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This page last updated
Fri, Jun 24, 2005


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USA $14

The Petite Sirah grape is erroneously named. For one thing, and contrary to American producers' tendency to include it under the umbrella of Rhône grapes, it is not directly related to Syrah. For another, it is anything but Petite, producing instead a wine that is almost black as night, of considerably full-bodied fruit intensity and possessed of equally fierce tannins. No surprise that it's been grown for over 100 years in California.

Because of its brawny nature, Petite Sirah is a difficult grape to capture in a bottle. Many Californian winemakers prefer to use it as a workhorse blending partner; those who bottle it solo tend to either charge considerable sums of money for long-lasting old-vine masterpieces (e.g. Behrens & Hitchcock) or sell it cheap in the hope that the public will be easily swayed by its sweetness and weight (e.g. the $10 Bogle Petite Sirah that tastes like a bad Californian attempt at Yellowtail Shiraz).

But then there's Vinum Cellars, a quality winemaker nonetheless dedicated to having fun: years ago I wrote about their Point Blanc blend of Viognier and Chenin Blanc, and their roster also includes the brilliantly named Chard-No-Way and the pop-art 'ka-pow' logo of their G2 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer. Vinum's Petite Sirah, from the Wilson Vineyards in Clarksburg, is called 'Pets' after winemaker Ken Wilson's nickname for the grape; it's dedicated to his dog Tanker (presumably that's him pictured on the bottle) and "a portion of the profits" is donated to a San Francisco animal shelter.

All the worthy causes and good humor in the world are meaningless if the product itself is not up to par. Fortunately, this Vinum Petite Sirah grape is worthy of the star treatment – and relatively inexpensive ($14) to boot. There are, admittedly, some similarities to the Syrah grape in the wine's dark, dark, dark color, serious blackberry notes and roasted meat texture, but I can't help feel that it's more like a Petite Zinfandel: it has that particular grape's welcome acidity, cheerily spicy exotic wild fruit flavors, and chewy, dusty tannins. But it doesn't knock you off your feet like one of those high-octane Zins, the alcohol topping out on this puppy at a hefty but manageable 14.0%. For those of us who love to open a big red spicy wine with summer barbeques, but can't handle the headache that comes with high-end Zinfandels, a Petite Sirah like Pets is perfect.

MUSIC? This is robust stuff for strong palates, and though it's very Californian (anyone for Chili Peppers?), don't feel limited to that State (of mind). Drink it while jumping around to the likes of The Go! Team, Hoodoo Gurus or The Clash.


New wave wine fans like yours truly salivate at the sight of innovative blends. So many grapes, so many combinations. Would you like some Syrah with your Zinfandel, sir? Some Pinot Gris with that Chardonnay, Madam? Consider it done.

But blending grapes that don't have centuries of proven compatibility behind them is a hit and miss affair. I recently tasted three white wines, all of which included the bright acidity of Sauvignon Blanc, the classically neutral blending properties of Chardonnay and the tropical fruit profile of Viognier, and yet which offered three markedly different results. Interestingly, the cheapest was by far the most enjoyable.

At the top end of the market, Conundrum is an established Californian blend of five white grapes, from well known Napa producers Caymus. The winery would have you believe that Conundrum's core attraction is the Muscat grape's distinctive floral aroma, but Caymus has a habit of burying the overall blend in oak to produce a blousy, boozy, heady, somewhat sweet wine dominated by the scent of vanilla and the texture of wood. It's the kind of wine that new world wine wanna-be's with more money than sense – it retails for $24 or more – swoon over. And I plead guilty: I've bought it in the past and I've loved it. But I've since come to dislike this overpowering approach to wine-making, and my initial impression of the 2003 Conundrum was exactly as I expected and defined up above – all oak and sweetness. Yet once I got it in the mouth, I was pleasantly surprised: as well as the Muscat's spicy orange glow, I was able to taste a significant amount of my treasured Viognier, and some healthy brightness and acidity from Sauvignon Blanc. (The other grapes, Semillon and Chardonnay were inobtrusive, as tends to be their nature – though I assume that these were the grapes given the oak treatment.) Conundrum remains blatantly overdressed, but in that upscale way that acts as an aphrodisiac for the easily woo'd date.

The Domaine Saint-Geogres D'Ibry hails from the delightfully named Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue in southern France, and its Cuvée 'Excellence,' judging by the spelling, has clearly been designed for the English speaking market. The blend - Chardonnay (40%), Sauvignon Blanc (20%), Muscat (15%) and Viognier (25%) - is similar to the Conundrum's, but the wine is not. Unlike the relatively closed Conundrum, the Excellence exploded on the nose with the aromas of Muscat and Viognier. (The back label gushed about "saffron, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme and juniper," which is an unnecessarily effusive way of stating "Provencal herbs.") Either way, I could have sniffed at it all night. And maybe I should have done, because, on the palate, it was heavy. Dead heavy. I got all the appropriate Viognier notes, but the wine was sadly lacking finesse, and absent too the freshness of its Californian counterpart. Some of this may have been down to the record-breaking heat of the 2003 vintage – short of artificially 'acidifying' their wines, European producers are having a nightmare getting any vibrancy into their bottles – and some of it may just be the wine-maker's inexperience. It wasn't offensive but at $15 for a Vins de Pays, it was expensive – and it did not live up to its name.

But what do you know? Head down the price scale, to the $10 mark, and find that CLINE CELLARS' recently introduced Red Truck 2003 California White Wine blend does everything it promises and more. Sauvignon Blanc from the Oakley region is blended with Viognier from Sonoma, along with, perhaps, a small amount of the latter grape's Rhône relatives Marsanne and Roussanne. (The label lists these four grapes, but the web site references some Chardonnay too. An e-mail exchange with winemaker Charlie Tsegeletos revealed that Chardonnay actually makes up a whopping third of the blend, supposedly added to this year's vintage, at the last minute, and after the label was printed. It's obviously hard for Cline to keep up with all its experiments, but I feel it's only right, if not mandatory, that its labels be accurate.) The complete lack of oak distinguishes the Red Truck White from its overly heady Californian rival Conundrum, while the difference in vintage conditions may be what separates it from the overly heavy southern French Excellence. What we get instead is what we were hoping for: a bold yellow color (the Chardonnay), a nose that wafts of Viognier's perfume, that same grape's tropical tendencies on the palate, a little bit of oiliness (the Marsanne?) and some floral notes (the Roussanne?), but then with the bright acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc shining through too, bringing some welcome citrus fruit and a tangy finish to the blend. It's a delightfully refreshing and yet flavor-packed medium-bodied wine, equally suitable as an aperitif or a dinner accompaniment. It's proof that the blending of different grapes, while an imperfect art form, occasionally delivers excellence – and that, as always, higher prices do not guarantee better wines. Score one more for Cline.

MUSIC? Blends like these are an upbeat spring time type of thing, for sipping while experimenting with different musical forms. Try the Red Truck White with The Dissociatives' mix of electronic and pop, or A Band Of Bees' very modern take on sixties soul.


It's spring time and a wine drinker's fancy turns white overnight. And for most of us that means chasing Italians. Now, I've long loved the fact that Italian blondes are easy-going on both palate and wallet, but their lack of intellectual depth eventually renders them overly similar and somewhat forgettable. So of late I've been looking for that someone special: an Italian that will satisfy all my senses, that will fight for my attention over dinner, that I'll still be savoring after we've said goodnight and gone our separate ways and to whom, as a result, I'll promise to treat as more than just a one night stand.

Enter, at the perfect moment, Ribolla Gialla. A friend of mine brought her to a spring time wine dinner where, true to my opening sentence, whites outnumbered reds four to one. He sat her next to me and suggested we'd get on well together. Clearly he knows my taste.

Ribolla Gialla is not well known outside her home region – the hillsides that cross the Italian border from Friuli into neighboring Slovenia. But thanks to her skillful upbringing in the hands of Girolamo Dorigo and his family, this Ribolla offered so much more than just the racy freshness and nutty texture of most Italian whites. Lightly bronzed to look at, she smelled – and tasted – of spring-time flowers in opulent bloom, and of both tangy (lemon, orange) and tropical (peach, apricot) fruits. Anything but shy, she quickly gave up more than just a quick kiss on the lips, filling my mouth with a promise of permanent passion, and leaving behind a well-rounded, perfectly balanced taste of honey. My friend said that in the right circumstances – like the heatwave vintage of 2003 – Ribolla could be "unctuous." I don't know if that means that in cooler years she'd be plainly anonymous. But I noted that Dorigo had treated her right: using carbon dioxide snow to preserve her aromas before the crush, and allowing her brief maturation in stainless steel, all while keeping her well away from oak and malolactic fermentation. The result? Ribolla is busty and bronzed, but her beauty is entirely nature's work.

I invited Ribolla home for the night and she accepted: turns out the man who brought her to dinner has more where she came from, anyway. The next evening found her almost every bit as enticing: even the wife could understand the attraction. Who knows? This may just be a spring time fling. But for now, I'm intoxicated.

An all-natural beauty, full of character, steeped in tradition and yet nobody's fool, Dorigo's Ribolla makes a perfect accompaniment to Ben Watt's latest mix CD, Buzzin' Fly Vol. 2

VIN DE PAYS DU GARD 'Agriculture Biologique' 2003

The 'Agriculture Biologique' stamp means the wine is organic. But so is a lot of French country wine.

Labeling a rural French wine "organic" can be a little deceiving. Many, many rural French wines are organic, or damn near as. It's simply a way of life. We're talking about French farmers who have successfully tended their land without use of pesticides and chemicals for generations and are not about to start using such products now. That inherent resistance to change (which can also be seen as French bloody-mindedness) means they're not going to go groveling for the 'Agriculture Biologique' certificate either, viewing it as another set of authoritarian standards and rules on top of the already strict Appellation Controlée regulations. (Study this form from the French Agricultural Department's web site and you'll see their point.)

As it is, some of the best known producers in France - like the esteemed Châteauneuf du Pape estate Château Beaucastel, - are known for being completely organic. (They just don't advertise the fact on their bottles.) Michel Chapoutier, meanwhile, a negociant who bottles wine up and down the Rhône and beyond, strongly encourages his growers to go beyond organic and into biodynamic farming. Quite a few American importers – Louis/Dressner and Neal Rosenthal prominent among them – only work with producers who use near certifiably organic methods; picking up a bottle with those names on the back is as good a confirmation of vineyard integrity as any government-approved certificate.

But while I didn't buy this Pont Neuf purely because of the Agriculture Biologique assurance, I can't say it harmed. Too many wines from the vast Vins de Pays territories in France are being mass-produced for the international market – and while, given that the front label to this wine comes in French, English and German, the Pont Neuf is clearly no exception, it's reassuring to see that it at least proclaims some artisanal integrity. I also thought it was time to try something from the 2003 heatwave. Oh, and the manager at the wine store in Saugerties gave me a heavy sales pitch, assuring me it was his every customer's favorite wine. Mind, he also said that it would be a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and the like - though wines from the Vins de Pays du Gard are considered "country Côtes du Rhônes," which means they're made up of the usual mix of Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Counoise and more. It certainly didn't taste like a Bordeaux blend.

Mind, first time I tasted this I could barely drink it. I'd run many many miles in the morning, so many that I hadn't expected to be pulling the cork on anything, but now the evening had rolled around, a good meal was on the table, and I assumed a glass of wine wouldn't hurt me. I was wrong: it did. Made me feel immediately unpleasant. I made comments about stewed raisins while the wife looked on patiently and noted that it went very well with her dinner. Let's face it; sometimes – especially if you're an avid sportsman – your body's just not in the mood for alcohol.

24 hours later it was a different story. My system was back to normal and a mere whiff of the open bottle transported me to southern France, with those sunny, spicy, herbal aromas that waft through the air during the hot summer (as long as you're not on the highway to the Mediterranean, in which case all you'll be breathing is petrol fumes). The wine itself is an easy-going crowd-pleasing food-friendly delight, warm and friendly and spicy and cheeky, the vinous equivalent of good dinner company. It's well-balanced too, showing little indication that the grapes were raised during the hottest year in a century. (After a recent experience with a 2003 rosé from the Côtes de Provence, this is no small achievement.) There was nothing so pronounced about the wine that I felt duty bound to make special notes. Equally, it was far from anonymous. It was, put simply, good wine the way the French have always made it.

But was it at a good price? Well, five years ago, when I got into this game, I could buy a known Côtes du Rhône for considerably less. That was before the dollar collapsed, and $10 is just about your entry level price now for anything decent from Europe. I still get the feeling I'm being charged an extra tariff for that Agriculture Biologique certificate, but it's more than a good enough wine to merit its price tag – and its "organic" nature, marketing ploy or not, surely contributes to that quality.

MUSIC? It needs something organic, quietly understated, very natural, but still somewhat spicy and preferably with a French influence. Would-Be-Goods' The Morning After will make an ideal match.

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