as the "regular" bottling. (Touriga franca, touriga nacional.) 80 (for now)

2005 Ancient Vine Carignane, Cline Cellars $16

A dull, wishy-washy nose. Full textured, high alcohol falls flat, rubbery. Light- to medium-bodied flavors that are spready and tart. 81

2004 Decoy Red Wine, Duckhorn $28

Basil, olive, strongly herbal. Weedy but emerging fruit. Tasty and crisp. Too tart and puckery. (Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc.) 83

2003 Sorridente Red Wine, Benessere $45

Brisk, clear, sinewy, chewy fruit. Classy, penetrating but foursquare nose. Lip-smacking, tart and overly acidic. Drink with spicy foods. (Cabernet sauvignon, aglianico.) 83

2005 Shiraz, Lindemans, South Africa $12

Fairly neutral, pleasant, lightish but identifiably Shiraz. Nice substance of fruit compote. Medium bodied. Lacks intensity. A new South African venture from Australia's wine giant. 83

2006 Tempranillo, Santa Julia "Organica" $8

Tempranillo in Argentina? Raw, grapey, overt. Lots of oomph, jamminess and Beaujolais-like. Fresh cherry pie flavors. Fun, creamy and very fruity. It works. (70 percent organic grapes.) 84

2002 The McNab, Bonterra, Mendocino $16

A veritable spice rack, plus charred oak, violets, cola (?), raspberry and rhubarb. An unusual, perversely pleasant drink. Needs snappy foods. Organically certified grapes. (Merlot, petite syrah, cabernet sauvignon.) 84

2003 Phenomenon, Benessere, Napa Valley $60

Dark, oaky, coffee grounds, unsweetened chocolate and herbal overtones. Dramatic, screams California. Generous but clumsy with a sugar beet finish. Impressive, but not for everyone. (Sangiovese.) 84

2004 Rock Solid Red, Bishop's Peak, Paso Robles $12

Herbal, slightly vegetal, open, broad-shouldered fruit with lead pencil infusion. A tangy, expressive, tart and metallic wine, yet drinks better than it sounds. Over-the-top styling begs the question, What to eat with it? (Cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite syrah, tempranillo.) 85

2005 Tempranillo, Santa Julia Reserve $11

Reedy, low-key fruit amalgam with hint of chestnut. A nice, gripping, mouth-filling wine with spice and staying power. A bit obvious. Match up Tex-Mex with it. 85/86

2003 Oakly Five Reds, Cline Cellars $11

Outgoing, dark fruit clusters, iodine. Intriguing brooding tar on the nose. Dark, "oily" mouth texture. An auto mechanic's wine! Sappy and forceful. (Syrah, zinfandel, petite syrah, alicante, mourvedre.) 86 GOOD BUY

2003 Paraduxx, Duckhorn, Napa Valley Red Wine $45

Grand manner fruit. Decadent, chocolate cherry, spicy, herbal overtones. Lively and "Latiny" vivaciousness. A satisfying mouthful, primed but comes up a bit short. (Zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot.) 87

2003 Le Cigare Volant, Bonny Doon $30

Strong, calm, full, supple spice box scents. Big but not clumsy. Ample, robust with clove and earthy spice. A lively mouthful—well-balanced, medium to full body. Characterful with great pizzazz. (Mourvedre, syrah, grenache, cinsault.) 87

2003 Sangiovese, Falcor, Napa Valley $29

Soft, fleshy, fat and saturated nose. Smells like well-braised meat. Deeply flavored, nuanced and balanced. Best for the few chilly nights still ahead. (80 percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Cabernet.) 87

2004 Pinotage, Golden Kaan, South Africa $10

All right, pinotage is South Africa's unique cross between pinot noir and cinsault, but how many Americans drink it? How very tasty it is when right! Light, airy fruit. Well-balanced, appealing, unfruity and wine-lover satisfying. A nicely resolved, flavorful drink with plenty of personality. 87 EXCELLENT BUY

2004 Mourvedre Ancient Vines, Cline Cellars $15

A perennial favorite of mine. Smoky, winey smell. Elegance, roses, floral spices with pretty oak underpinning. Well-spun fruit, a bit young yet. Spicy, tantalizing fruit on the long finish. Drink now-2010. 88 GOOD VALUE

2004 Incognito Red, Michael-David Family of Wines $18

Impressive, silky dark fruits. A smoky, soft fuzzies delight. Rich, ripe warm velvet with a bit too much oak over the gorgeous fruit. Exciting. (A seven-grape blend ranging from mourvedre to pinot noir!) 87/88

2004 Castillo de Monséran, Old Vine Garnacha $12

Clean, elegant and extremely pleasant. Substantial texture with spicy nuances, lithe nose and deep, unfruity refreshment. Lovely flavors, balanced and beautiful. Long finish and elegant, medium texture. From Cariñena, Spain. 88 GOOD VALUE

2005 Castillo de Monséran, Garnacha $6-$7

Full, surround-the-sinuses fruit ripeness. Deep, complex jazzy nuance. A pinpoint, luscious supple berry mouth feel and lovely follow-through. May improve further. The Spanish insist that Garnacha (or Grenache) originated in Spain. 88/89 BEST BUY

2004 Post Scriptum, Douro $24

Clean, straight-shooting, full fruit amalgam. Good depth of concentrated berry. Warm, wood-kissed texture reminiscent of Burgundy. Striking flavors still a bit tight and developing. Will improve over the next three years. (Touriga nacional, touriga franca.) 87/89

2004 Altano, Douro, Symington Estates $7-8

Delicious overt fruit. A full gasp wine, briary nose, fresh, inviting. A sort of "what you hope to smell" when you bring a glass of wine to your nose. Immediately loveable and inviting. Splash of ripe mouth texture on this medium-bodied, balanced delight. Easy to match with any medium-bodied meal. (Tinta roriz, touriga franca.) 89 BEST VALUE

This wine has become my preferred everyday red.

2003 Marlstone, Clos du Bois $50

"Sweet" spice intertwined with exotic fruits. Subdued wood backdrop. Big, expansive and explosive. Tremendously extracted and energetic. An extroverted red still promising more on its restrained finish. An Alexander Valley gem. (Five Bordeaux varietals.) 91 BEST WINE OF TASTING

Arturo can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net for comments, suggestions, kudos or complaints.

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