Wine: Unexpected American reds

Unexpected American RedsMost wines produced in the United States are made as single grape (varietal) wines from a rather limited number of grapes.

But as wine drinkers become more adventurous, wineries are exploring less-frequently planted grapes to create blends — a common practice in Europe, but one that’s still relatively unusual here. This month’s column concerns both types; these wines will often be found under the “Interesting Reds” label.

The grape Blaufränkisch (“Blue Franc”) is grown mainly in Austria. But the Steele Winery in California has a 2008 Shooting Star Blue Franc that’s nice example — and a better value than an Austrian import. It’s a light red, scarcely oaked to make it appealingly fruity, and with light tannins that lead to a clean, dry finish. It’s ideal for salmon or chicken.

Fess Parker (you may know him as Davy Crockett) translated his TV success to investment in the Santa Ynez Valley in the earliest days of its development as a wine region. His winery, now run by his children, introduced its blend, Frontier Red, a decade ago. Like many wines from Southern France, it’s based on syrah, but contains an interestingly individual mix of grapes, many of which would not be found together in a typical French wine. While the detailed flavors do vary from lot to lot, the wine can be relied on for a lively and gutsy flavor with an agreeably smooth finish. It goes well with simple, flavorful food, such as panini or really good hamburgers.

For a more sophisticated blend, try the 2006 Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée. The winery, also located in the Santa Ynez region, mainly produces single varietals but has features developed blends — in this case based on the mix found in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but costing much less. The principal grape is Grenache, together with Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Cinsault. The grapes are fermented separately and then assembled for the final blend. The deep red color and the intense aromas of dark fruit promise a powerful yet food-friendly wine; the flavors of the different grapes integrate nicely and there’s a smoothness that comes from both the 16-month oak-barrel aging process and not rushing the wine to market after bottling.

Grenache, or Garnacha as it’s called in Spain where it originated, is more often the basis of a blend but is sometimes bottled as a single varietal. This occurs most often in Spain but has been known to take place at a few Californian wineries, one of which is Quivira. Depending on where the grapes are grown, the age of the vines and the approach of the winemaker, the wine can exhibit a broad spectrum of flavors, everything from dark and intense to light and fruity. The Quivira 2007 Grenache is made somewhere in the middle of this range and has a lighter red color than the Z Cuvée. While it spends 15 months in oak for smoothness, only 10% of the barrels are new, preserving the fruitiness of the wine and helping it pair well with lamb or duck. This grape is gathering increasing attention these days; some even suggest it could emerg  as the next Pinot Noir.

Where to Find Them (Distributors in parenthesis): the Blue Franc (RNDC) is $12 at Rollers and on the list at the Old Oyster Factory; the Frontier Red (Aleph) is $11-13 at Down the Hatch and World Market; the Z Cuvée (RNDC) is $19-22 at Belfair Fine Wines, Island Spirits and Fine Wines, and Rollers and on the list at Antonio’s, Aqua, and Il Carpaccio; and the Quivira Grenache (Grassroots) is $27 at Rollers.