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Worthy wines without the blue chip name

Under the radar 

Worthy wines without the blue chip name

In 1947, early in his composing career, Leonard Bernstein wrote a set of songs entitled "La Bonne Cuisine." One of them that I love and easily remember is called "Oxtails," and its first line is: "Are You Too Proud to Serve Your Friends an Oxtail Stew?"

This catchy, quirky opening could easily suggest a sequel entitled:

"Are You Too Proud to Serve Your Friends a Viognier?"

Really, how many of you ever seek out a white wine like viognier or semillon? How about a red such as carmenere or mourvedre? For that matter would you buy, or could you even get excited about, a California pinot grigio or a Washington State syrah? It's so much safer to pick up the nearest chardonnay, cabernet or merlot. So consider the brave winemakers who produce "hard sell" wines that, although often terrific in quality, have two strikes against them in the consumer's mind. I remember trying so hard to sell good riesling back in my retail days. Everyone would sample and love it, even buy it, but then, two weeks later, they had forgotten about it.

To usher in the fall season, it's time for a change in dress and a change in wines. Time for ignored, forgotten or never known wine varieties. They are made with care, dedication and definitely against commercial odds. From a mixed bag of 74 wines tasted, here's a shopping list of alternative, fiercely independent wines. Have no fear of serving these conversation starters. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

(All wines were tasted blindly and, in the larger categories, a "control" wine was thrown in as a benchmark. In other words, one German riesling among examples from elsewhere.)

Whites
Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington state turns out amazingly Germanic wines that impress to the hilt. They score well in riesling and pinot gris. Pinot gris (or grigio) is ubiquitous and readily purchased when from Italy and Alsace. But American examples such as MacMurray Ranch and Taz Winery surprise and please when their identity is revealed.

Riesling 2004 McWilliams, Hanwood Estate, S.E. Australia $11
Pungent, generous, apricot-like nose. A crisp refreshing drink; a bit lean, but overall smooth and satisfying. 85

2004 Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley $9
Gentle, pure, direct grapey fruit with penetrating lively acids. Light, "crunchy" flavors even if a bit thin. Similar to a German Moselle. 86

2003 Classic, Dr. H. Thanisch $9
Delivers clear varietal aromas reminiscent of a flower garden in spring. Lithe, lovable flavor. A textbook "Qualitatswein" in an everyday style from a great producer. 87

2004 Naked, Snoqualmie, Columbia Valley $11
Solid nose with depth and richness. Flowery, racy, alive with a whiff of riesling's characteristic gasoline smell. (Somehow this is a good thing!) Excellent mouth feel with honeyed riesling glory and no thinness or astringency. 88 GOOD VALUE

2004 Chateau Ste. Michelle, Cold Creek Vineyard $14
Calm orange peel and floral fruit. Ephemeral, pleasant and a dead ringer for a top Pfalz German riesling. Lowish acidity, generous succulent flavors and an elegant long finish. Same residual sugar as their regular release, but seems sweeter (go figure). 88

2004 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County $15
Lovely purity, flower blossoms on a tallowy, rich nose (touch of gasoline). Nice acid kick and lush clean flavors. This wine especially--but all of the above--would serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal well. 88

Pinot Grigio (Gris)
2004 Campanile, Delle Venezie $10
Bright lemon-lime nose. Smooth textured, low acidity. A perfect cocktail style. 85

2004 Gallo of Sonoma, Reserve $12-13
Generous, fruity, waxy solid fruit impressions. Good weight and substance. A food wine. 86

2004 MacMurray Ranch, Russian River Valley $20
From actor Fred MacMurray's old property, a gray tinged tropical and stone fruit aroma. Steely, firm, brisk and lively flavors. A success. 87

2004 Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley $13
Slap-in-the-face briskness on top of vibrant fruit. A slightly chalky, satisfying mouthful begging for shellfish. 87

2004 Taz Winery, Santa Barbara County $15
Nice gray-pinkish color. A citric and flowery nose with a touch of crisp slate. Dry, lemony tang yet neither sharp or acidic as a drink. Energetically balanced. Good for Thanksgiving. 88

Assorted Whites
2004 Viognier, Beringer, Napa Valley $16
"Clear" nose with subtle apricot, nectarine and tropical hints. Rounded mouth texture, fruity flavors with a bit too much oak on the aftertaste. 86

2004 Viognier, Cline Cellars, Sonoma County $10
Appealing "distant" fresh fruit streaked with a peach background. Long, luscious flavors, spicy lingering fruit and a pretty, clean finish (great holiday white). 88 BEST BUY

2004 Roussanne, Dover Canyon $24
Expansive jasmine and pear like nose. Full palate and a soft sweetness on the finish. A keen, personality laden drink. 87

2004 Laguna de la Nava, Navarro Lopez $8
Made from the native Spanish macabeo grape, it has a bright, "sea spray" tang along with citric notes on a squeaky clean bouquet. Soft, tender mouth feel, smooth and lushly textured. Would contrast and liven up a creamy fish dish. 86 GREAT VALUE

2004 Colegiata, Bodegas Farina $10
One hundred percent Malvasia Bianca. Brisk, inviting fruitiness with a "green" grassy edge. Pretty flavors, ripe fruit impressions with a dry but soft, easy finish. Very sippable. 87 GOOD BUY

2004 Casaij, Tenuta Rapitala $11
Fresh, glassy clean bouquet of apples, smoke and earth. A smooth, flinty flavor. Exotic, balanced and very dry. Seventy percent Catarratto grape, 30 percent chardonnay. Unique and delicious. 89 BEST BUY

2004 Aura, Bodegas Aura $21
One hundred percent Verdelho, the grape of dry Madeira. Explosive, grapefruity, powerful and opulent. Rather grapey nose but so tempting and mouthwatering. Unrestrained, bold flavors. Exuberantly tropical and off dry. Excellent sipper but would happily marry a Cocquilles St. Jacques. 90

Reds
Syrah has slowly gained respect from California and other Western Hemisphere producers following the benchmarks from France and Australia that have established reputations and that dominate sales. I tasted many juicy, daring and deeply flavored examples along with various vegetal, weedy and skunky ones as well. Chateau Souverain continues to shine with ravishing syrah of generosity and perfect balance. Chateau Ste. Michelle has a reserve bottling that brims with energy, passion and incredible depth. Here is an assortment of terrific wines that represent the soul of syrah admirably.

2004 Graffigna, San Juan, Argentina $10
Pretty berry and plum notes. Enticing in a mild-mannered, Bordeaux style. Lip-smacking fresh flavors. A bit green and biting (mediocre vintage?) but class shows through. An estate to watch. 86

2001 Daniel Gehrs, Paso Robles $17
Ink, iodine, herbs and earth along with olives, goose pate and saddle leather elements. Interesting? Really so and develops in the glass for hours. Bold, rich mouth texture with solid, no nonsense flavors. A green beret of a wine. A giant with a sharp, biting finish. Not for the novice. Flawed, controversial but fascinating. 87-93 (depending on your outlook)

2003 Sixth Sense, Lodi $17.25
Jammy, super ripe fruit with sweet, pruney impressions. Warm, commodious mouth texture. Peaceful, rich but not overbearing. Carries its high alcohol well. To drink now with grilled baby backs. 88

2003 Cline, Cool Climate, Sonoma Coast $16
Well-built, chunky and generously filled with brambly blueberry essence. Drinks generously with a lithe yet full texture, long mouth feel and coffee-like aftertaste. 88

2003 Frei Brothers, Sonoma County $24
Very fruitful with nice ripe blackberry impressions. Round, harmonious, charming flavors. Full, lyrical and supple texture. (Will improve but lovely now.) 88

2002 Dutton Goldfield, Dutton Ranch, Cherry Ridge Vineyard $29
Wide, expressive, dark berry, licorice and terroir laden nose. Medium bodied flavors. Elegance and purity. Not a blockbuster. A pinot noir lover's syrah! 89

2002 Meridian Reserve, Santa Barbara County $16
A noble, deep and brooding nose of violets, plum, thyme and charred oak. Warm, chocolatey smooth flavors. Satisfyingly rich with a velvet finish. Always a success, this edition is especially fine. 90 GREAT VALUE

2002 Rosemount Estate, Hill of Gold, Mudgee $22
Extraordinarily deep, profound herb-kissed fruit sensations. A not overdone nose with ground coffee, pepper and thyme. Cocoa like texture, ample fruit with a touch of elegance. A fine benchmark Australian shiraz. 90

2002 Chateau Souverain, Alexander Valley $20
Supple, delicious fruit on a medium full frame. Simple but elegant, ravishing texture in the mouth, beautifully rendered. Dark chocolate, blackest blackberry and espresso notes. Wonderful. 92 GREAT BUY

2002 Chateau Ste. Michelle Reserve, Columbia Valley $29
Exceptionally pure fruit essence. Deep, textbook varietal, gun powder, loam and mushroom. Spicy, plump fruit flavors, fabulous complexity, a good dollop of oak and fine tannins. A glorious mouthful of power and promise. Drink now-2010. 93 BEST OF DOMESTIC SYRAH

Assorted Reds
2002 Croix du Mayne, Cahors $14
The "black" wine of south central France, this wine made from the malbec grape is extremely attractive. Rich bouquet of crushed ripe cherries, plum and cedar. Like a Pomerol in its velvety nose. Flavors are pointed and dry. A bit severe in its directness but so honestly good. Has marvelous presence and identity. Drink now-2009. 88

2002 Aprile, Super Oakville Blend $28
For my money, California's best sangiovese. Lots of cherry, cola, nuttiness and bright fruit on the nose. Brisk "happy" energetic flavors with a memorable aftertaste. 89

2002 Steelhead Red, Quivira Winery, Dry Creek $18
A beguiling, fleeting bouquet of deep berry fruit. Fills the sinuses with cherry and peppered homogenous beauty. Strapping on the palate, its powerful balanced flavors needing strongly flavored foods for now (Rhone style blend that will improve for years.) Drink 2006-2012. 90

2003 Cline Cellars, Ancient Vines Mourvedre $18
From Contra Costa County, this is a wow of a wine. Deep, harmonious fruit with pungent spice, dark cocoa, mint and sweet earth. Warm berry flavors and long aftertaste that's a little "steely." Will soften further, but delicious now with full-throttle winter fare. Drink now-2008. 91

And Finally
Pomegranate Semi Sweet Wine, Proshyan Wine Factory (!) $10
Like fragrant, light jam on the nose--but not Smucker's. The unique bouquet carries over to a lightly sweet, fruit-laden flavor. Refreshing and impossible not to like, it's a great way to introduce wine to a novice. Juicy, yes, but absolutely tastes like wine. With all the health benefits attributed to the pomegranate, what a nice concept. (Better than a sample I tasted last year.) 87

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