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REDS from ARGENTINA

South American wines are mostly known for being cheap and passable, if not surprisingly good. Chile and Argentina are steadily refining their wines, though, and now they both make some extraordinarily good mid-priced and high-end wines. If there's one particular overachieving grape variety from Argentina, it's Malbec.

Malbec vines were carried to Argentina from France over a century ago, and since then Malbec has become Argentina's signature red wine. Malbec always had a tough time ripening in France, and Cahors is pretty much the only French region that still grows a lot of it. Wines from Cahors can be tannic, rustic, and pretty rough around the edges; they aren't for everybody. Argentine Malbec from the arid, inland Mendoza region is remarkably different, and more simpatico with thick steaks and American sensibilities in general. They're hearty, fruit-driven reds with blackberry and cherry flavors and less tannin than Cabernets. Four times out of five, Malbec is the best red an Argentine winery makes.

  • Alamos Malbec 2005, Mendoza, Argentina [$11]
    Catena's second label, Alamos, is a great brand for value Malbec, and this edition is more than just a good value-it's a great wine. Deep and hearty with loamy earth, red fruit, vanilla, and toast aromas and concentrated cherry and raspberry fruit flavors.

  • Alamos Malbec Seleccion 2005, Mendoza, Argentina [$15]
    A slight step up from the previous entry, $4 more gets you a slightly more concentrated blood-red wine with slightly oakier aromas, and dense black cherry and plum flavors that should blossom with a little more time in the bottle.

  • Andeluna, Winemaker's Selection Malbec 2004, Mendoza, Argentina [$18]
    Andeluna is a newer, well-funded, and ambitious winery owned by potato chip heir H. Ward Lay. So far its wines are impressive, particularly the Malbec, Merlot, and Cabernet. This one is fruit-driven, with blackberry, cherry, cola, and tar aromas and slightly brambly green notes that complement the rich fruit the way fresh mint does a scoop of sorbet.

  • Catena Malbec 2004, Mendoza, Argentina [$24]
    Nicolas Catena is the Robert Mondavi of Argentina, only he never sold out and his wines are still top-notch. Here's a classic Argentine Malbec with deep, juicy raspberry and black cherry flavor and nuances of sage and black pepper. Sturdy and well balanced.

  • Conquista Malbec 2004, Argentina [$9]
    This one doesn't run terribly deep, but it does have a pretty nose of cherries, blackberries, violets, coffee, and spices. It's a medium-weight, enjoyable red that will go with pretty much whatever you're serving up.

  • Finca el Portillo Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Alto Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina [$9]
    This second label from Bodegas Salentein makes some dependable reds and whites for under $10. The Cabernet has surprisingly rich black currant and black cherry flavors with chalk dust, black olive, mint, and toast notes and moderate tannins.

  • Pascual Toso, Reserve Malbec 2004, Mendoza, Argentina [$15]
    Toso is probably best known (in Argentina, at least) for its sparkling wines, but its Malbec is very good, too: a hearty, full-bodied red with concentrated blackberry, black cherry, and toast flavors. There's a little stiff tannin on the finish, but nothing too serious.

  • Salentein Malbec 2003, Alto Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina [$18]
    Another well-funded and ambitious Argentine winery with first-class facilities, substantial vineyard holdings, and a good winemaker, Salentein's wines are steadily improving. This may be their best Malbec to date, with dense boysenberry, blackberry, bittersweet chocolate, dust, and dried flowers that twist toward olive on the finish. A very classy wine indeed.

By Tim Teichgraeber

CHILEAN WINES

The prime vineyards of Chile and Argentina are scarcely 100 miles apart, but they're entirely different. Chile has a dry but coastal climate moderated by the Pacific, while Argentina's wine country, just on the other side of the towering Andes Mountains, is more like a desert. Malbec grapes shine in Argentina, but Chile's strong suit is Cabernet Sauvignon, barely ripe and often more like a good Bordeaux than a Napa Cabernet. Chile is also making world-class Sauvignon Blanc in its cooler valleys. In fact, Chileans are more and more growing the right grapes in the right places, so you may well happen across a stellar Chardonnay, Merlot, Carmenere, or Syrah.

  • Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Chardonnay 2005, Casablanca Valley, Chile [$9]
    This is one of those surprisingly good Chilean Chardonnays that pop up from time to time. It's harmonious and full-bodied with a nice range of toast, cantaloupe, pineapple, and lemon aromas and flavors. A great buy.

  • Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Merlot 2004, Puemo Valley, Chile [$19]
    This Chilean Merlot consistently blows away just about any American Merlot under $40 a bottle. It's compulsively drinkable, boldly flavored, and precisely balanced with compact cherry, blackberry, boysenberry, mint, tarragon, toasty oak, and mineral flavors. This wine is well worth tracking down.

     

  • Cousiño-Macul Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Maipo Valley, Chile [$9]
    The Cousiño family is one of Chile's most influential, and rich, families. Their winery was one of the earliest players in Chile's wine industry and continues to produce particularly good Cabernets at a range of price points. This entry-level wine is a nice, easy-drinking, value-priced Cabernet with black cherry, black currant, and barely-ripe dill notes. Definitely one of the better 10-buck Cabernets around, and one that's soft enough to serve with all sorts of food.

  • Cousiño-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Maipo Valley, Chile [$17]
    A step up in price, the Antiguas Reservas has more firepower, with rich black cherry and raspberry fruit flavors and complex damp forest floor, evergreen, mint, and pepper notes. The tannins are fairly mild, so there's no need to cellar it.

  • Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Colchagua Valley, Chile [$17]
    Montes' mid-priced "Alpha" varietal wines are the sort that American and French wines would hate to run into at a blind tasting. This is a very serious Cabernet with silky plum, cocoa, and blackberry flavors; firm tannins; good acidity; and smoky, toasty oak. It has class and sophistication that you don't often find in this price range.

  • Montes Alpha Syrah 2004, Colchagua Valley, Chile [$17]
    Montes is the first Chilean winery to produce great Syrah. If its $70 "Folly" Syrah isn't within your reach, settle for this more affordable one with great complexity and varietal character in its cherry, blueberry, grilled meat, pepper, and boysenberry flavors.

  • Montes Leyda Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Leyda Valley, Chile [$14]
    Leyda is a cool northern valley that has recently been producing brilliant Sauvignon Blanc, including some that can top most any from the United States. This one has pungent fresh grass, lime, lemongrass, grapefruit, and candied pear flavors-a zesty, intensely fresh white wine.

  • Veramonte Reserva Merlot 2005, Casablanca Valley, Chile [$10]
    A terrific value that combines inky color, lots of fruit, and remarkable elegance with mint, loam, black cherry, and plum flavors; subtle tobacco notes; and a cozy, toasty finish.

  • Veramonte Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Casablanca Valley, Chile [$10]
    One of the best Sauvignon Blanc values for several years running. A steely, razor-sharp white with grass and mint aromas and concentrated grapefruit and candied pear flavors that resonate in the mouth. An ideal white to complement a salad or fresh oysters, or to cut through a creamy Alfredo sauce.

By Tim Teichgraeber

SAUVIGNON BLANC

When it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, I look for racy, almost sharp, grapefruit flavors, grassy or minty aromatics, and preferably no oak aging. The best have a little extra intensity of flavor and richness in the mouth-always the best indicator of quality fruit. For my money, the greatest come from France's Loire Valley, California, New Zealand, and Chile, a fast-rising Sauvignon Blanc star.

  • Chateau Souverain Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Alexander Valley, California [$14]
    Winemaker Ed Killian doesn't get enough credit for handling this grape well. It has spot-on grass, snap pea, grapefruit, and passion fruit aromas, and flavors that are fresh and clean with a hint of California sweetness.

  • Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2005, California [$12]
    This winery really gets Sauvignon Blanc. Its basic "California" offering is usually the best value from the state, and its "Block Collection" reserve wine from Russian River Valley is even better. What this one lacks in wild personality it makes up for in rock-solid varietal character, annual dependability, and value with true-to-form racy grapefruit, grass, and passion fruit flavors.

  • J. Lohr Carol's Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Napa Valley, California [$24]
    Napa makes relatively fat, ripe Sauvignons, and that's what you get here, but without sacrificing too much freshness: pretty clover aromas and bright, fresh lemon, grapefruit, and passion fruit flavors with a hint of creaminess on the finish.

  • Morgan Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Monterey, California [$16]
    Morgan specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the same cool climate of Monterey County also makes for great Sauvignon Blanc. The winery also generally avoids fooling around with unnecessary oak barriques. I like this white's pretty grass, cantaloupe, and passion fruit aromas and juicy pineapple, lime, and herb flavors.

  • Rancho Zabaco Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2004, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California [$18]
    This winery specializes in Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, but also makes good Sauvignon Blanc from the cooler, neighboring Russian River Valley. Have you noticed that few American wineries actually specialize in Sauvignon Blanc? This one's a little less aggressive than some of Zabaco's past wines, with crisp citrus, melon, and parsley aromas; generous fruit in the middle; and a nice, clean, unoaked finish that begs for walleye or mussels.

  • Sonoma Coast Vineyards Hummingbird Hill Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Sonoma Coast, California [$25]
    For two years running this has been a small production head-turner, the type of wine that seldom makes it to middle America. It's unusually stylish and distinctive for California Sauvignon Blanc, with pungent, almost musky grass, grapefruit, and clover aromas and fresh grapefruit, candied pear, and papaya flavors that finish with a terrific burst of acidity. Partially fermented in oak and part in stainless steel.

     

  • Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Casablanca Valley, Chile [$9]
    Textbook Sauvignon Blanc from one of the cooler valleys of Chile where white wines really sing. It has fresh-cut grass and grapefruit aromas and more intense flavors than you typically get from wines in this price range. You simply can't get a better Sauvignon Blanc for the money.

  • Wairau River Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2004, Marlborough, New Zealand [$25]
    New Zealand is known for aggressively herbaceous versions of this wine, but the best avoid harsh green bean or asparagus aromas in favor of gentler grassy tones. This approachable edition has a cool minty nose and ripe pear, grapefruit, lime, and mineral flavors.

By Tim Teichgraeber

THANKSGIVING WINES

Zinfandel tends to be the automatic pick when it comes to Thanksgiving wine recommendations. It's quintessentially American, and it has the kind of fruity flavors that work well with both roast bird and sweet sides like cranberry sauce and yams. Any of the Zinfandels reviewed in this issue are a great choice for Thanksgiving, but it isn't as though you don't have options. I generally choose fruity, relatively soft reds for mixed crowds at Thanksgiving: reds like Syrah/Grenache blends, Pinot Noir, or Merlot. Whites like Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer are good choices as well.

  • Beckmen "Cuvée le Bec" 2004, Santa Ynez Valley, California [$18]
    If you haven't tried this seamless Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Counoise, you're in for a pleasant surprise. It's just a remarkably well-rounded red-complex, silky, and balanced with blueberry, wild strawberry, and blackberry flavors and spicy aromatics.

  • Bogle Petite Sirah 2004, California [$11]
    Petite Sirah can have gritty tannins, but its rich blackberry flavors do tend to work pretty well with Thanksgiving dishes. This top value from Bogle has inky purple color; sturdy blueberry, blackberry, and black currant flavors; and a subtle, brambly, viney character.

  • Buena Vista Pinot Noir 2004, Carneros, California [$23]
    Buena Vista really let itself go over the past 10 years, but today the brand is mounting a comeback with much-improved wines. This reasonably priced Pinot Noir has textbook varietal character in its violet and red fruit aromas and cherry, raspberry, café au lait, and tea flavors.

  • Delas Freres 2004 Cotes du Ventoux, France [$11]
    Sometimes you don't want a complicated wine so much as one that just tastes good, like this violet, berry, and spice-flavored red from southern France. It's a fairly typical Rhone Valley blend of Grenache and Syrah; it's just better than most and cheaper than many.

  • Hess Collection Mountain Cuvee 2003, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California [$35]
    Those looking for a more upscale Thanksgiving wine will love this superior quality Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc. It's artfully blended with seamless cassis, blackberry, black cherry, tobacco, and spice flavors and finishes with the mineral flavors and sturdy tannins that give mountain-grown wines an edge over standard valley-floor stuff.

  • J. Lohr "Wildflower" Valdiguie 2005, Monterey County, California [$9]
    Valdiguie is sometimes called "Napa Gamay" because it tastes a little like the wine that Gamay grapes make in Beaujolais: fruity, floral-smelling, and just a little grapey. Jerry Lohr really has a way with this grape, and the pretty blueberry, cherry, cranberry, and violet flavors of this lighter red will be right at home at the Thanksgiving table.

  • Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Pinot Noir 2005, California [$14]
    Laugh all you want, this is a terrific Pinot Noir for the money. It's sold everywhere, and Pinot Noir is probably the most food-friendly red wine there is. It has slightly spicy, elegant cherry and berry flavors, medium body and a very even, soft finish. A very refined wine that doesn't taste the least bit mass-produced.

  • Remy Pannier La Pie 2005, Chinon, France [$16]
    A gem of a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. It might not be the first thing you'd think of for Thanksgiving, but it's a brilliant wine and very food-friendly with fresh-and-fruity rose petal, cherry, and blackberry flavors that are deep, but somehow also rather delicate.

  • Robert Hall Merlot 2004, Paso Robles, California [$17]
    Former Minnesotan Robert Hall and his talented winemaker Don Brady crank out some impeccably balanced wines from their Central Coast headquarters in Paso Robles. Rhone grapes like Syrah are a specialty of the house, but this Merlot often impresses with pretty dried herb and licorice aromas and graceful plum, cola, and raspberry flavors kissed with good-quality oak.

     

  • Veramonte Primus 2004, Casablanca Valley, Chile [$17]
    Veramonte Winemaker Rafael Tirado is a lanky young fellow who vaguely resembles Benicio del Toro. What impresses me about Tirado is how he manages to make really good wines from an impressive array of red and white grapes grown on a single estate. This smoky, spicy, dry red blend made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carmenere has dense blackberry, vanilla, and red bell pepper flavors; perfectly tuned acidity; and moderate tannins, showing lot of class for a wine in this price range.

By Tim Teichgraeber

EXOTIC WHITES

If you're sick of Chardonnay and find yourself confusing Pinot Grigio with your water glass, try one of these flashy, unconventional whites. Some are single-variety wines made from lesser-known grapes, and others are clever blends. They all have something unusual to offer, including a welcome break from the status quo. Ten years from now you'll brag about drinking Torrontes before it was cool.

  • Boutari Moschofilero 2004, Mantinia, Greece [$14]
    Sometimes compared to Gewurztraminer, Moschofilero is an ancient, indigenous Greek grape that still has contemporary appeal. This perfumey white has a nose of white pepper, lavender, and baby's breath flowers, and light pear and lemon flavors. It smells sweet but finishes dry.

  • Bridlewood Reserve Viognier 2005, Central Coast, California [$24]
    Ripe and sweet with tempting pineapple and ginger aromas; a big, round mouthfeel; and generous apple, pineapple, citrus, and spice flavors.

  • Ca' del Solo Malvasia Bianca 2005, Central Coast, California [$13]
    This curious white has earned a well-deserved cult following for its unique lime, lychee, honeysuckle, and citrus flavors.

  • Chateau St. Jean Gewurztraminer 2005, Sonoma County, California [$15]
    Easily and consistently one of the best American Gewurztraminers, with aromas of fresh roses, citrus, spices, candied pear, peach, and green apple flavors that finish long and zesty with just a hint of sweetness.

  • Grove Mill Riesling 2004, Marlborough, New Zealand [$16]
    New Zealand is better known for its Sauvignon Blanc, but its cool climate can produce some pretty good dry Riesling. This one has a pretty nose of lime blossom, paraffin, and green apple, and crisp lemon and grapefruit flavors.

  • Houghton Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc 2005, western Australia [$14]
    If you find French wines too lean and American wines too ripe, try something from western Australia, where the reds and whites are as flavorful as they are elegant, like this mellow, medium-bodied white with fresh citrus, herb, and melon flavors.

  • Inca Torrontes/Chardonnay 2005, Calchaqui Valley, Argentina [$9]
    Argentina's signature white grape, Torrontes, can add a lot of flair to Chardonnay. Grown in high-altitude Andes vineyards, this charming white has sweet clover aromas and fresh tangerine, lemon-lime, and apple flavors.

  • Sokol Blosser Evolution Non-Vintage American White Wine [$17]
    Oregon's Sokol Blosser Winery blends this unique and consistent off-dry white from nine different grape varieties, including Pinot Gris, Muller Thurgau, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer. It smells like white flowers and tastes of green and red apples laced with ginger.

  • Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2004, Paso Robles, California [$27]
    An artful, traditional blend of Rhone varieties from California's Central Coast. Made from Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne, this complex white has lavender, passion fruit, grapefruit, orange blossom, and white pepper aromas; pink grapefruit, white peach, and cherry flavors; and a soft, rounded texture.

  • Tablas Creek Roussanne 2004, Paso Robles, California [$24]
    The Rhone variety Roussanne is usually blended with other grapes, but in the able hands of Tablas Creek it makes an impressive stand-alone wine with a straw-gold color, a luxurious creamy texture, and delicate peach, apricot, citrus, and honey flavors.

  • Terras Gauda Albariño 2005, O Rosal, Rias Baixas, Spain [$25]
    Northwestern Spain's Atlantic coast makes crisp, citrusy, seafood-friendly whites from local Albariño grapes. The best, like this one, have subtle tropical fruit and peach notes and mineral flavors imparted by the granite-rich Galician soils.

  • Wild Horse Viognier 2004, Central Coast, California [$21]
    This winery can be unpredictable and probably makes more wines than it should, but I love this Viognier's jasmine, peach, green tea, grapefruit, and papaya flavors. It's wildly complex, but fresh and perky, not heavy.

  • Folie a Deux Menage a Trois White Table Wine 2005, California [$10]
    A fruity and distinctive white blend that has a sizeable portion of Chardonnay, plus Muscat grapes that add sweet floral aromas and Chenin Blanc that contributes juicy green apple flavors.

By Tim Teichgraeber

WINES to IMPRESS the BOSS

Good taste in wine is one of those indicia of class that's supposed to help one scamper up the business ladder. It hasn't done much for my career, but that's probably because I'm self-employed. If I were bucking for a promotion (which I'm not), and had a boss (which I don't), I'd buy El Jefe something cellar-worthy for the holidays. Yes, famous brands and high prices count when you're shopping for someone else, but these wines are more impressive uncorked than they are unwrapped.

 

  • Bodegas Roda Roda I Reserva Tempranillo 2001, Rioja, Spain [$70]
    Nothing says "classy" like imported, and this import has lots of class. It's the perfect gift for the connoisseur who appreciates being turned on to something entirely new. Smoke, licorice, olive, currant, plum, and black cherry-it's ripe, but also compact, spicy, and plush in the mouth, then finishes with delicacy that you don't see in American wines very often.

  • Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir 2002, Mt. Harlan, California [$43]
    American Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen makes distinctive, somewhat Burgundian wines from his remote vineyards planted in the limestone-rich soils of Mt. Harlan. He releases the wines later than most wineries do, and in most cases they age beautifully. This edition of Mills has subtle milk chocolate, red fruit, and dried herb aromas and agile black cherry, raspberry, and limestone flavors.

  • Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve Non-Vintage Champagne, France [$40]
    Let's assume, or at least hope, that your boss knows the difference between cheap bubbly and the real thing. This is one of the best bargains out there, bursting with bold toast and bread-dough aromas, zesty apple and pear, and nervy, mouthwatering citrus flavors.

  • Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot 2004, Napa Valley, California [$60]
    California makes plenty of mediocre Merlot and scant great ones. This gem has a terrific range of fresh, focused blackberry and boysenberry fruit with subtle gunsmoke aromas. It's intense and precisely balanced-a very serious Merlot.

  • Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia 2003, Napa Valley, California [$165]
    Expensive? You bet. But among the world's thousands of extravagant Cabernets, this is one of the few that consistently backs up its price. Compared with Napa's rarest "cult" Cabernets, it's also relatively easy to get your hands on. Artfully blended from Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec, Insignia is seamless and refined with dense blackberry, black cherry, graphite, coffee, mint, and licorice flavors that will improve with age.

  • Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2004, Monterey County, California [$40]
    The Talbott clan's early fame came from snazzy dress shirts and cufflinks, but the same family makes prized Central Coast Chardonnays. Case in point: this lavish single-vineyard white with luscious butterscotch, vanilla, peach, and nectarine flavors.

  • St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Napa Valley, California [$50]
    Oroppas isn't a mythological reference. It's just the mirror image of St. Clement's former owner: Japanese beverage company Sapporo. Now owned by Foster's, St. Clement continues to make a rich, sophisticated, elegant Cabernet blend under the same name. The 2003 vintage has black cherry, black currant, and coffee flavors with subtle earthy notes, great acidity, subtle minerality, and well-integrated tannins. With Napa Cab prices climbing, it's even starting to look like a comparative bargain.

  • Stag's Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Stag's Leap District, Napa Valley, California [$48]
    There are two wine brands named Stag's Leap, both with deer labels, which is terminally confusing. Fortunately, they both make great Cabernets, so you can't really go wrong. Stag's Leap Winery (not Wine Cellars) makes this classy Cab with great district character to its black cherry, cassis, loam, vanilla, toast, licorice, and mineral flavors. Deep, even, taut, and balanced, it should age nicely for more than a decade.

By Tim Teichgraeber

CHARDONNAY

A little bit of oak aging can add a lot to Chardonnay, but more oak doesn't invariably make a white wine better. This concept, known as the law of diminished new French oak returns, is a relatively recent notion within the American wine-making community. After decades of over-oaked whites, good winemakers are dialing back their use of new oak barrels and finding a better balance between the fruit and oak flavors in Chardonnay. Heck, sometimes they dismiss the oak altogether and pass on the substantial savings to consumers. It's amazing how Chardonnay-like a Chardonnay can taste when it is made in stainless steel vats instead of toasted oak barrels. Plus, when you strip away some of the standard oak flavors, you can suddenly taste the difference between Chardonnays from different parts of the world.

  • Calera Chardonnay 2004, Central Coast, California [$15]
    Francophile Josh Jensen makes this Chardonnay from four different Central Coast vineyards, and his love of Chardonnay from Burgundy shines through in the restrained stone fruit flavors, smoky oak, and even tannin of this white. Hardly your average California Chardonnay.

  • Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay 2004, Willamette Valley, Oregon [$28]
    Oregon is beginning to produce some remarkable Chardonnays that are rather more like those from Burgundy than those from California: taut, fine-boned (dare I suggest age-worthy?) white wines. This reserve white from French-owned Domaine Drouhin has melon, pear, green apple, pineapple, mineral, herb, and vanilla flavors; great acidity; and subtle, well-integrated oak flavors. Great stuff.

     

  • Golden Kaan Chardonnay 2005, Western Cape, South Africa [$10]
    I've been burned by enough South African wines that I now approach them with guarded skepticism. To be honest, I'm not even that enthusiastic about this brand, but the Chardonnay is a keeper. It has fresh pineapple and apple fruit flavors wrapped in a soft swath of butterscotch-a great value.

  • Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay 2005, Marlborough, New Zealand [$17]
    A consistently dazzling and unique Chardonnay from a region better known for its Sauvignon Blanc. This one sees no oak aging and combines exotic peach, tangerine, and papaya flavors, while thorough malolactic fermentation gives it a richer mouthfeel and mellow butterscotch tones.

  • McManis Chardonnay 2005, River Junction, California [$10]
    A terrific value from a cool enclave in California's steamy Central Valley. Rich and zesty Chardonnay with loads of peach and pineapple fruit and a citrusy finish. Unlike a lot of $10 wines, this one doesn't taste like it was cobbled together from leftovers.

  • Morgan Metallico Chardonnay 2005, Monterey, California [$20]
    This unoaked, stainless steel-fermented Chardonnay has become something of a hit for Morgan, proving that cutting against the popular grain can have commercial rewards. This wine is partially rounded out with malolactic fermentation rather than oak, and has pretty white peach, nectarine, and jasmine aromas and flavors that are all Chardonnay, just without the typical wood flavoring.

  • Rex Goliath Chardonnay 2005, California [$9]
    This brand began as a way to salvage the fortunes of the flailing Hahn Estates winery in Monterey County, but quickly became a million-case-a-year brand fueled by overachieving, underpriced wines. The brand was recently sold to wine giant Constellation, but the wines are so far still very good, especially this rock-solid Chardonnay with textbook citrus, apple, and toast flavors.

  • Saintsbury Chardonnay 2005, Carneros, California [$20]
    Saintsbury Winemaker Jerome Chery is French born, and there's a certain French sensibility to this newly released Chardonnay. It's texturally rich, but the exuberance of California fruit is dialed back slightly to mild pear and peach tones, then brought into balance with subtle oak flavors. A restrained and rather atypical California Chardonnay.

  • St. Supery Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, California [$19]
    This winery is arguably better known for its Sauvignon Blanc, but also makes a lovely Chardonnay: restrained, balanced, and flavorful with crisp green apple, pear, and spice flavors.

  • Valley of the Moon Chardonnay 2005, Sonoma County, California [$14]
    Valley of the Moon's wines are much improved across the board, and often are great deals. To wit: this terrific white with focused pear, apple, almond, and vanilla aromas and flavors. It's not flashy or overblown, just a really drinkable, balanced Chardonnay.

  • Vasse Felix Adams Road Chardonnay 2005, Margaret River, Australia [$15]
    Margaret River in western Australia makes some of the most stylish Chardonnay in that country, generally a major step up from the typical southeastern Australia stuff you're probably used to. This moderately priced example combines wild tropical fruit flavors with zingy acidity and just a little bit of toasty oak.

By Tim Teichgraeber

ZINFANDELS

Zinfandel was easily the most popular red grape in California up until Prohibition. Surprisingly, for a grape that makes remarkably good wine, it isn't grown elsewhere much at all. Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley and Napa Valley produce some of the best, but there are great Zinfandels made all around the state, from Los Angeles north to Mendocino County. In the 19th century, growers started blending a little Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Alicante Bouschet into their Zinfandels to deepen the wine's color and add more structure. That homegrown recipe still makes most of the best wines.

  • Cline Zinfandel 2004, California [$10]
    A great value, this affordable Zin is brimming with ripe blueberry, raspberry, and currant fruit flavors and subtle brambly, stemmy notes that add a little complexity and firmness. It's a hearty, unabashedly Californian wine.

  • Cline Live Oak Vineyard Zinfandel 2004, Contra Costa County, California [$25]
    This exotic, single-vineyard wine has lifted eucalyptus and coriander aromas, rich coffee and toast notes, plus long and shimmery blackberry, currant, and cherry fruit flavors.

  • Dashe Zinfandel 2004, Dry Creek Valley, California [$22]
    All good Zins have ripe, sweet fruit, but only the best have elegance. Mike and Anne Dashe make some of California's most refined Zinfandels. Their least expensive Zinfandel bottling has uncommon finesse and rich black cherry, blackberry, chocolate, and black pepper flavors.

  • Dynamite Zinfandel 2003, Mendocino County, California [$17]
    Immediately and effortlessly appealing with raspberry tart, blueberry, cinnamon, and pepper flavors. Sweet-smelling but reined in by nice acidity and gentle tannins that firm up the long finish.

     

  • Kenwood Zinfandel 2003, Sonoma County, California [$20]
    An easy-to-drink Zin with pretty dried herb, cherry, blueberry, raspberry, cinnamon, and cumin aromas and flavors, all nicely layered and buoyed by zesty acidity and braced by firm tannins. Kenwood's wines have improved across the board in recent years.

  • Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Zinfandel 2004, Sonoma Valley, California [$24]
    Darker and denser than this winery's Sonoma County bottling, this delicious single-vineyard Zin has concentrated raspberry, black currant, and plum flavors and rich toast, coconut, and vanilla notes from barrel aging.

  • Lake Sonoma Winery Zinfandel 2003, Dry Creek Valley, California [$20]
    A consistent, reliable Zinfandel. This vintage has pretty olive, dried rose, and coffee aromas, and is packed with sweet berry fruit tempered by just the right amount of acidity and tannin.

  • MonteVina Terra d'Oro Deaver Ranch Zinfandel 2003, Amador County, California [$28]
    This old-vine, single-vineyard Zin from the Sierra Nevada Foothills has briary blackberry, cherry, and cola aromas; lavish blackberry, vanilla, and plum flavors; mineral notes; and grainy tannins, all bathed in a woozy alcoholic glow.

  • Quivira Zinfandel 2004, Dry Creek Valley, California [$15]
    A stylish Dry Creek Zinfandel that delivers great flavor and regional terroir at an unbeatable price. It shows decadent spice-cake aromas and plush blueberry, raspberry, and currant fruit flavors that finish with a peppery kick.

  • Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel 2004, Russian River Valley, California [$27]
    A limited-production, cool-climate Zinfandel from one of Sonoma County's most successful Zinfandel brands, with focused blueberry, boysenberry, and spice aromas; blue, black, and red fruit flavors; and black pepper notes on the finish.

By Tim Teichgraeber


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