Last month, during the December holidays, we rediscovered how blessed it is to give. This month we found exactly how it feels to receive -- the bills, that is, from the previous month's generosity.
Not to worry -- there is no shortage of superb wines that can be purchased with little more than pocket change. To prove the point, I offer up three of the choicest bargain reds I've come across in quite a while. Having had the privilege of drinking a number of very good and very expensive reds during the holiday festivities, I was extra impressed by how well these wines showed in my first post-holiday tastings. Reining in expenses may be painful in some areas, but I am pleased to report that careful wine shoppers can please themselves and their dinner guests without a care. (Please note, prices are approximate.)
* Sebastiani 2001 or 2000 Pinot Noir "Sonoma Coast" ($15; California): Every year I taste dozens upon dozens of Pinot Noirs in pursuit of one elusive goal -- to find a wine that provides the joy of a Romanee-Conti Burgundy, for less than $20. Since Romanee-Conti (considered the finest red Burgundy of all, with the possible exception of La Tache, the adjacent vineyard owned by the same domain) runs about $800 a bottle these days, I expect I will be tilting at this windmill for quite some time.
This is not to say that there is not a fair number of tasty under-$20 Pinot Noirs. Some are actually quite enjoyable. It's just that very few taste much like classic Pinot Noir, let alone Romanee-Conti.
What is this taste? Books have been written about the flavor of Romanee-Conti, but essentially, it's an otherworldly purity of fruit that somehow manages to be mouth-coatingly full, yet supple and delicate at the same time. Remarkably, Sebastiani's 2000 and the slightly superior 2001 manage to pull off the "RC" balancing act with considerable aplomb. Let's be clear, however. Sebastiani is no Romanee-Conti. But the fact is, few French Burgundies and still fewer American Pinot Noirs under $30 that I have run across do the job nearly as well.
Sebastiani winemaker Mark Lyon has been very clever with this wine. French law requires that red Burgundy be 100 percent Pinot Noir, and most American wineries follow suit, mostly as a matter of pride, I suppose. Lyon and his team, working to produce a quality bottle at an affordable price, can't afford such bravado. Instead of slavishly following the 100 percent Pinot Noir recipe, they have produced a better wine by departing slightly from the standard formula. Although the Sonoma Coast bottling is still over 85 percent Pinot Noir, most of the remainder is Petite Sirah. The choice of Petite Sirah as a blending grape is a master stroke. Known in France as the Duriff, Petite Sirah, which is unrelated to the popular Syrah/Shiraz, may be the world's most underrated red grape. (Doubters are advised to try the Petite Sirahs of Stags' Leap Winery or of Guenoc). Darkly fruity on the palate and super-ripe on the nose, Petite Sirah can be a bit heavy on its own. But it perfectly fills the holes, and rounds off the rough edges of Pinot Noirs that have had the misfortune to be born outside the 4.3 acres of the Romanee-Conti monopole.
That said, the Pinot Noir grapes for this wine do come from superior vineyards sites, including Dutton Ranch, Cuneo and Sebastiani's own holdings in Carneros. All fall within the new Sonoma Coast sub-appellation of Sonoma County. Cooler than average for Sonoma, Sonoma Coast looks to be quite promising for Pinot Noir.
While no one is advised to trade in his or her Romanee-Conti '69 on some Sebastiani, there is no denying that the Sebastiani is sensational for the price. Lush and soft in texture on the entry, the flavors of bright cherries expand delectably over the palate. The nose is nuanced by smoky spice and vanilla notes, which come from a judiciously short five months of aging in medium to heavily "toasted" French and Hungarian oak barrels. In short, this is a cleverly made wine, from good vineyards, offered at a fair price.
Unlike Romanee-Conti, however, this up-front, forward-style of Pinot Noir is not meant to be aged. Deliciously drinkable now, it should be enjoyed tonight with roast duck, grilled salmon, chicken, or pasta in tomato/pesto sauce.
* Promessa (A. Mano) 2000/2001 Rosso Salento ($9; Apulia, Italy): Quite distinct from the more familiar reds of northern Italy, such as Chianti and Valpolicella, the wines of Apulia, in the south, are full throttle and hearty. While such depth and power provide a natural advantage, the hard part has been keeping this raw intensity under control, to avoid producing wines that are clumsy, alcoholic and raisiny. American oenologist Mark Shannon appears to have solved the problem, successfully marrying state-of-the-art California technology (jacketed rotary fermenters, heat exchangers and stainless-steel fermentation vats) with Apulian tradition and old-vine terroir. Promessa is an all-Apulian blend of 70 percent Negroamaro and 30 percent Primitivo grapes grown in the sultry Salento peninsula, the "heel" of the so-called Italian boot. Deep ruby in color, this wine bursts forth with solid, strikingly aromatic fruit. The texture is velvety and soft, with subtle earth, tar and wood flavors to add complexity to the abundant fruit. Although this medium to full-bodied wine will not fall apart in your cellar, it is at its best now, in the full exuberance of its youth. (Imported by Empson USA).
* El Coto 1999 Rioja Crianza ($12; Spain): Made from 100 percent Tempranillo aged in traditional American oak barrels, this light-to-medium-bodied Rioja offers ripe aromas of plums, cherry and sweet oak. Aristocratically lean in a Margaux sort of way, this wine shows its best on the dinner table paired with poultry and light meat dishes, where its gentle fruit and good acidity complement rather than compete with the cuisine. A long finish of moderate tannins and dried cherries adds an extra touch of elegance. A fine value. (Imported by Frederick Wildman)
Ask the Wine Guys
Wondering what to serve? How to grab the wine list first at a business dinner? Send your questions to Michael Franz or Ben Giliberti. By mail: Wine Column, Food Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. By e-mail: email@example.com. Direct your question to Michael, Ben or both. Questions may be answered in future columns but the volume of mail prohibits the columnists from responding personally to each question.