Life is too short to drink bad wine, and apparently even shorter for those who don't drink red wine. Red wine (and according to a recent study, red grape juice) helps keep your artery walls clean and your platelets less sticky, which is good for your heart. I can't assist you with the grape juice (never touch the stuff), but my recent tastings have uncovered many delectable, heart-healthy red wines. In my list of favorite new releases, below, I've set a $12 price limit, as I suspect we're going to need every buck as we make our way to our 100th birthday parties.
In keeping with the Mediterranean diet, the list is composed of wines from Mediterranean climates. Because such climates are warm, sunny and sultry, the grapes get ultra-ripe, lending the wines a mellow spiciness along with high levels of fruit. Unlike wines grown in cooler regions, such as Burgundy and Bordeaux, the acidity is usually lower, and the tannins, though often full bodied, are typically ripe and soft. One can't help but think that the soft, easygoing character of these wines contributes to the relaxed Mediterranean pace of life, which may do as much to keep hearts ticking happily as anything in the wine.
These generous wines are meant to be enjoyed with good food. Most have what the French call a "rotie," or roasted flavor: a hint of roast nuts, mocha, chestnuts and wild spices. That lends them to matches with cassoulet, sausage or slow-cooked stews of beef or poultry. On the other hand, the high fruit levels allow them to work well with an impromptu stir-fry of vegetables, or a quick pasta dish with red sauce.
The following wines, listed in order of preference, are all highly recommended. Prices are approximate. Retailers may order from the wholesaler listed in parentheses.
Chateau de Segries Lirac 1998 "Cuvee Reservee" ($9; France): This estate continues to turn out sensational wines at bargain prices. Big and mouth-filling, this wine explodes with masses of ripe strawberry fruit, jazzed up by notes of spice and cassis. If there is one wine you don't want to miss this season, this is it. A knockout. (Kysela Pere et Fils)
Chateau de Jau 1998 Cotes du Roussillon-Villages ($12; France): This silky wine from Languedoc-Roussillon has distinct flair in an elegant, claret style. The fruit flavors are plummy and berry-like, with a subtle undercurrent of vanilla. Perfect for filling the crystal at your next dinner party. (Martin Sinkoff Imports)
Argiolas 1996 Perdera ($9; Italy): Made from the native Monica grape grown on hillside vineyards on the island-paradise of Sardinia, this deep ruby wine has intense aromas of spice and violets. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied but nicely rounded, with a finishing note of new French oak. Has that expensive taste at a modest price. Another excellent choice is its sister wine, the Argiolas 1996 Costera ($12; Italy), which is made from the Cannonau grape. It's a bit less fruity in the aftertaste, but has a bit more of the tannic structure needed to cut through fattier red meat dishes, such as roast lamb. (Winebow)
Chateau Rouquette Sur Mer 1998 "La Clape" ($9; France): Ah, the joy of native Languedoc grapes--Grenache, Syrah, and Carignane--without any oak barrels to mask the interplay of wild herbs, berries and smoke. From what is considered the best soil of this part of the Languedoc, this is classic country French, full of character but also with Gallic refinement. (Kacher Selections)
Domaine des Lambertins 1997 Vacqueyras ($10-$12; France): Like its neighbors in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, Vacqueyras produces dark, full-bodied wines that demand hearty fare to show their best. This deep purple wine is loaded with peppery blackberry fruit and has a firm, tannic finish. Enjoyable now, this will blossom beautifully with a year or two in the cellar. (Vinifrance Imports; Olivier Daubresse Selections)
Santa Julia 1997 Malbec ($8; Argentina): Not all Mediterranean- style wines hail from the old world. Argentina has a long tradition of Italian winemaking, and the sun-drenched Mendoza region can produce red wines with flavors as "rotie" as anything from Italy, France, Algeria or Lebanon. Malbec may be Argentina's forte, as this mellow example has oodles of soft, mocha and spice box-nuanced fruit in a charmingly light, balanced style. Surprisingly good. (Franklin Selections)
Librandi 1997 Ciro Rosso ($9; Italy): From Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, Ciro Rosso is a unique wine with a distinct raisiny quality reminiscent of wines made from dried grapes, such as Amarone. On the palate, fresh fig flavors meld with hints of chocolate and dates. Matched with spicy sausage, Pecorino or other sharp cheeses, it's enough to make the heart beat faster. (Winebow)