For those of you who never enter a wine shop, the endless rows of popular brands in your supermarket's aisle can be a real crapshoot. Names such as Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, Yellow Tail and Sutter Home often dominate shelf space. How is one to know if they are good, bad or worse ... all mediocre? A fair wine writer approaches everything with a clean slate; that's why tasting blindly, without knowing what's what, is so foolproof. Yet, results are often startling.
Most people think mass-produced wines are, if nothing else, dependable. Yet, often the differences between a sauvignon blanc and a viognier from the same company can be extreme. Sometimes, a seemingly huge producer may make only a relatively small amount of a certain varietal. Mirassou is a ubiquitous, readily available name, but their total production of riesling consists of 10,000 cases--less than the amount from a prestigious, "limited production" Bordeaux chateaux like Latour or Margaux. "Industrial" wineries make some of their wines in smaller amounts, and these can often show very well.
One advantage big name brands have is that they can often be found priced below the "suggested retail" price. With offers made to grocery chains, if they're willing to carry an entire lineup of wines, diamonds in the rough can frequently be found--and at discounted prices. Smart consumers need to know when one or two name brand offerings rise to a higher peak of quality.
I recently tried 51 white wines of the lighter, springtime variety (read: NO chardonnay). The bottles were arranged for me by grape variety; for example, a set of nine sauvignon blancs tasted in a row. But all the brands were unknown to me until I had finished. The majority of these wines are readily available at grocery stores, and all are priced under $20. About one-fifth stood out as very good wines covering the entire range of prices.
One element that has advanced leaps and bounds from 10 years ago is the absence, or huge reduction, of sulfur appearing at the first whiff of lower-end whites. People used to talk about letting the sulfur "blow off" with a bit of breathing time, but nowadays that "matchstick" smell is mostly missing. Cleaner winemaking has made great strides, and this, hopefully, will reduce some past allergic reactions that were associated with high sulfur levels in white wines.
In top form was the 2005 KENDALL-JACKSON SAUVIGNON BLANC ($11, 87 points). This appealing white with citrus and minerally notes was nicely balanced with clean mouth feel and an energized, delectable finish. Here's the type of wine that you might very well find discounted on occasion.
Two versions of CHATEAU ST. JEAN FUME BLANC were excellent for entirely different reasons. The "regular" bottling ($13, 87 points) had roundness and a fleshy style, but also had a crisp shot of acidity and mouth-cleansing flavor in the offing. The 2004 LA PETITE ETOILE ($20, 88 points) is a classic "old style" Californian, with plenty of melted oak among the substantial, glorious ripe fruit. It gives a full-bodied, mellow, creamy wine that would be a treat without food relaxing on your porch.
A new wine for me, the 2005 KUMALA SAUVIGNON BLANC from South Africa ($9, 87 points) was a novel success, with breezy mountain scents and bracing quality throughout. Impressively textured, dry and so cleanly made that I would recommend everyone try this different take on sauvignon blanc, and see what's up at the tip of Africa.
Two highly varied rieslings beg to be a part of your plans. The 2004 MIRASSOU ($10, 87 points) is open, warm, minerally and floral, with a hint of telltale gasoline. (Actually a good, normal thing.) Softly flavored and well balanced, it's a tribute to Monterey County grapes and winemaking. WEHLENER SONNENUHR RIESLING-KABINETT from Dr. H. Thanisch ($19, 90 points) has a piercing nose of springtime flower garden scents and persistent energy that spells pure refreshment within its polished, lithe, impeccable fruit.
Great strides are being made with the white wines of Spain. Both the 2004 BODEGAS MONTECILLO BLANCO and the 2004 SOLAZ are ideal come-home-from-work-and-chill-out kind of whites. The ever-consistent MCMANIS WINERY comes through with a delightful 2005 PINOT GRIGIO that I'd welcome at any time. Add pleasant surprises from the Trinchero Family and their sibling, Sutter Home, and drink in the freshness that spring's arrival beckons. Enjoy a potpourri of briskness before the languor of summer settles in.
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.
2005 Sauvignon Blanc, Meridian, Central Coast $10
Citric exuberance, grassy, likable and inviting. Smooth sailing on the palate with light end acidity that lingers. Medium dry and a more than pleasant sipper. 84 points
2004 Blanco, Bodegas Montecillo, Rioja $9
Subtle wildflowers and very clean with spiced apple impressions. Extremely crisp, Granny Smith tartness that awakens the palate and calls to the taste buds. Dry. Think filet of sole. 85
2004 Blanco Viura, Solaz, Osborne $10
A calm, peachy bouquet with soft fruitiness on the lean, grassy nose. Smooth mouth feel with a ripe and refreshing finish. Simple but solid. 85
2005 Gewurztraminer, Sutter Home, California $8
Nutty, grapey nose with hints of apricot, spice and honey. Not totally dry yet drinks pleasingly without being cloying. Would be a fine choice for picnic luncheon meats or grilled poultry. 85
2005 Sauvignon Blanc, Trinchero Family, Santa Barbara $11
Well-rounded nose reminiscent of grassy, morning dewy fields. Pineapple and melon notes are evident. Smooth, even flavors that are full yet tread lightly in your mouth. 85
2005 Pinot Grigio, McManis Family Vineyard $10
Lemon-tinged ripe banana notes. Extroverted character with a "wall" of smells that persistently close in. Nice, tingly fruit and good body with a slightly dull finish. Not Italian in style, but who cares? 86
2005 Sauvignon Blanc, Kumala, Western Cape $9
Enticing freshness that's as bracing as sea air and penetrates the sinuses. Richly textured with staying power. Long, clean aftertaste. Different and impressively styled with a dry finish. 87
2005 Sauvignon Blanc, Kendall-Jackson, California $11
Overt, powerful lemon freshness dripping over mineral beds. Well balanced, lengthy flavors with good, grassy perkiness. Invigorating mouth feel and finish. A nice K.J. success. 87
2004 Fume Blanc, Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County $13
Round, creamy, melony nose with spicy oak and marshmallow-like bouquet. An initial full mouth texture with a quick shot of cleansing acidity that swiftly follows. Unctuous yet delectably dry. 87
2004 Riesling, Mirassou, Monterey County $10
Openly knit and warm, yet minerally and floral with a telltale hint of gasoline. Good riesling usually has this odd component. Takes you by the shoulder like a big brother. Some residual sugar and softly flavored, yet a very well balanced success. Works well with Vietnamese foods. 87
2004 Fume Blanc, Chateau St. Jean, La Petite Etoile $20
From the Russian River Valley, a generous Californian mélange of vine-ripened fruit and melted oak. An almost berryish nose, smelling more like a fine rose. A silky, tender lingering mouth feel, plus a clean finish. Creamy, old school styling unafraid to feature "unfashionable" oak. 88
2004 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling-Kabinett, Dr. H. Thanisch $19
Like a line drive with a super clean, piercing nose of a thousand flowering garden scents. Unmistakably Germanic styling. Pure refreshment--light, lithe, caressing the palate with polished fruit and a seamless finish. 90
A visit to VIVACE, a 6-week-old restaurant in the North Hills section of Raleigh, was a vigorous but mixed experience. The appetizer mussels were overdone and the risotto undercooked, but divine osso buco and a creative dessert list helped. (The "Piccola Borsa"--a gianduja-filled pastry surrounded by fresh berries--was exquisite.) The wine list is short but well selected. The atmosphere is rollicking and bistro-like. The service is more than admirable; when my wife ordered Earl Grey tea, our waiter went running out to a local grocery store to get a similar version to that which Vivace had run out of. The large outdoor cafe area is reminiscent of Paris, tucked into a neat corner with apartments located above and throughout the complex. This is already a heady, vivacious destination; I hope the cuisine catches up before long.
Beginning this week, look for Arturo's Indy Wine Pick shelf talkers at your favorite local wine retailers.
Arturo's column appears the second Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at email@example.com.