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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

by John W N Holmes, 2002

Why listen to me on the subject of wines available in America? Well, since you ask, wine was a long-time hobby that got so serious it turned into a business (Classic Wines). I have had a long love-affair and involvement in wine, including judging at the International Wine Challenge in London for a couple of years. Tasting up to 100 wines a day was hell, but someone had to do it! So here goes, the ramblings of two oenophiles in Texas...

The selection of wines made in North America is daunting. It appears that just about every state has its own area where wine production is possible, and each has their own local wines, many of which never get out of the town, never mind the state.

It has to be said that, as with most things in life, there is rarely anything cheap and good. Occasionally you will come across an inexpensive bottle that appeals to your tastebuds. My advice is drink it by the bucket load. Wine appreciation is all about drinking what you like and not what some critic likes. Your taste in wine is as personal as your taste in music or clothes, and we've all seen some good examples of bad taste there.

So what do I look for in a wine? One of my main criteria is repeatability; the ability of a wine to be consistent. The more expensive wines on the market will have better selection processes, storage and quality control. How many times have you tried a wine in a restaurant and found it excellent, only to be disappointed by it when purchasing it from the supermarket and trying it at home? The second criteria is obviously the smell and/or taste. I put these together because for me one of the most exciting aspects of a wine is sniffing and examining the complex structures.

Most of the wines in my selection will cost from about $8.00-$10.00 upwards. The more expensive wines will have maximum of $40-$50, with just a couple of exceptions. These prices are takeaway prices from specialists or a supermarket. The mark-up on good restaurant wines is horrendous in Houston. Plenty of places will sell you wines for $10 or $12 a bottle, but this means it has cost them $4. Do you really want to drink wine that cheap? (Rhetorical!)

I haven't tried to rank the wines by any sort of scoring system. These are just what I would term good wines. As for matching food with wine, there is some common sense that applies, but in the main just drink it and enjoy it. Where there is no vintage mentioned, then assme my consistency criteria has kicked-in, and the current vintage should be worth trying.

Texas

There are three main producers here, namely Llano, Messina Hof and St Genevieve. Perhaps surprisingly, Texas is now the 5th largest producer of wine in the USA, the majority of which comes from these three growers. In a short summary I would say drink the Messina Whites, older Llano reds and take the St Genevieve to parties! The wines are not for keeping, but for enjoying.

One red wine of note is the Llano 1997 Signature Red Meritage ($8), which is a well produced cabernet/cabernet franc based wine. It needs to be decanted, and do not leave it too long before drinking. I have found that Texas wines 'turn' very quickly, hitting their peak after about 30 minutes in a decanter. Another red from their stable that's worth a look is the Texas Passionelle ($10), which is a Rhône-style wine.

Now for the white wines, which are better suited to the warmer climate. Look out for Alamosa Wine Cellar's 1998 Fumé Blanc ($8-10). This wine is predominantly Sauvignon Blanc, so appeals to my more traditional French wine preferences. Serve it well-chilled and it's great with most seafood.

For desert wine look no further than the Messina Hof 2000 Late Harvest Johannisburg Riesling ($17). It has won all sorts of awards, and at 17 bucks won't break the bank.

California

The largest and best-known wine producing area in the USA also produces a lot of dross unfortunately. There are also the so called 'cult' wines, which are sold at outrageous prices. One good example of this is Screaming Eagle. People pay up to $3,000 a bottle for a wine which sold for just $125 on release. But don't panic, there are some wonderful wines from this State, and I will list about 20 each of reds and whites which we have tried and really enjoyed during our stay here. The list is split into two sections, namely "value wines" and "premium wines".

Red value wines (in no particular order)
Talus California Merlot $8
Pepperwood Grove Syrah $8
Berringer California Nouveau $8
Stanislaus Country Barrel Select Merlot $9
Corbett Canyon Reserve Merlot $10
Villa Mt Eden Syrah $10
Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon $10
Pine Ridge Crimson Creek Merlot $20
Cline 1998 Zinfandel $15

White Value Wines
Ironstone Obsession Symphony $8
Talus Californian Semmilon/Chardonnay $8
Cline Cotes D'Oakley $9
Geyser Peak Sonoma County Sauvignoin Blanc $9
Navarro Mendoccino Chenin Blanc $10
Forest Glen Barrel Fermented Chardonnay $10

Premium Reds
Sterling Vinyards Cabernet Sauvignon $22
Rocking Horse Howell Mountain Zinfandel $25
Qupe Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Syrah $35
Wild Horse Pinot Noir $25
Ridge Montebello $105 (yes, believe me it is worth it!)
Opus One $90 (if you can find it)

Premium Whites
Flowers Chardonay $40
La Crema Chardonnay $20
Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard $50
Araujo Napa Valley Sauvignon $25
Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley $15

Desert wines
For me there is really only one Californian Desert wine to try: Quady Essencia, for about $15

Rest of the Americas

Some of the best wines for sale in the USA come from Chile and Argentina. In recent years the Chilean wine producing fraternity has really improved their quality of output by employing both French and Australian expertise within the major growers. One good example of this is Conch y Toro. In years gone by it was the party bottle no-one wanted to drink, complete with white plastic bull hanging from its neck. Since their partnerships (including with Mouton-Rothschild) the wines have grown apace. Robert Mondavi is in partnership with Vina Errazuriz, producing Caliterra wines and Sena, a wine modelled after Opus One. Château Lafite-Rothschild owns a chunk of the Los Vascos winery. This pedigree suggests these wines should be taken seriously. A personal favourite is Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon ($18). Beware there is also a Montes (without the 'Alpha'), which is a lower standard.

Argentina planted loads of Malbec in recent years. These are now coming to fruition. Watch out for pure Argentinean Malbec. It's a treat.

I should not really say too much about the heavenly liquid that is Canadian Icewine. There is too little of it to go round already, and when I find it, I want to buy as much as I can! It is a superb desert wine by any standards, and in any guise (several different grapes are used, by many producers).

Red Wines to look out for
1995 Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Trio $9
1994 Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Vineyard Don Melchor $23
1998/9 Montes Alpha $18
1998 Montes Alpha 'M' $50 (M for Mouton Rotschild)
1995 Rapel Valley Cuvee Alexandre Merlot ($15)
1999 Trapiche Red Cabernet Sauvignon $9
1996 Bodegas Norton Mendoza Privada $12

Champagne style
The french have taken great steps to protect their Champagne "brand". The result is that American sparkling wines have had to come up with very inventive names. There are some good ones around, but beware… Most of the sparkling wine sold for the US market is likely to be sweetened. Even the classic French Champagnes have export models (like Moet Black Star) which have added sugar. This comes as a bit of a shock on first taste, as for me this reduces quality champagne to Cava level. For a true unsweetened taste I have found Kristone 1992 Method Champenoise at $10 to be an excellent all round Champagne-style. Don't be put off by the price: this is a quality drink and would, in my opinion, be worthy of a medal in the International Wine Challenge.

So in a few short paragraphs I have tried to give you a summary of North American wines as viewed (and of course, drunk) by two wine-loving Brits abroad! What it really goes to show is that there are a lot of wines out there to try. I'd love to here from you regarding experiences. I always love to talk wine. We miss our cellar in the UK, but have found some excellent replacements here in USA. Remember there are over 850 producers in California alone, producing over 400 million gallons of wine. You must find one you like.

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