Ten Friendly Wines
There are more wines to choose from than just about anything else, except, perhaps, books--and most authors don't revise their titles every year. Among the bewildering array of bottles are some that, according to certain connoisseurs, taste like gardenias, cigar boxes, marmalade or even wet paving stones caressed by August moonlight in Les Baux-de-Provence. Fortunately, from this great welter of wines and their cacophony of flavors, you'll also find a few labels that are consistently dependable and affordable. They are the vinous equivalents of comfort foods like mashed potatoes and meat loaf, easy to come by and good for cheering you during a lonely meal in a strange city or rewarding you for a Tuesday well spent. The following are my 10 favorite comfort wines: reliable in all recent vintages and readily obtainable, with most priced at around $10 a bottle.
Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Juliénas (flower bottle) from France ($9). "Beware of those who drink their glass of Juliénas in one gulp," say the villagers where the wine is made, alluding to its legendary kick, which was said to have been much appreciated by the old bohemians of Montmartre. But it's hard to believe that such a polished, food-loving, berry-perfumed beauty could do you any real harm. It's among the most seductively rich of Duboeuf's well-priced flower-bottle series of Beaujolais, and it operates on a decidedly higher plane of pleasure and flavor than any Beaujolais Nouveau.
Jaboulet Parallèle 45 Côtes du Rhône from France ($9). Jaboulet's reputation rests on wines made only from Syrah, like its great Hermitage. Indeed, the Jaboulet Parallèle 45 owes its extra intensity and complexity to the healthy portion of that noble grape that the winery allots to this wine rather than the smorgasbord blend of grapes allowed by law. It's juicy and rib-sticking, shot through with notes of pepper, spice and raspberry. The name, incidentally, refers to the latitude of Jaboulet's vineyards, where a marker notes, "Ici commence le Midi."
Napa Ridge Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon from California ($10). As part of the ever-ballooning Beringer Wine Estates empire (which includes Beringer, Chateau St. Jean and Meridian, among others), Napa Ridge is one of the more well-financed budget brands on the market. By reaping the benefits of long-term grower contracts, winemaker David Schlottman secures a steady supply of good Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is a mix, he says, of grapes grown in warmer Paso Robles, which contribute a luscious cassis and plum character, and grapes from cooler Monterey, which add a denser, mintier component. Beringer's largesse extends to the use of small French barrels for aging--an impressive (and certainly expensive) treatment for a $10 bottle.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia ($10). The brand name is the Glengarry Glen Ross of wine real estate, for although Koonunga Hill vineyard is real, there's no hill there, and no one at the winery even knows what the word Koonunga means. Moreover, this wine's grapes are gathered from vineyards all over southern Australia. But whatever it's called and wherever it comes from, what goes into this bottle is, year after year, flat-out delicious. The wine is exuberantly fruity, tongue purpling and spicy, with nuanced notes of plum, blackberry and black cherry.
Rosenblum Cellars Vintners Cuvée Zinfandel from California ($10). This mouthwatering, mellow Zin bears a Roman numeral (the latest bottling is number XVII in the series) instead of a vintage because Rosenblum blends in wines from older vintages, an enhancement that should make you think twice about equating vintage dating with merit. Generous and super-smooth, the wine is like raspberry candy for adults.
Anselmi Soave San Vincenzo from Italy ($9). Yes, there is a Soave you can love. It's made by the visionary winemaker Roberto Anselmi, who in the Seventies essentially shut down his family's big-production wine factory and reinvented it as a much smaller premium winery. By likewise slashing the yields of the vines and concentrating on less fertile hillside vineyards, Anselmi began to achieve the intensity he wanted in his grapes, something that is so conspicuously lacking in most Soaves. This is one of the finest fruits of his rescue mission, a suave Soave with a mild creaminess and a crisp, palate-refreshing acidity. You'll be tempted to drink it by candlelight even when you're alone.
Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc from Chile ($7). The chic French owners, the Marnier-Lapostolle family (who are also the proprietors of Grand Marnier liqueur), have lavished expertise and muchos escudos on their Chilean property. Their attention is evident both in big items, such as hiring Bordeaux superstar consultant Michel Rolland, and in seemingly smaller ones: they claim to run the only Chilean operation that ships its wine in refrigerated containers. Their investment certainly shows up in the bottle, and this exuberant, unoaked beauty, with its mild crispness and its cool, luscious fruit, is a perfect example of the caliber of wines currently made at Casa Lapostolle.
De Loach Early Harvest Gewürztraminer from California ($12). When you're in the mood for something completely different, try this flamboyant, perfumed wine with notes of grapefruit, yellow apple, rose petal and Asian spices, all laced together in a neat but not sweet package. The designation "early harvest" doesn't mean that the winery picks its grapes too early (that is, before they're ripe), just that, unlike many California wineries, it doesn't wait so long that the stylistic possibilities narrow down to a choice between a clumsy, high-alcohol wine and a very sweet one.
Hess Select Chardonnay from California ($10). "When people taste this wine, we want them to get a good dollop of Chardonnay," winemaker Randle Johnson says. His ability to deliver on that ambition has made this a quintessential by-the-glass restaurant wine. Other Chardonnays are often built to deliver an impressive initial sip and not much else; this one is concentrated, too, but neither sweet nor overoaked. And it's made with high-quality 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, mostly from Hess's own 350-acre Monterey vineyard. The result is a wine with clear tones of tropical fruit, citrus fruit and apple and a well-integrated background note of mildly fire-toasted oak.
Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc from California ($13). Robert Mondavi invented Fumé Blanc--well, the name, anyway. He conjured it up back in the Sixties (by inverting the Loire expression blanc fumé) as a marketing move to contrast his dry, oak-aged style of Sauvignon Blanc with the lollipop stuff in vogue at that time. Still very much in the packaging forefront, the current Mondavi Fumé comes in a frosted and flared-lip bottle that looks like it was designed for a crafts-fair competition. Fortunately, what's inside remains immune from cosmetic vagaries: part barrel fermented and part steel fermented to balance integrated oak with lively fruit, then bottled unfiltered. It's a round, smooth-drinking wine with pleasing notes of citrus, melon and pear.
Richard Nalley is the wine editor of Departures magazine. He writes a nationally syndicated wine column for Copley News Service.