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September 7 - 14, 2000

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Drink different

Help for the bottled-up wine lover

by David Marglin

When people discover that I am a wine writer, they often act intimidated. "I know almost nothing about wine," they say. They may know that they prefer red or white; some have developed a preference for cabernets, while others are die-hard chardonnay drinkers. But often they're daunted by the thought of exploring further.

If you really love wine, though, chances are that one of the things you love is its endless variety. Different flavors and colors, temperatures and glasses, fruits and accents and notes. That means you need to venture beyond the tried and true -- you should jump at the chance to try types of wine you've never heard of. This back-to-school season, when everyone feels in the mood to learn something new, is as good a time as any to put your mind to investigating unfamiliar wines.

Of course, trying unusual wines means taking risks and being willing to taste something you might not like. But you can minimize those risks by buying at a reliable store, setting a reasonable budget (about $10 to $15 per bottle), and buying at least two bottles of each wine, so that you can experiment with them on different occasions, in different settings.

And those settings should be risk-friendly, too. Do not bet on a new, untasted wine when trying to win a first date's heart or while entertaining your boss. You do not want your wine experiment to explode in your face (as opposed to your mouth). Pop a new bottle open when you are relaxed and ready to go on a journey.

Here are some off-the-beaten track varietals that I like a lot, with some basic information about them. Obviously, wines of each type will vary in quality, but the less well-known a varietal is, the more likely that a good store will limit its selection to the best. You need to be bold, and you need to remember that learning often enhances pleasure. So what if you cannot pronounce the name of a wine, or have never had it before, or even turn out not to like it. Open your mouth and open your mind.

Malbec: one of the supporting varieties tossed into Bordeaux blends for texture, this grape has come into its own as a leading actor in Argentina. A couple of American producers are trying their hands at it, too. The taste is very concentrated, deep, earthy, with some notes of fruit, but mainly smoke and chocolate. It goes well with beef, as in grilled or stewed. Stay away from 1998 Argentinean vintages, but get all over the ones from '96 and '97. An acquired taste, but one worth acquiring.

Shiraz-Mourvèdre: shiraz (a/k/a syrah) is a popular red; mourvèdre is a lesser-known Rhône blending grape, sometimes called mataro in this country. Blended together, these two potent varietals pack less fruit shock and more earthy zing, with hints of coffee and tar. I am partial to the Penfolds Bin 2 from Australia, which retails for around $12.99. Another fine example is the Château de Flaugergues from the Languedoc, a pro's wine with earth and oak, available for around $12.99 in its 1998 rendition.

Teroldego rotaliano: this Italian red is elegant, nuanced, and, when well-made, a melodious and harmonious choice with big red meats. The best producers include Foradori and Dorigati. You have to go out of your way to find this bold, spicy, licorice-y wine, but it will reward those who can unearth a good bottle.

Tempranillo: this is the Spanish grape that's most common in Riojas and Ribera del Dueros, usually as part of a blend. You will taste the tobacco and strawberry notes up front, with a lingering finish of red currants. I am a fan of Sierra Cantabria and Vega Sindoa, from Bodegas Nekeas. Worth knowing, even though you will never see the word "tempranillo" on the bottle. In fruit-forward renditions, it makes for quite a lively mouthful.

Muscadet or Melon de Bourgogne: a refreshing summer white. Oregon is starting to make some nice Melon wines, but otherwise, these come mainly from the Loire Valley region of France. Creamy and nutty with a hint of spritz, they are really afternoon and early-evening wines, although you can serve them anytime. I like these really cold with shellfish.

Arneis: an Italian varietal, with notes of peaches, pears, nuts, and licorice. I like this paired with fennel. Not a lot of it is imported into Massachusetts, but there are also a couple of American versions. Those who know its flavors really tend to dig it. Great with hearty chicken or even a spicy pork chop.

Vernaccia: in the US this usually refers to wine from San Gimignano in Tuscany (although Vernaccia literally means "from there"). Meant to be served cold, it has a nutty taste and can be lean or rich, depending on style. These wines are very hit-and-miss, but at best they're awesome with seafood. Martignetti's can steer you to a few good ones.

Grüner Veltliner: yes, it is pronounceable -- "Grew-ner." Apples and peppery-smoky notes make this Austria's favorite white. A very fashionable wine these days, and one that goes well with spicy foods (especially Thai). Limited selection, but popping up more and more on restaurant lists. These wines age nicely, but most people drink them really young.

David Marglin can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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