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The All Purpose Tasting Panel

by Sara & Monty Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve: It was rainy and cool in the theatre district of New York when we stopped by Pomaire, billed as “the only Chilean restaurant in New York.” The owner, Denic Catalan, made sure we enjoyed the food and service, but who knew that our favorite wine of the month would be a spectacular Chilean Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley? The 2004 Concha y Toro Amelia Private Reserve El Triangulo Vineyard ($35) seemed to reflect a true merging of prototypical French and California styles, with a medium creamy body, an intense nose of grapefruit and pear, complex fruit (apples and figs) and minerals in the middle, and a smooth finish. There was just enough smoke and wood to please California lover or Francophile. Drink this with most any dish, whether fish, fowl, or meat. We think it stands up to all.

The All Purpose Tasting Panel

As do most wine writers, we attend wine functions of every type imaginable. From the intimate dinner of 10 or 12 with a single winemaker showing his or her product, to the mid-size half day tasting of hundreds of wines, to the gargantuan fests of two or three days sponsored by distributors and cities, we enjoy them all for what they are.

Yet perhaps nothing makes us happier than an evening with a group of 12 to 16 sharing and blindly rating various selected wines. What a way to spend a few hours with old friends, or, for people at the table you didn’t know before the event began, new friends by the time everyone finishes drinking, eating, evaluating, scoring, and discussing. But laughter, camaraderie, and good times are only a fraction of a panel’s value to a writer. We find it most helpful in judging wines to sip and debate the qualities and deficiencies with other people, and the “others” do not have to all be professionals. After all, it is the average consumer that buys the most wine, and it can be most enlightening to hear his or her take on a wine the pros are certain is good or bad.

Recently we hosted such a panel to taste a number of wines that had been forwarded to us for this purpose by such well known wineries as Ridge, Napa Cellars, Rodney Strong, and Raymond (which will not be covered here due to the unfortunate cork taint found in its most expensive wine of the evening).

Before opening the bottles from California, we offered a flight comprised of six wines made from the still little-known-but-gaining-in-popularity grape called Albarino (al ba REEN yo). These crisp and delicate white wines, all from different producers, were shipped to us for the tasting by representatives of the Spanish wine industry, which knows that Albarinos are appearing on more and more restaurant wines lists with good reason - they are a delicious and economical alternative to many of the better known varietals.

Albarino makes up 90% of the grape plantings in the Rias Biaxas (REE ahs BY shuss) region of Spain.Whenone visualizesSpanish terrain, arid mesas and dry heat generally come to mind (My Fair Lady or not, not much rain falls on those plains).Rias Biaxas, however, is in the northwest portion of Galicia (think Gaelic and Ireland), and lying on the coastas it does the landscape iswonderfully green and moist.

In this seaside region, the docks are loaded with fresh catch - much of it scallops and other shellfish – so it is natural that the local wine (Albarino, of course) would be developed as a perfect match.We highly recommend that you taste this varietal, and when doing so suggest you look for a combination of fresh crisp seaside flavors tempered with lemony citrus, and softened with tones of peaches and honeysuckle. The favorites at our tasting were:

2004 Terras Gauda Albarino ($19), which was the “chosen one” by 2:1

2004 Terras Gauda "Abadia de San Campio"($15)

2004 Marqus de Vizhoja "Torre la Oreira"($15)

2004 La Val "Orballo" ($20)

And while we know you always carry this column in your back pocket or purse, just in case you forget to take it with you and crave an Albarino when you cannot remember the names of the producers above, a personal favorite (not included in the tasting), is a Martin Codax "Burgans" (about $13). The label is green and orange and sort of Irish - easy to recognize.Pair with a few courses of scallops and other seafood, or a hearty fish stew, and simply savor the experience.

Back at our house, a surprise to many on the panel, though not necessarily to us since we have been drinking and writing about their wines for years, was the strong showing of Napa Cellars. In almost every category where it competed this wine was preferred by a vast majority of the panel. In fact, that winery can expect some new orders from Boca Raton any day now. The following, then, were not only excellent to palate of pro and amateur alike, but are terrific bargains:

-2004 Napa Cellars Napa Chardonnay ($22)

-2003 Napa Cellars Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($26)

-2003 Napa Cellars Napa Zinfandel ($23)

Usually showing well in tastings, whether they be blind or not, are the wines of Rodney Strong. Only one was included this evening, and for lovers of soft, round, buttery Chardonnay, the 2003 Chalk Hill ($19) from Sonoma is always a sound choice.

Also striking the right notes for most of us were the Ridge Vineyards 2003 Napa York Creek ($28) and 2003 Paso Robles Dusi Ranch ($28) Zinfandels, though we thought this winery’s majority-of-Zinfandel blends were the wines that really shined. Legendary winemaker Paul Draper is a master of Zinfandels, and he believes the Ridge product will last 8 to 10 years, though he feels all Zins not only show best in the first five, but are the crème de la crème of red varietals in those early years. Highly recommended, then, are:

-2002 Ridge Sonoma Geyserville ($33)

-2003 Ridge Sonoma Three Valleys ($20)

-2003 Ridge Dry Creek Valley Lytton Springs ($33)

While positive surprises are aplenty in blind tastings, alas, there are some that go the other way. Such was the case with two of the stand alone Zins, as well as the two other varietals sent by Ridge. Despite proper cellaring, and even with a re-tasting, the majority of the panel (including us) was unfortunately quite disappointed since we have come to expect such high quality from this excellent winery. This night, we concluded that the Ridge’s 2002 Home Ranch Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) and the 2003 Monte Bello Chardonnay ($50) are simply not the winery’s best vintages. As mentioned, these were tasted blindly, and when we saw the price, it was even more disheartening.

Thanks to one of our guests, Tony Caira of Prestige Wine Imports, we recently had the good fortune to join Gruppo Mezzacorona winemaker Lucio Matricardi for a delicious dinner at Sapori in Boca Raton. At that function we discovered some excellent Italian wine values (in fact, it constantly amazes us how some can sell quality products for such low prices). We can happily suggest you try the 2004 Chardonnay Vionello, a wine with good acidity, a ripe apple nose, good balance, and a penchant for accompanying a savory scallop dish such as the one prepared by Sapori chef/owner Marco Pindo. Just as nice, especially paired with the freshest grilled shrimp in town, was the 2005 Pinot Grigio Classico, with its classically crisp front and fruity mid palate. The best part? Both these wines sell for just $8.00.

Only a baby step upward in price is the Feudo Arancio label from Sicily. Its 2003 Grillo ($12)- yes, that is the grape name - is a lovely combo of peaches and tangerines with beach minerality and river rock undertones.We thought it a great match for cooked shellfish, grilled fish, or chicken.The 2003 Feudo Arancio Merlot ($12) begins with licorice and black cherries, and opens to soft red and black fruit.A value sipper if we ever saw one. As for the 2004 Feudo Arancio Chardonnay ($12), we threw it in as a sort of “ringer” at our tasting to see how it would do against several high priced California Chards, and it besteda number of them on many score sheets. You gotta try it!

When you host a tasting party, of course you have to serve something to your discerning guests when they arrive. Besides the still wines mentioned above, at Sapori we were impressed with the N/V Rotari Sparkling Blanc de Noir, also crafted by Lucio Matricardi. This lovely pale peach sparkler, produced in the Metodo Classico (in French: Methode Champenoise) style, is a steal at $12, and served as it was with parmesan and proscutte, it was a nice entry into the meal. At our own party we chosetwo other Metodo Classico sparklers from Rotari to pour prior to the formalities, and not only we, but the entire group, lauded these endeavors. The dry, crisp Rotari Arte Italiana ($12) combines apple, pear, and toast for a perfect aperitif. The vintage Riserva, for only a few dollars more,offers nutty stone fruit flavors layered with vanilla and honeysuckle.

You should feel free to experiment with your friends by tasting with them, both on a blind and a non blind basis. You will be surprised at how much you will probably like many wines that don’t necessarily have the high ticket, and, if you like them, that’s all that counts.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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