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Red Wines

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Red wines can be broken down into:

1a) Cabernet Sauvignon (pronounced Ka-ber-nay Saw-vin-yawn);
1b) Merlot (pronounced Mair-low);
1c) Pinot Noir (pronounced Pee-no Nwar);
1d) Zinfandel (pronounced Zin-fun-del);
1e) Beaujolais (pronounced Bo-zho-lay); and
1f) Syrah or Shiraz (pronounced Seer-ah, or Shu-rahz).

Each of these wines has its unique character.

Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be (I say tends to be because wine, unlike soft drinks or mass-produced beers, changes in character from year to year and from producer to producer) firmer and more tannic (tannin is what gives your mouth that slightly puckery sensation that you get from a cup of tea) than the other varieties.
Merlot tends to be softer (and to me, slightly less interesting, with a few exceptions) and less tannic than Cabernet. Each of these wines will have aromas and flavors which are somewhat reminiscent of blackcurrant, spice, oak (vanilla), herbs, and even cedar and/or leather in some examples. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the two great grapes of the red wines of France's Bordeaux region as well as of the great Napa Valley and Sonoma County regions in California. The top makers in Bordeaux (as well as the most famous) are:

Chateau Latour
Chateau Lafite-Rothschild
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild
Chateau Margaux
Chateau Haut-Brion

Chateau Petrus
Chateau Leoville Las Cases

Bottles of these wines can be had (depending on the quality of the vintage) from about $100--$400 for recent vintages which aren't, as a general rule, even close to being ready to drink for another 10-20 years, to several hundreds (or in extreme cases, thousands) of dollars for older, more mature vintages. Buy early and be patient. Less expensive, but still delicious, wines can be had from such names as

Chateau Cos-d'Estournel (about $90--$100 for a recent vintage),
Chateau Leoville Barton ($70-$120 depending on the vintage--2000 was outstanding and expensive)
Chateau Lynch-Bages (about $90 for a recent vintage)
Chateau de Pez (about $50 for a recent vintage), and
Chateau Phelan-Segur (also about $50).

Value-level Bordeaux which is still quite good can be had from such names as Citran and Gloria (about $15--$25).

Great California makers to watch for are

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley
(the regular bottlings run around $25, while the Reserve bottlings run around $125; some think this wine has been on the decline in recent years/vintages--Robert Parker, for one, thinks the Mondavi wines lack the hedonistic, fully extracted quality he seems to favor, but the 1999 reserve is one I can vouch for as an excellent and complex cabernet);
Barnett Vineyards (their Rattlesnake Hill Cabernet--about $95 if you can get it--is fast becoming a cult item, but their "regular" Spring Mountain Cabernet is also fantastic, about $50-$60 depending on where you find it--I tried the 2001);
Beringer (Knights Valley--the most common release--runs about $25, while the Reserve runs about $95--1995-1997, and 1999 are vintages to try if you can);
Caymus (regular bottlings run about $30-$40, while the Special Selection runs a steep $150-$175); 
Heitz (Martha's Vinyard and Bella Oaks bottlings will run from $60-$150);

Bryant Family (an extremely limited production each year, this will be hard to find outside of California, and will run from $100 to $500, depending on the vintage);
Schweiger (this is a new winery in the St. Helena area of Napa, Spring Mountain, specifically, and its 1995, 1996, and 1997 vintages were outstanding, and though 1998-2000 have not been rated quite as well by James Laube and WS, I recently tasted both the 1999 and the 2000 and liked them both a great deal; the 1999 is more classically structured, and the 2000 is more fruit forward--it will run anywhere from $45 to $50 for a bottle currently);

Whitehall Lane (right along the main road--Highway 29 through Napa, etc.--this winery makes some absolutely fantastic Cabernets; look for the Napa Valley--about $30-$35--and the Reserve--about $75--and don't miss single vineyard bottlings like the Leonardini: I tried the 1998, ostensibly an "off" vintage, and it is fabulous--also about $75).

Other great places to try:
Ehlers Estate
Frank Family
Barlow Vineyards
Laura Zahtila

Less pricey, but still good-quality California Cabernet can be had from such brands as

Gallo of Sonoma
Bandiera ($8);
(Valley Oaks $10, Barrel Select $12-$15); and
Meridian ($9-$12), among others.

Another source of inexpensive, yet good-quality Cabernet is Chilean wine. Chile has several good, widely available brands to look out for:

Santa Rita
(120 $7, Reserve $12, Medalla Real $18);
Montes ($6-$8);
Cousiño Macul ($8); and
Los Vascos ($8).
These are good wines, and well worth the price.

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington also puts out a range of good Cabernets. In addition to the regular bottling ($12 or so) try the Cold Creek Vineyard releases, as well as Reserve bottlings ($20-$30).

Pinot Noir is much less consistent than either of the two wines above. At its best, it can be the most delightfully complex and exotic of wines, filled with heady aromas and flavors of spice, smoke, and red fruit (raspberry, cherry, plum). However, Pinot Noir does not usually show well at lower- or mid-levels on the price spectrum. The best Pinot Noirs in the world are reputed to be the Red Burgundy wines of France; expect to pay between $30 (at the lowest end of price and quality) and several hundred dollars for a good French Pinot Noir-based wine.

Some reliable French Burgundy-producers include:

Joseph Drouhin
Louis Jadot

Henri Perrot-Minot

Domaine de la Romanee Conti

These producers can be expensive (ranging up to several hundred dollars per bottle for sought-after vintages), so be forewarned when shopping for that "prestige" Burgundy.

The best American Pinot Noirs are generally from Oregon (especially the Willamette Valley) or from California's Napa Valley (the Carneros region), Sonoma County (the Sonoma Coast appellation and the Russian River Valley are places to look out for), and the Anderson Valley (near the coast in Mendocino County). Other good American regions are the Santa Maria/Santa Inez area north of Santa Barbara, and the Santa Lucia Highlands area of Monterey County.

Robert Mondavi makes a very good Pinot Noir from Carneros in Napa (Reserve bottlings are about $65; regular bottlings are about $25), and Siduri makes wines in Sonoma and in Oregon, an area that has been home to a few wines about as close as anything outside of the Burgundy region has come to capturing the essence of cool climate Pinot Noir. Other American makers to look out for are Calera, and Chalone. Others to try from Napa include those done by the sparkling wine houses like Domanine Chandon (on the south end of Highway 29 in Napa), and Gloria Ferrer (on the border between Napa and Sonoma).

My own favorites from Sonoma include Eric Ross and Papapietro Perry (but there are many, many to try from this area...). In the Anderson Valley, try Navarro. Actually, try anything from this area...

Inexpensive Pinots like Napa Ridge are certainly drinkable wines, even tasty wines, but they usually have only a minimal amount of Pinot Noir character.

Outside of France and the US, New Zealand is one of the most exciting sources of excellent Pinot Noir. Focus on producers from he Central Otago and Marlborough regions.

A final note on Pinot (but this applies to many wine varietals). There is no one correct style. Purists tend to prefer cool climate wines from regions such as Burgundy, and to lesser extents, the Central Otago and Marlborough regions of New Zealand and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. These wines tend to have an emphasis on the aromatic qualites as well as a slightly higher acidity and earthy profile on the palate. Wines from slightly warmer areas (Carneros, the Russian River Valley, Santa Maria, etc.) tend to be fruitier on the palate, less acidic, and possessed of more body and less aromatic delicacy. But these are generalizations that are not always true on the level of individual producers and individual wines. Eric Ross, in Glen Ellen (inland Sonoma County) makes a very aromatic, almost Burgundian Pinot, at least relative to slightly heavier Pinots like those of Papapietro Perry in Sonoma, or Kenneth Volk in Santa Maria. Try many wines from different areas, and decide what you like. You may just find you like it all...just for different reasons.

Zinfandel is a real delight. It is best known in its somewhat tepid incarnation as a blush wine, the ever-popular White Zinfandel. Its real character, however, is only revealed in its full, rich, red self. It can range in style from a Cabernet-like wine with blackcurrant and oak character, to a big, brambly wine with flavors and aromas of peppery blackberry, herbs, and smoke. It is perhaps the only uniquely American wine (although the origins of the grape are disputed). Its best producers include:

Ravenswood (my personal favorite: bottlings include a $8-$11 Vintner's Selection which is one of the greatest values in Zin annually, as well as a Sonoma County bottling ($18) and several single-vineyard bottlings such as Monte Rosso ($22-$30), Dickerson ($22-$30), and Old Hill ($22-$30).
Martinelli (look for something with "Jackass" in the name. You won't be disappointed.)
(a small winery with small bottling numbers, thus hard, but not impossible, to find outside of California at present)

I have, in fact, never had a bad example of red Zinfandel. I have had mediocre Zins, but no bad ones. The best examples of this wine will run between $10 and $25, and they are well worth the price.

My favorite examples of Zinfandel these days tend to come from the Paso Robles area of Central CA (about halfway between LA and San Francisco on the 101). Look for producers like:

Nadeau Family
Four Vines
Grey Wolf

Beaujolais is probably the easiest red wine for those who say, "I just don't care for red wine" to approach. It is a light wine with lots of fruity aromas and flavors. It is originally from France, and some of the best Beaujolais makers are French wineries, but there are some good California versions (usually referred to as Gamay Beaujolais, or Napa Gamay) as well.

Every year, on (or about--depending on how faithfully your local retailer follows tradition) the third Thursday of November, something called Beaujolais Noveau is released; it's always worth a try, because at its best it is a real charmer--a floral, fruity red with heady aromas and light, pleasing flavors of berries and rose petals. The Noveau is released without any barrel aging, so it is at its peak of freshness and drinkability as soon as it is released. Don't hold it for more than a few months, because by spring, it's usually over the hill.

The regular Beaujolais you see on the shelves year-round has some barrel aging behind it, and therefore has the backbone to last a while (although it should still be consumed within a year of purchase). Some of the names to look for are:

Georges DuBoeuf--The leading French producer of Beaujolais.
Louis Jadot--A top Burgundy and Beaujolais producer, also from France.

All of these wines may be found in the $8-$12 range. If you wish to experiment a bit, French Beaujolais comes in several regional designations, each with its own character. Fleurie is one of the more expensive of the appellations, but it is often one of the tastiest Beaujolais wines as well. It can have a highly perfumed floral character, and a lightly fruity taste. Morgon is at the opposite end of the Beaujolais spectrum; it is (along with the equally sturdy Moulin-a-Vent) easily the richest, and most Pinot-Noir-like of the Beaujolais wines. These wines will be a bit more expensive than Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages wines, but they are still well worth the price of a little experimentation.

Shiraz (if you are drinking an Australian wine) and Syrah (if you are drinking a wine from France or California/Oregon/Washington) covers the entire spectrum of red wine's glory: from the simple, yet rich and fruity Vin de Pays of France Languedoc region, through the delicious medium-priced Shiraz wines of Australia, to the Hermitage wines of France's Rhone valley and Australia's Grange by the Penfold's winery, these wines range from tasty to delicious to staggering. At their best these wines can have a spicy, earthy perfume and rich black fruit flavors mixed with hints of smoke. There can be, of course, flat and insipid wines which carry the Shiraz and/or Syrah labels, but I have found that if you stay above an $8 level (retail price--not restaurant price), you will usually bring home something quite drinkable.

Good wine (my examples are all Australian--I have a weakness for Aussie Shiraz) to look for in a medium price range include:

Paringa--an excellent Shiraz, highly extracted with a gorgeous velvety texture, rich perfume and fruit flavors (around $10).

Rosemount Shiraz--this is a consistently good wine, and it runs about $10 per bottle. Look for the blends, like  Cabernet/Shiraz and Grenace/Shiraz. These are tasty, casual wines that will run about $5, and are easily worth twice that.

Other good, reasonably priced wines can be had from Lindeman, Black Opal, Wynn, and Penfold's.

The real luxury wines, fruit bombs of almost unbelievable extraction (this is a style that seems to divide wine lovers right down the middle--some love it, while others decry it as artificial and excessive) include:

Kay Brothers Block 6 (especially the 1998 and 2001 vintages--expect to pay over $100)
Torbreck Run Rig (another wine in excess of $100)

D'Arenberg Dead Arm (around $75 or so)


More of my favorites are coming from the Paso Robles area again these days:

Red Soles
Tablas Creek
Adelaida Cellars
Brian Benson
and many, many others...

P.S. Check out the Hospice du Rhone festival in Paso each year...

There are, of course, other types of red wines.

Italian Chianti produced from the Sangiovese grape can be some of the world's best wine and some of the world's most dreadful plonk; stay away from the straw basket-bottles (known as fiascos--the name says it all). Stick with Chianti Classico. Some names to look for include: Antinori. Nozzole, Fontodi, and Ruffino (these wines will cost between $10 and $30).

Barolo and Barbaresco wines produced from the Nebbiolo grape tend to be quite expensive, but the best examples have an astonishing earthiness and depth of flavor (they should not, as a general rule, be drunk soon after purchase; give them 5-10 years of controlled storage conditions before opening). The most famous name in Barolo and Barbaresco is Antonio Gaja (pronounced Guy-yah), but his wines run well over $100 per bottle; more reasonably-priced wines may be had from such names as Michele Chiarlo (though even these may run as high as $45-$50) and Produttori del Barbaresco (whose wines will run from $20-$50).

Barbera wines are generally inexpensive accompaniments to a simple pasta dish; they can be quite good as long as you don't expect too much from them in the $7-$15 range.