Sunday, June 03, 2001

School-day wines still OK today

By John Vankat
Enquirer contributor

        Recently, I've been thinking about the wines that got me started — Almaden, Paul Masson and Gallo. Although I enjoyed these wines as a graduate student, what would I think of them as a wine writer?

        Unfortunately, I can't go back and taste exactly the same wines because they, like I, have changed over the years. But I could find the current versions, assuming I wouldn't mind someone peering into my shopping cart and exclaiming, “So this is what the Enquirer wine columnist really drinks!”

        After buying a few bottles to revisit, I put the wines through my normal tasting regimen. Here's what I found on my nostalgia trip.

The wines

        I drank various Almaden wines in school, but I chose Almaden non-vintage “Mountain Chablis, California” ($6.50). The wine lacked color, but I was pleasantly surprised with its light-to-medium aromas and flavors and even more impressed with the acidity that nearly balanced its medium-sweet flavors. Unlike its chardonnay namesake from France, this “chablis” is a blend of mostly chenin blanc and French colombard.

        Another popular winery for me was Paul Masson, so I purchased Paul Masson non-vintage “Chablis, California” ($5). This blend of French colombard and chenin blanc edged out the Almaden in terms of color, but didn't have much fruit in the nose. It's also drier than the Almaden, but, nevertheless, too low in acidity.

        Blue Nun entered my life later but was still part of my formative years. Of the three white wines I tasted, Sichel Sohne 1999 “Blue Nun, Rheinhessen” ($10.50) had the most color, the most enjoyable nose, the fullest body (verging on medium) and the most forward fruit. Despite some acidity, sweetness predominated in this blend of mostly muller-thurgau, riesling and sylvaner.

        For reds, I included my favorite wine from the late 1960s, Gallo non-vintage “Hearty Burgundy, Twin Valley, California” ($6). Today, this blend of mostly zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon (plus barbera and syrah) has light color and medium-intense aromas and flavors. Good fruit and reasonable balance make it a pleasant choice to accompany pizza and burgers. Hmmm . . . some things don't change.

        Of course my retro-tasting wouldn't be complete without a wine in a basket, so I chose Graziosi 1998 “Chianti” ($8). It had reasonable color for a chianti, medium-light aromas and flavors, and surprisingly good balance. As I did years ago, I'd serve it with a plateful of spaghetti and garlic bread — and use the empty bottle as a candlestick holder.

        Unfortunately, I didn't find two others from my wine youth — Mateus and Lancers — in Oxford. I can't comprehend how today's college students can pass into adulthood without these classic wines.

The finish

        I confess that I began this tasting with mixed feelings. I knew the nostalgia would be fun, but feared there would be major faults with the wines. What I found surprised me.

        Of course, the wines didn't have much depth and refinement, and I can't say I really liked any of them. But all were drinkable, reasonably well-made and lacked serious flaws. With the exception of Blue Nun, none struck me as overly sweet. Moreover, all had some balancing acidity and were longer on the finish than expected.

        This return to my wine roots was enjoyable, proving that contrary to Thomas Wolfe's literary admonition, “I could go home again.”


       Contact John Vankat by mail: c/o Cincinnati Enquirer; phone: (800) 524-1005; fax: 768-8330.


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