Wednesday, January 3, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 3, 2001

New year dawns with wine lovers nibbling on more cheese

By Randal Caparoso
Corporate wine buyer for Roy's restaurants

Welcome to the new millennium. At least this one we can all agree on. And now, of course, we can reminisce.

Let’s see: 20 years ago today, what wines were most of us drinking? It wasn’t really Chardonnay; even though you could buy top-rated ones from Grgich Hills, Freemark Abbey and Chateau St. Jean for less than $22. And while highly respected, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wasn't really "happening" back then, either.

No, the big things were Piesporter Goldtropfchen, white Zinfandel ... and "wine coolers." By the six-pack. My favorite was "peach." If it was good enough for those two guys in overalls (what were their names?), it was good enough for me!

Shortly thereafter, Glen Ellen and Kendall-Jackson — with their $5-$7 "Proprietor's Reserve" Chardonnays — made a huge dent in the market. At that quality and price range, we weren’t really drinking superpremium wine. But we thought we were.

The onslaught of low-priced California Chardonnay eventually caused the market death of German Riesling, which we all came to think was too sweet.

And East-West/fusion/Pacific Rim style cooking wasn’t around yet to make us want to drink something as low in alcohol as coolers, but naturally finer and more crisply balanced. At the start of the ’80s, some guy named Yamaguchi, barely old enough to grow stubble, was still fooling around with that food concept in L.A.

It wouldn’t be until the mid-’90s that our interest in things like red Zinfandels, off-dry Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and Australian Shiraz would really heat up. Which has held us in good stead until now. I don’t know if it’s the psychological presence of a renewed millennium, but this year I observed some significant changes in consumer preferences. Surprising changes, almost all for the good.

Why so good? Because when we change our wine preferences, we don’t get locked into spending more for good wine than we really should.

And good wine, especially with the appropriate foods, is to be found everywhere. In the Safeway down the street, the corner cafe in Santiago and smoky cavern in Singapore or Siena. Just like Bogey and Bacall, we can’t resist great tasting, reasonably priced wine, as long as we are open to experience.

So, here are a few observations on what we’re consuming more of today:

Wine and cheese: We’ve all known wine and cheese go together, but most of us haven’t understood why. This year, everywhere I went, I saw wine being consumed with cheese, especially in lieu of sweet desserts and even appetizers. French-style Sauvignon Blancs (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Cheverny and Menetou-Salon) with imported chevre, or even regionally produced goat cheese.

Springy Havarti and smoked mozzarella with plump, smoky California Chardonnay. Spain’s buttery, nutty, crumbly Manchego with buttery-smooth Cabernet Sauvignons and Spanish Tempranillos (from Rioja and Ribera del Duero). And my own favorites: stingingly sharp Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Danish Blue or Maytag Blue with sweet, fortified reds (15- or 20-year-old Tawny Ports, or Banyuls from France). "Pass the cheese" never sounded so good!

Wine and oysters: No question, the quivering, gray-fleshed bivalve is making a comeback across the country. Entire restaurants are being erected, or else revived, by this flowering interest. The younger folks are slurping them in lethal, chile-spiked concoctions, but the older, wiser ones are enjoying them in more civilized fashion, if slurping directly from the shell could ever be considered civil. In respect to wine, oysters are also giving us an entirely new understanding of the value of light, dry, sharply acidic wines of the world, like New Zealand- or Loire River-grown Sauvignon Blancs, Muscadet and Picpoul from France, Halbtrocken ("half-dry") Riesling from Germany, and white Pinots (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio) from places like Northern Italy, the Baden of Germany and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Chardonnay has its place; but with oysters, it’s definitely second-rate.

South America: As Randy Newman once wrote, they "stole our name." But over the past year, they’ve also stolen much of the thunder of West Coast and European wines. The most extraordinary wines from Chile, such as the Montes "M," Casa Lapostolle’s "Clos Apalta," Errazuriz’s "Don Maximiano" and the magnificently eccentric Domus Aurea are certainly not cheap, weighing in at more than $50 retail, but they are world-class.

There are also some incredible values from Chile; values because they surpass, say, comparably styled California and French wines in the same $12-$22 price range — such as the Terra Rosa Cabernet Sauvignon, Casa Lapostolle’s Cuvee Alexandre Merlot, the Santa Rita "Reserva" Carmenere and Veramonte's "Primus" Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon. But the biggest surprise has to be the sudden impact of Malbec-based red wines from Argentina; they are as big, thick, powerful, yet satiny smooth and luscious as anything from the Old World, the New World or any other world. Look for the varietal bottlings of Malbec by brands like Tikal or Altos.

Spain and Portugal: Not to be outdone, the list of world beaters from the Iberian peninsula grew dramatically this year. For instance, three of the world's greatest red wine values must be the smoky, supple Quinta do Crasto from Portugal, the sensuous, succulent Carchelo (Mourvedre/Tempranillo/Merlot) from Jumilla in Spain and the sumptuously silken Abadia Retuerta "Rivola" (Cabernet Sauvignon/Tempranillo) from Spain’s Ribera del Duero. At less than $12, better buys don't exist! On the other end of the price scale ($25-$75), Spain’s Tinto Pesquera "Reserva," Condado de Haza "Alenza," Guelbenzu "Lautus" and Pasanau "Finca La Planeta" simply pound the palate like velvet- sheathed hammers, giving almost sinful pleasures to the senses.

From Portugal, red wines like the Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional and Quinta do Fojo "Fojo" flood and enthrall the palate. As for white wines, such as the dry, fragrant and lemony-crisp Albarinos by Spain's Lusco and Morgadio, you’ll find few as friendly with fish or other-white-meats. Make no mistake: In 2000, Iberia has been "It."

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