- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In an ideal world, wine brands wouldn’t even exist. Each wine would stand or fall on its own merits. That’s because wine, unlike most all other branded products, is a living thing. It changes — from vintage to vintage, bottle to bottle, even glass to glass. No matter the name on the label, no wine will taste the same every time you pour it.

In our actual world, though, few consumers have the time, energy, or wherewithal to evaluate the literally thousands of wines that come onto the market every month. That’s why people so often buy wine by relying on trusted names, labels or brands that have satisfied them in the past.

That strategy makes good sense with wines that follow the traditional European model of being made from grapes grown in a particular vineyard or estate. For example, while Chateau Beaucastel 2003 tastes markedly unlike Chateau Beaucastel 2002, the weather patterns in southern France during those two vintages having been completely different, a common profile links the two. It’s what the French call “terroir,” meaning the nuances of the famed Beaucastel site in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Trusting a name on a label makes less sense when that name appears on a host of different wines, often made from grapes grown in different vineyards. Just because you like the chardonnay from a certain producer doesn’t mean you’ll like the cabernet. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you’ll like the chardonnay next year, when the grape sources may well change.

Yet, although it may not always be the most sensible way to proceed, most consumers frequently choose wines on the basis of brand names. And many large-scale producers advertise, market and otherwise promote their wines as brands. They want you to think of them not in terms of a taste, but in terms of an image — their brand as something to come home to, or to share with your sweetheart, or to enjoy with friends. (There aren’t all that many wine ads on television, but just about all of them promote one of these three images.) Buying wine on the basis of image, though, is silly. After all, wine isn’t something you wear. It’s something you taste, and hopefully savor. Which brands, then, consistently offer wines that, no matter the image they might promote, are worth savoring time and time again?

In my tastings over the years (with an emphasis on recent years), the following four brands stand out. Each offers remarkably consistent quality and value across a range of different wines — red and white, those priced for everyday drinking and those better saved for special occasions. While I’m still not convinced that you should trust any wine brand blindly, these four producers — from Italy, California, France and Chile — have very impressive track records.

FALESCO

Located in Lazio, about 50 miles north of Rome, Falesco is owned by one of Italy’s most accomplished winemakers, Riccardo Cotarella. Mr. Cotarella has consulted for some of the country’s most esteemed producers, but this property is his own baby, so it’s his pride and joy.

Falesco’s estate-grown Montiano, made from 100 percent merlot, tastes luxurious, and ranks with the world’s finest expressions of that grape. Marciliano, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, is also a world-class effort.

Those two wines, however, are made in small volume and are quite costly ($45 and $65, respectively). To my mind, even more impressive are Falesco’s large-volume, value-priced offerings. The Vitiano Rosso ($10), a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese, is one of the finest red wine values anywhere. In blind tastings, it routinely outperforms wines that cost three times as much. The Vitiano Bianco ($10), another tri-part blend (this time verdicchio, vermentino and viognier) is almost as good, and the Rose ($10) tastes extremely refreshing. For aperitif sipping, Falesco’s “Est! Est! Est!” ($8) is delightfully tasty and cheap. (Falesco is imported by Winebow.)

GALLO OF SONOMA

Although some people still don’t know it, Gallo has moved far beyond innocuous jug wine. This huge company (the largest family-owned wine company in the world) still makes plenty of jugs — especially under the E & J Gallo, Livingston Cellars, and Carlo Rossi labels. But at their premium winemaking facility in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, Gallo also produces wines of extremely high quality. Some go under other labels (MacMurray Ranch, for example, or Frei Brothers), but the brand to look for is Gallo of Sonoma.

Gallo of Sonoma offers a number of single-vineyard wines that can compete successfully with the very top wines in California. Although not inexpensive, they are priced quite reasonably when compared to the competition.

Particularly impressive wines — because they are consistent — include the Frei Ranch zinfandel and cabernet ($20 and $30), and the Laguna Ranch chardonnay ($25). This last wine in particular, with its opulent perfume, rich texture and yet firm structure, merits acclaim as one of California’s finest.

Less expensive (all cost about $12) are the Gallo of Sonoma County wines. These are made with some grapes from Gallo’s own vineyards, but also with grapes purchased from growers whose properties are located throughout Sonoma. The wines are always good and, depending on the vintage, can be superb. The series includes cabernet, chardonnay, merlot, pinot gris, pinot noir and zinfandel. All are well worth buying.

GUIGAL

Connoisseurs know Guigal best for this firm’s single-vineyard Cote-Roties — La Landonne, La Mouline, and La Turque. Wildly expensive (upward of $200 a bottle), they unarguably rank among the finest syrah-based wines in the world.

Guigal makes a host of wines from appellations located up and down the Rhone Valley, including a fine St. Joseph, an excellent Hermitage, and an often underrated Chateauneuf-du-Pape. For some reason, the Rhone is that rare wine region in which large producers do as well if not better than small, boutique operations. Of these, Chapoutier, Delas and Jaboulet stand out, but no one stands taller than Guigal.

The three Guigal wines that are most widely available (and affordable) are the three Cotes du Rhones — white, red, and rose. They sell for about $12, and each is an outstanding example of its type. I had the opportunity to taste all three in a lineup of about 40 Cotes du Rhones in August. In each category, the Guigal wine stood out as either the very best or one of the best. (Imported by Ex Cellars.)

SANTA RITA

One of the oldest wineries in Chile, founded in 1880, Santa Rita owns nearly 5,000 acres of vineyards in many of the country’s most important wine-growing regions. The company is one of the leading Chilean wine exporters to the United States, so its wines should be relatively easy to locate.

I taste the complete Santa Rita range every year. The wines range from good to excellent, with disappointments few and far between.

At the entry level, with the wines priced around $7, the 120 series of cabernet, carmenere, chardonnay, merlot, and sauvignon blanc offers fine value. These wines see little or no oak, so they taste primarily of fresh fruit. Of the current 2004 releases, I was especially impressed by the carmenere and sauvignon.

You get even more bang if you spend a few more bucks for wines in Santa Rita’s Reserva series, all of which cost about $12. Using the same grape varieties, the winemakers craft these wines to reflect added complexity — more nuanced aromas and deeper, longer flavors. Always very good, and sometimes outstanding, these are foolproof buys.

Santa Rita also makes a number of super-premium wines, labeled as Medalla Real, Floresta and, at the very top, Casa Real. These can be excellent, and they invariably taste quite Chilean, meaning that they tend to be marked by earthy depth as well as freshness. They do, however, face more competition in the marketplace, as plenty of other producers in Chile and beyond make excellent wines in the $20, $40 and $60 price categories. For overall quality across the entire line of wines, few brands anywhere succeed as well or as often.

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