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This page last updated
Tue, Jan 11, 2005

SUMMER WINES
(with recommended music)

All the wines reviewed on these pages are recommended for being interesting, attractive, approachable, and perhaps a little unusual. In most all cases they are either readily affordable or easily available, and hopefully both.

Serious thought is given to each wine's recommended musical accompaniment... But it's meant to be fun. Feel free to substitute your own alternative..

For a full list of iJamming! wine reviews, please visit the Wine Home Page.

LEITZ
'DRAGONSTONE' RIESLING
RÜDESHEIM, RHEINGAU, 2003
GERMANY, $12

Among noble white grapes, only Riesling produces such a wide range of styles, from delicate dry aperitif to rich sweet delight. And only in Germany does Riesling so magically express its terroir, and offer such considerable staying power. Good dry German Rieslings can last thirty years or more; let's not even think about the Eisweins for now.

So why aren't we going gaga for the stuff? Well, Germany sold us so much atrocious wine through the '70s and '80s that, as we've become better informed consumers, we've understandably turned to inexpensive and high quality "new world" white wines instead ofall that awful Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch. It hardly helps the German wine cause that the nation's wine laws are almost impossible to understand without immersing yourself in the culture: there are some nine quality levels to confuse us, compounded by a historical tendency to include village and vineyard names on the bottles as well – all of it in German.

But finally, things are changing. International wine writers have been relentless in their praise of German Riesling, especially with the 2001 vintage, considered the best in thirty years. Most importantly, the producers themselves have begun marketing ever better wines in ever clearer packaging, at ever more attractive prices.

The Leitz Dragonstone Riesling provides the perfect case in point. You can recognize it partly by the Riesling grape's usual tall slim bottle, but more so by its distinctive, two-color label dominated by a drawing of a dragon. In a move of marked simplicity that separates it from the German pack, there are only five different words on the front label: Leitz, Dragonstone, Riesling, Rheingau, and Rüdesheim. (Even the vintage is saved for the back label.)

Let's come back to these words - after we've talked about the wine. The color is a very pale straw yellow, about as close to "white" as white wine gets. It's a mere 8% alcohol, and its calling sign is its acidity, that classic Riesling "refreshing" sensation that wafts out of the bottle like a cooling summer shower. Sniff around some more and you'll pick up the young Riesling's typical aromas: green apples and pears, some grapefruit maybe, and a certain mineral tone, like the above shower settling into a stone-laden stream. Sipping the wine for the first time is much like biting into a Granny Smith apple – almost shocking in its acidity. And the crispy green apple taste lingers long after the finish fades. But it's a beautifully refreshing, fruit-driven feeling aided by a surprising degree of sweetness for what is essentially a dry wine. And it's priced as low as $12.

Back then, to the label, and its mere five words. Riesling we know about. Rheingau is considered the best region for Riesling in Germany, and Rüdesheim the best village for Riesling within the Rheingau, with particularly steep vineyards rising up from the river. In fact, look at a map of Germany, look again at the label and you'll see that the dragon tail pictured here represents the route of the river Rhine. That's some fine marketing art for you. Factor in the producer – any pocket book will tell you that Johannes Leitz is among the most celebrated producers in the entire nation - and this $12 bottle suddenly looks like one amazing bargain.

So why is it so cheap? Well, let's not get carried away here. The Dragonstone is the Leitz family's entry level wine; the Drachenstein (Dragonstone) vineyard is considered of secondary quality within the Rüdesheim, and the wine is classified as a QbA, near the bottom rung of Germany's complex wine ladder. QbA wines are often so soft that the they are allowed to go through "Enrichment" – the adding of sugar before fermentation to increase alcohol strength and sweetness. This would explain the Dragonstone's sweet notes despite its supposed dry nature and the complete lack of information about Residual Sugar, the method by which sweetness is usually measured.

Some wine aficionados find Dragonstone too artificially sweet, and others have lamented that the 2003 currently on sale doesn't have the majesty of the 2001 or 2002 vintage. Yet others still have noted that this is the kind of wine that improves after the bottle has been opened. (This kind of Riesling has so much acidity it can survive several days left in the fridge.) The Dragonstone may not be the pinnacle of high end Riesling, but it's a fantastic entry level wine, a superb tipple for those summer days when you fancy a lunchtime drink yet still want a clear head to play sports or take a hike in the afternoon. It's ideal as an aperitif; it's friendly towards spicy foods, and it's perfect to have with a light fruit dessert. And even the most devoted Riesling fanatics, those who may yet frown on your enriched QBA wine, won't be able to argue against your choice of producer, region and village. From here on, it only gets better. Welcome to German Riesling. Now get drinking.

MUSIC? A gentle summer wine like this requires some gentle summer music. Thievery Corporation's new mix CD The Outernational Sound seems ideal. And like the Leitz Dragonstone, it's on a great label too.

DOMAINE VALLET
SAINT JOSEPH BLANC 2001,
FRANCE, $20

Sometimes in life, even the most rapacious bargain hunter accepts that old truism: you get what you pay for. A couple of years ago, I recommended the 2000 Mas Carlot Marsanne as an exceptionally well-priced introduction to the grape. The producer then began blending it with the like-minded Roussanne, and I bought a bottle of the 2002, and you know something? It was disgusting. The most golden color I had ever seen in a wine – I mean, dangerously golden - it was big and heavy, almost like it had become oxidized. But it hadn't: it was just a badly made wine that may or may not have been made worse by a difficult vintage. Please don't confuse the 2000 with the blend they're selling right now.

Around the same time, one of my local wine store proprietors lured me in off the street with the magic words, "We're tasting Rhône wines tonight." Inside, importers The Olive Branch were opening up the kind of bottles that some stores make you pay to taste: the long sought after Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône Villages from Séguret, and from Domaine Vallet in the northern Rhône, a Condrieu and a white St-Joseph. Everything was wonderful, but the final wine was just so good I had to have a bottle straight away. Even at $20.

White Saint-Joseph wines are not the most common sight. My one other experience with the Appellation's delightful combination of Marsanne and Roussanne grapes was with this Domaine Gaillard, also a 2001, bought and enjoyed in the summer of 2003.

Like the Mas Carlot, the Domaine Vallet 2001 St-Joseph is a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. But there the similarity ends. The St-Joseph had everything I look for from these two similarly named and generally under-recognized Rhône grapes. It poured out a golden color, but translucent – not the opaque gold of its Vins de Pays imitation – followed by a highly intriguing nose of citrus, mineral, fresh marzipan, lots of honey, and some pears too. The palate offered a zippy attack before opening up into a mouth full of ripe peach and apricot flavors, with a rich honeyed texture - at once both silky and elegant, as befits the few good Roussannes I've been fortunate to taste, yet with Marsanne's tell-tall oiliness.

So yes, it was $20. That's the going rate for a good Northern Rhône wine. But it was quite sublime, and notably intense at the same time, such an intriguing experience it almost demanded to be enjoyed unencumbered by food. And it was a reminder that, while there are always good bargains to be found around $10 or so, there are many dogs to be had in that price range too. Making great wine simply can't be done on the cheap. Tasting great wine is not something you can always put a price on. And St. Joseph remains one of the most reliable appellations in the world, both for its reds and its whites.

SANTA JULIA
TORRONTES
MENDOZA, ARGENTINA 2002
$7

Santa Julia is the brand name given to the everyday, inexpensive wines produced by Argentinean giants Familia Zuccardi. Among the company's five whites is a Viognier, and it's not desperately good. Fortunately, Santa Julia excels at Argentina's own Rhône-like white grape, Torrontes. Of especially high acidity and notably pungent aromas, Torrontes flourishes in the arid climate of the country's northern areas where it is, in fact, the most commonly-planted of all grapes.

The Santa Julia Torrontes hails from the Maipu and Santa Rosa areas of Argentina's prime wine-growing region, Mendoza, where it is estate grown and bottled by Zuccardi. The 2002 Torrontes is an everyday light yellow-greenish color that opens up in the glass to offer the peaches and perfume aroma so reminiscent of Viognier, along with some of the tangerine and cake-like flavors of a sweet Muscat. In the glass it has a bright acidity that distinguishes itself from these two European standards, while offering up a spicy, full-bodied, dry white wine that makes for an ideal aperitif or food wine even if it lacks some intensity and complexity.

Torrontes may be little known, but it's widely available. I've found this wine on sale in a London pub, a Yorkshire wine store and back here in Brooklyn. Better yet, it's shamefully inexpensive: the Zuccardi bottling barely nudges $10. It's almost impossible to find Viognier that good for that price – and you most certainly won't find any hailing from Argentina. I'm not telling you anything you won't hear from the real experts. The 2001 Santa Julia Torrontes was rated 'Excellent Value' by the Wine Advocate, while the 2002 was awarded four stars by Britain's Decanter Magazine, which also hailed it as one of the World's 50 Best Value Buys. The 2003 vintage (remember, the southern hemisphere harvests during the northern hemisphere's spring) has just been released.

MUSIC: Torrontes is vibrant, aromatic, and indigenous to Argentina. So is Buenos Aires native Gaby Kerpel's Carnabailito.


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