Thursday, September 28, 2006

Raise your Riesling steins...

Images of Oktoberfest -- overflowing beer steins, overweight men in lederhosen, Chad Johnson leading the chicken dance, and…wine?

Yep. No celebration of Oktoberfest would be complete without a discussion of German wine -- at least not in this space.

German wines are easy enough to understand. You start with one word and go from there:


There are other grapes grown in Germany -- a couple of white varietals, and I've seen a rare bottle of rosé or red from that corner of the world. None of them, however, have the tradition or quality of the Riesling grape grown in the valleys of the Rhine and Mosel rivers.

Until recently, German wines have been marketed sparingly to American consumers -- partly due to the steadfast German tradition of not including a translation guide to the labels for we U.S. monoglots. While some German wineries have started doing "easier to understand" labels, we need a quick German vocabulary lesson in the interim.

Most people think of Riesling as sweet wine. A good number of them are not. German vintners are very helpful -- they give you a fair idea of what you're getting before you open the bottle. If you see the lone word "Riesling" on a bottle, you can be certain that the wine will be somewhat sweet.If you see "trocken" on a bottle -- this means "dry." Many trocken Rieslings taste almost like sauvignon blancs. "Halbtrocken" means "half-dry" (or "demi-sweet" if you prefer). Almost all Rieslings have pronounced fruit characteristics -- apple, pear, and citrus are most common.

German wine law also requires a vintner to identify the quality and style of wine they're producing. There are two major classes of German wine -- Tafelwein (table wine), rarely seen in the United States, and Qualitätswein (quality wine), which includes almost everything you'll find in a typical store. Within the Qualitätswein designation, there are two sub-classes. I won't go into the German, but the labels include their respective abbreviations: QbA and QmP.

Any German wine from one of the thirteen major wine regions (the four top ones are Rheinhessen, Rheingau, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and Pfalz) that's ranked as "basic quality wine" will be labeled QbA.

QmP wines, though -- are the really good ones. They are given one of the following designations in increasing level of quality: Kabinett (usually light and semi-dry), Spätlese (medium style, with more body and a more intense flavor from a little extra ripening of the grapes), and Auslese (full-style, made from hand-picked grapes that are well-ripened). There are other designations above these three -- but they're going to be out of the price range of the Vine. If you get one of those three designations, you'll have a solid product.

As a side note, Germany is the world's foremost producer of Eiswein (Ice Wine) -- which is a delicious dessert wine made from grapes left on the vine until they freeze. Definitely worth trying sometime.

Riesling may be one of the world's most food-friendly wines. While Riesling makes a good aperitif or dessert wine, you can pair one with just about anything. A Spatlese halbtrocken will go with just about anything -- from chicken to pork to roasted vegetables to smoked salmon, or real wine killers like asparagus. I've done a Riesling with cream of Portobello mushroom soup, and it was fabulous. Drier Rieslings are probably the best pairing on the planet for spicy Thai, Chinese, or Indian dishes -- especially if they're loaded with ginger or curry. About the only thing I absolutely wouldn't have a Riesling with would be a good cut of steak. But if you want goulash or stroganoff, you'll be in business.

I'm going to taste three Rieslings here. Doing a side-by-side-by-side tasting would prove fascinating, as you can easily taste the difference among different "preparations" of similar grapes from a relatively small area.

Schmitt Sohne 2005 Riesling Spätlese -- One of the more inexpensive Spätleses that you'll find on the market, Schmitt Sohne's offerings are easily recognizable by the smiley-faced sun on the front of the bottle (not to be confused with "Mr. Smiley" of the former Kentucky license plates). Schmitt Sohne is the largest German exporter (in terms of volume) to the U.S. As I mentioned, a "Spätlese" definition means that the grapes ripened a bit more, meaning more sugar in the grapes, a higher alcohol content, and generally a more complex flavor. The nose of this is a bit less pronounced than many regular Rieslings -- with a combination of apple and wood. The wine hits your tongue with a sweet punch of apples and honey, which then quickly turns citrusy in its very full body. The taste (nectarines?) melts easily into the finish of the wine, which is long and tart -- with just a hint of spice at the very end. A good strong cheese and some apples with this wine would make a fabulous dessert -- made even better by the fact that you paid $8-10 for the bottle. A great way to end a meal or start a picnic.

Bollig-Lehnert 2004 Riesling Kabinett -- A good, solid choice if you're going to be looking for a Kabinett. Inside this traditional green tapered bottle lies a very respectable wine. The nose of this wine carries extremely clean fragrances -- a little fruit and springtime. The first taste of the wine is very gentle and fruity, but not overwhelmingly sweet. (I'm surprised that this didn't get a "halbtrocken" designation.) The overall flavor is full of peaches and honey -- full bodied and long lasting. The finish ends with a quick uptick of tartness. The wine is extremely complex -- you may find yourself tasting slightly different things from sip to sip, which isn't uncommon with Riesling. Foodwise, this may be one of the most flexible wines you can run into. It's not so sweet that you couldn't have it with a basic chicken or pork dish -- but this would work extremely well with peppery food. Mexican food, especially a spicy enchilada sauce or any kind of salsa, would be a nice complement for the fruity backbone of this wine. It'll set you back $11-14, but if you need an extremely flexible wine -- for instance, if you just don't know what you're having for dinner, or you're out and you want a bottle for several people, this is a great choice.

Selbach 2004 Riesling Dry -- As Riesling continues its resurgence among American consumers, savvy German winemakers are making some changes in their labeling. Much as some of the French producers now put the grape varietal on the bottle to increase their market share in the States, so are German winemakers giving monolingual Americans a little more of a hint as to what they're drinking. A few years ago, this wine would simply have been labeled "trocken." You'll recognize the Selbach immediately by the multicolored, stylized fish on the bottle. The wine has an initial clean scent of pineapples. Once it hits your tongue, though, you know you've got a completely different animal than our previous two selections. This wine is very dry, with fresh lemon and tart apples on your tongue. While the wine is quite full-bodied, it's not nearly as fat as the other two wines I've mentioned. The finish is light and crisp with a lingering tartness. This wine is really best enjoyed with food. Dry Rieslings tend to be less complex than their cousins, and they're really a bit too dry by my tastes for either before or after dinner. But if you have this with a meal -- anything loaded with garlic and spice will be balanced exceptionally by this wine. As you've undoubtedly picked up, I love Thai cooking -- and this wine seems to be created specifically as a food pairing for lemongrass and fish sauce. Sushi also works exceptionally well with the Selbach. It's been a favorite of mine for quite some time. $8-11.

Until next time -- Zum Wohl!

Friday, September 22, 2006

"To cellar, perchance to dream..."

Wine cellar.

Wonderful words -- evoking an air of distinction, privilege, and, most importantly, a ready store of really good vintage for on-hand consumption. Realistically, these two words are a fantasy for most of the wine drinking world, and they should be -- especially for those of us who don’t want to break the bank.

As you probably already know, wine's natural enemies are heat, light, and exposure to oxygen. If Sherman set the Wayback Machine to the early days of winemaking, someone discovered that wine kept in a cave lasted longer and the flavor often improved over time. Underground, wine is obviously protected from light, stays at a constant temperature, and the stable humidity prevents the cork (or other stopper) from drying out, thus keeping the wine nice, cozy, and unoxidized until brought out and opened. Many of us try to emulate the "cave" with what we have handy -- usually a hall closet or basement. We may even install or build a rack or two to keep the bottles organized. Alas, we're generally doomed to failure.

Wine, like a Florida retiree, is extremely sensitive to temperature change. The optimal storage temperature for wine is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the proper chemical reactions to take place, producing the flavors we love so much. Once a wine gets warmer, the chemical reactions speed up. This not only ages the wine more quickly, but it can throw the balance of flavors seriously out of whack. At a constant 70 degrees, a wine will age between two and eight times faster than at 55 degrees. At 90 degrees, a wine will age between four to fifty-six times faster. If your wine is in the kitchen by the stove for a month in that cutesy little wrought iron wine rack that looks like a French waiter, it can be as if you've had it for 24 years.

I can already imagine some of you thinking, "Great! I can buy some wine that needs to be aged, keep it in a warm place for a month, and I'm all set." Not so fast. Higher temperatures increase the speed of chemical reactions, but wide swings in temperature, especially in heating, have a nasty effect on wine flavors since the reactions and oxidations get out of whack. With such variations, you're going to end up with vinegar faster than you can say "gewürztraminer." The "hall closet" trick usually fails here as well -- since very few closets are temperature-regulated. (Put a thermometer in your closet and check a few times if you don't believe me.)

So -- what do we do to hang on to wine?

A few possible options: first, you could petition your local zoning board to let you drill 20 or so feet beneath the foundation of your home, and build yourself a wine cave. That should be sufficiently deep to avoid freezing, while maintaining consistent temperature and humidity. Just watch the sewer lines.

Second, you could purchase a wine refrigerator. Serious wine collectors do this -- cheap ones will run you several hundred dollars, but they do an excellent job keeping wine in a proper state indefinitely. You can also rig a spare fridge to maintain a relatively constant temperature (I do this for homebrewing lagers) -- but even then, you probably wouldn't want to keep your Lafite '61 in there. Typical refrigerators allow swings in temperature of 8-10 degrees, which will keep wine in the right ballpark – but for really long term storage, it’s problematic.

Third, and most practically, tone down your expectations and drink your bloomin' wine. If you've got a relatively cool, relatively stable temperature anywhere in your domicile -- even if it's not perfect, you can still “cellar” wine. But, if you're like me, temptation eventually overcomes you. However, if you can stay your hand for a year or so, you can work wonders with relatively inexpensive wine – since many of them are shipped to market prematurely (and new vintages can be bargains, since they have no track record), and nine months or a year of aging will improve some wines markedly.

Some rules of thumb -- less tannic wines don't cellar as well, so pinot noir, merlot, Beaujolais, etc -- these should be drunk relatively young. Cabernets, zinfandels, shiraz/syrah -- these you can have around for awhile. White wines generally don't cellar well -- but there are a few exceptions which I'll touch on below.

Here are a couple of inexpensive numbers you might want to consider picking up half a case of and forgetting about for a little while:

Pietra Santa "Sacred Stone" Master's Blend Old World Style Red -- The reference to "Old World" in this overly-nomenclatured wine is to the winemaking techniques of the Rhone valley in France. Sacred Stone is an American version of one of a Rhone red. Many of the wines made in the Rhone are blends -- syrah is usually the backbone, but there are usually other grape varietals floating around in the mix. There’s an appellation (WineSpeak for “type of wine”) called Chateauneuf-de-Pape (French for "Chateau of the Pope" -- this wine bears the papal seal on the bottle) that can contain up to 14 different grapes. Rhone reds are very earthy, and a wine drinker first trying one of these can be knocked back rather harshly by what could be termed a "mild nose of old armpit." Many Rhone wines taste best to me with a little decanting. The Sacred Stone is a Rhone wine with a dose of deodorant. This wine is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel, and a few other grapes. It has a nose of earth, plums, and pepper. When you taste it, the Zinfandel comes at you very strongly. There's a powerful fruit flavor with surprisingly mellow tannin considering the nose of the wine. The finish is peppery with a nice lingering fruit flavor and warmth. I think you should be able to find this one for $8-11, and you could certainly (as suggested by the label) cellar this one for a year or two and end up with what could be an extremely good value. Any kind of earthy vegetables, meats, shepherd's pie, etc. would be absolutely top notch with this one. I think this is a fantastic wine for the price.

Root:1 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon -- The official wine of The Wizard of Covington, Root: 1 is another South American entry into the world of inexpensive wines. I focused on Chilean sauvignon blancs, but their growths of cabernet continue to improve year by year. However, this particular wine has a bit of history. As I mentioned in the earlier installment, Chile is the only place in the world where original ungrafted (never attacked by phylloxera) European vines grow. Root:1 is a product of these original "old vines." If you're a fan of fruitier -- rather than more tannic -- cabernets, you'll really enjoy the Root:1. The nose of the wine is dominated by blackberries a little vanilla. The flavor of the wine is cherries combined with berries, berries, and more berries. There are some very soft tannins as you taste it -- they become much more pronounced on the finish, which is gentle, slightly coffee-flavored and dry. The wine is rich, and would stand up nicely to sirloins, grilled mushrooms, and rich sauces of just about any type. It reminds me more of a zinfandel or a blend than a straight cab. While this is a very good wine now for $10-14, with aging of six months or a year, the berries and tannins should balance nicely, and more complex flavors will undoubtedly come forward as it becomes more "cabby."

Mirassou 2005 Riesling -- Under most circumstances, there's no way in tarnation you'd want to cellar a white. Most whites are made to be drunk young – usually within a year of release. The basic idea for most whites: buy, chill, open, serve, repeat. However, there are a couple of varietals you can cellar if you wish, and, in some cases, you'll end up with a superior product. This offering from Mirassou is case in point. This is a wine that was probably released a little too early for its own good -- but vintners that mass produce wine generally don’t worry about finding the perfect release date for a wine. They are on a schedule, after all. The typical sweet fruit nose of a Riesling isn't as pronounced with this particular vintage. The taste is a little sharp on the tongue, almost spicy -- and a little dry for a "regular" Riesling (not to be confused with a "dry Riesling"-- which is another animal altogether, and we’ll touch on that next week). The finish is much more similar to a gewürztraminer -- again, a little spicy, although there are some nice pineapple undertones. The fruit, though, doesn't stand up as much as it should. If you put this one away for a year (after buying a few at $7-8), the spicy nature will surely mellow, and the fruit will become more pronounced, leaving you with an excellent wine to pair with either fruity desserts (apple pie would be outstanding) or spicy food like Thai.

Until next time, drink no wine before its time…unless of course you do.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Throwing the Maine Breaker

A shorter sprout of the Vine this week, as I’m finally starting to catch up at work and otherwise after our trip Down East in Maine. I’d once crossed the border of Maine briefly several years ago to be able to say that I’d set foot in the state (I’m missing only North Dakota in the Lower 48). This time around, I took my time, spent over a week there, and our vacation was nothing short of wonderful. To wit:

But this isn’t a blog for ramblings about my vacation. (Although if you want to see more pictures from the trip, go here.)
Needless to say, I didn’t get a chance to do my weekly tastings to share with you. I do, however, have a few quick notes:

* Since we find ourselves personally panicked and paralyzed if we’re not able to travel with wine, we made sure that we picked up provisions along the way (especially with the new FAA “regulations” about liquids and such on planes). A must-stop if you’re ever in Portland, Maine: “Old Port Wine Merchant.” Excellent selections, great prices, and the proprietor, Jacques, is an absolute hoot.

* Wines we enjoyed on this trip, all falling into the Naked Vine Official Price Range: Borsao Rioja Tempranillo 2003, Domaine de la Mordoree Cotes-du-Rhone 2004, “Our Daily Red” 2005 (which is a very temperamental wine from Nevada, varying wildly from bottle to bottle), “Goats Do Roam” 2003 (South African), and Jacob’s Creek Shiraz 2004. All of these were evening wines, or stuff we had with various snacks. I didn’t do tasting notes, but they were all friendly and sluggable.

* “Local wineries” in Maine. I didn’t expect anything along that line – Maine is best known for microbrewed beer (more on that in a minute). Two stood out. “Sow’s Ear Winery” in Brookville – we discovered this place while driving down to Stonington. They make fruit wines there – and I normally find fruit wines pretty repulsive. However, Sow’s Ear does dry fruit wines, rather than the syrup you’ll get at many places. The best of the bunch, in my opinion, was a dry white made from rhubarb and a surprisingly tasty blueberry wine. He also did a traditional sparkling wine with the rhubarb, which had a unique nutty, earthy flavor I enjoyed a great deal. When we pulled up, the proprietor was sitting on his porch, barefoot, reading. My kind of place.

Also, “Sweet Pea’s Farm” in Bar Harbor. Sweet Pea was, apparently, a very lovable cow. These Bar Harbor Cellars wines are also quite friendly, and relatively inexpensive. The winemaker (also associated with Atlantic Brewing Company) planted his vines a few years ago – but decided that they weren’t ready yet. Harvesting grapes too early in the life of a vine is the death of many a batch of wine. Many people who get into winemaking try to rush the process initially, so the quality suffers. This winery is doing it right. They made several very decent wines made from imported grapes, but the star of their current selections was an apple wine – but one that was well-balanced after being aged for two years. It reminded me strongly of a good Riesling.

* Microbrews. Mainers love their beer (and few things go better with fresh lobster) – and they do a great job making their own. There are several microbrewed beers from Maine that are available outside that corner of the country. If you have a chance to pick up some Shipyard IPA, Atlantic Brewing Company’s Real Ale or Blueberry Ale (trust me on the blueberry – it doesn’t taste like blueberries, and it makes a great version of a black and tan with Guinness called a “black and blue”), Geary’s Autumn Ale or Stone Coast’s “Knuckleball Bock,” you’ll be doing yourself a favor. And speaking of microbreweries…

* Pubquest. Possibly one of the most useful websites I’ve run across in awhile. (Hat tip to Vine Reader John E. of Cincinnati, whom we had dinner with in Maine. His wife made the world’s best seafood stew.) Go to the website – select your city, and the site will give you locations, maps, and links to all of the brewpubs in the surrounding area. Need a microbrew in Hastings, Nebraska? Pubquest will lead you to “Murphy’s Wagon Wheel.” You get the idea. An absolute must-add to your favorites.

And seafood’s awfully darned good when it’s just pulled out of the bay.

More wine recommendations next time around.

Until next time…keep your shell on…

Monday, September 11, 2006

Don't cry for me, Argentina -- just send more wine...

Another journey south of the Equator, readers. This time, the other side of the Andes is our destination -- the world's fifth largest wine producer, Argentina.

The history of Argentinean wine closely mirrors that of its neighbor, Chile, from a couple of installments ago. Spanish missionaries planted the first vines during the mid-16th century. The city of Mendoza was founded in 1561 in the heart of the premiere wine growing region -- it remains the core area for the nation's wine industry. The industry began to flourish in the early 1900's, but declined after Juan Perón was deposed in 1955.

Until the late 1980's, Argentina's vineyards focused mainly on producing large quantities of table wine for the country as well as concentrated grape juice -- which became a major Argentinean export. As Argentina's political and financial situation stabilized, an influx of money, modern technology, and oenological (WineSpeak for "the study of wine") know-how changed the face of the industry. With standards up to world-class levels, high-quality product began to emerge from the mountain slopes.

Argentina exported less than 10% of their total production until the late 1990's, and Argentine wine was almost impossible to find in the United States until that time. Word got out around the world as quality improved, and exports explored. Argentina is now a major player on the world market -- and with the combination of value and quality, I see no change in that status anytime in the near future.

Argentina's climate is extremely well-suited for grape growing. Altitude, low annual rainfall and humidity, lots of sunshine, and excellent soil give Argentina many natural advantages. Its geography also provided it with protection against our old friend phylloxera -- which has also never been an issue with Argentine vines.

Argentina's wines are generally bold and uncomplicated, although there are some more subtle wines being produced in small quantities (and a considerable markup, unfortunately). Argentina is best known for the success of the malbec grape -- a little-used French blending grape that became a star in Argentina. Argentina also grows cabernet sauvignon and merlot among its reds, and they've started experimenting with shiraz, tempranillo from Spain, and Italian sangiovese (used to make Chianti). In the white family, Argentine Chardonnay is considered a strong up-and-comer in the wine world. They do small quantities of Sauvignon Blanc, but Chile seems to do a much better job with that particular grape, in my experience. I also had a chance to try a Torrentes recently, which is known as Argentina's "big white." I'll come back to it later on, but it's got a very fruity, balanced taste -- somewhere between a Riesling and a pinot grigio.

A few tasty selections:

San Felipe 2005 Chardonnay -- The label inscription states: "A perfect balance of lush fruit and soft spice" -- and the flavor comes close to following suit. The nose is a combination of flowers and green apples. The initial taste lives up to the "spicy" promise, almost peppery, but that fades quickly. The mid-taste is quite tart for a chardonnay, and the promise of fruit certainly is there. If it were lighter in body, I'd almost think this wine could have been one of those Chilean sauvignons that I hit before. There's a very nice round citrus flavor. The finish is, again, spicy -- cloves maybe. This is certainly not a complex chardonnay by any stretch, but for $6-7 a bottle, it's certainly a very nice, interesting white. With chicken or shrimp, it'd be quite good, and a gazpacho or other cold soup would go wonderfully with this.

Pascual Toso 2004 Malbec -- Malbec! Malbec! Malbec! I can't state enough what a great varietal I think this is, especially if you're going to be doing anything on the grill. I touched on the Altos in my first column, and I thought I'd compare it to the same varietal from a different winery. The nose of this particular malbec hits you with a raspberry and pepper scent, but with slightly less aroma than the Altos. The mouthfeel of this, however, is richer than the Altos -- with smooth, rich raspberry and vanilla flavors. The finish has a little bit of pepper, but a lighter tannin than the Altos, making it a fantastic wine to pair with a big steak (like the New York strip, lightly marinated in soy sauce and thyme with a side of grilled asparagus I did with this one). You'll find this for $8-10, and it's well worth it. There's also a reserve Pascual Toso malbec, which I've heard really good things about. Long and short -- if you find a malbec that says it's grown in "Mendoza," you've probably got a winner on your hands.

Funky Llama 2004 Shiraz -- As I mentioned, one of the newest grapes on the Argentine scene is shiraz. Most of the shiraz sent up from Argentina tends to be in the lower price points -- so you'll find some very decent, inexpensive selections. Funky Llama usually competes with many of the inexpensive Aussie wines at many stores -- you'll often see them placed side by side. Big hitter, this llama. This wine is extremely fragrant and blackberry-jammy -- stronger even than the malbec. In WineSpeak, they'd call this wine "fruit forward." Nice tart blackberries and licorice mix with a medium tannin to give you a big initial taste. It's not as "round" as a cabernet or some other shirazes, but it's still solid. The finish is a quite peppery and a little dry. There's nothing complicated about this wine, but for $4-7 a bottle, you're certainly not going to be complaining. Anything earthy is going to go well with this -- roasted eggplant, beef curries, brisket, or ribs of any sort.

A side note: sorry for the publication delay this time around. I just got back from a wonderful vacation in Maine which I'll touch on in a bit…

Until next time: Saude!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Beaujolais -- It leads to harder stuff...

Beaujolais is seductive -- the quintessential "gateway wine." Many casual wine drinkers who find red wines "too strong" often give Beaujolais a try at some point -- only to find themselves drawn inexorably into the world of berries and tannins. Before long, such a person is planning trips to Sonoma, building shelves for a wine cellar, and debating the merits of merlot over cabernet for their rare strip steak. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Beaujolais is also the perfect gateway for an introduction into about French wines. France is the leading producer of wine in the world, followed closely by Italy. France churns out around two billion gallons of wine per year. France alone produces more wine per year than the US, Spain, Argentina, and Australia combined. The French have been at this a long time, and their wines are the world's most famous (although the Italians might argue with that assessment).

In America, we're used to classifying wine by varietal -- merlot, cabernet, chardonnay, etc. In France, a wine’s primary classification is the region where the wine is produced. Chablis, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone -- these are all French regions. Beaujolais is a district within Burgundy. When the California wine industry started pumping out jug wine, "Burgundy" and "Chablis" came to by synonymous with cheap red or white wine when, in actuality, some of the best pinot noirs and chardonnays in the world come from those respective regions. To know what you're getting when you purchase many French wines, you have to become at least passingly familiar with the major grapes grown in a particular region.

Beaujolais is one of the few red wines from Burgundy that's not pinot noir. Beaujolais is made from a grape varietal called Gamay. Gamay produces a wine that's generally light in body, somewhat fruity, and very easy to drink. Beaujolais is a light enough red that you can often serve it interchangeably with white wines. There are certain classes of Beaujolais, however, that have enough body to stand up to grilled red meats. Many Beaujolais taste best when served slightly chilled, making them an ideal summer red.

Now, regarding those classifications I just mentioned. The French are meticulous about categorizing wine. They have a strict system for classifying their wines based on region, history, grape varietal, winemaking techniques, alcohol content, and various other factors known as the "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée" or AC. Within each region, a wine's AC definition usually provides a good baseline for determining the quality of a wine. In the Beaujolais AC, there are three basic classifications, in ascending order of quality and price:

Beaujolais -- These wines are produced from grapes grown anywhere within the Beaujolais region.
Beaujolais-Villages -- These wines are produced from grapes grown in one of thirty-nine villages in the southern part of the region, known to produce consistently high quality wine.
Beaujolais Cru -- There are ten villages known to produce the best wine in the region, and the wines are designated simply by the name of the town. Moulin-A-Vent is generally considered the best of the bunch, but there's not a lot of drop-off from there to the other nine. (Brouilly, Côte-de-Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Saint Amour, and Régnié are the others.) Many of these wines do not have "Beaujolais" anywhere prominently on the label -- so if you see what appear to be random French names in the Beaujolais section, chances are you're looking at a cru.

Here are examples of each:

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Reservé 2005 – One reviewer called Georges Duboeuf the “benevolent dictator of Beaujolais” – fully 30% of the region’s production are Duboeuf wines. This wine will jump off the shelf at you because of its multicolored “painted” bottle. "Reservé" has little meaning in this context – it refers mainly to the fact that these grapes weren't shipped out as Beaujolais nouveau (I’ll touch on that a bit later). The nose of this wine carries a strong strawberry scent, with an undertone of slightly burnt toast. Even though this is a fairly light wine, there's a fair amount of tannin on the "attack" (WineSpeak for "what you get on the first taste of the wine") which moves on a tart blackberry taste. The finish has some citrus to it, as well as a continuation of the tannin. This wine is light, a little dry and, I think, best enjoyed by itself on a warm day, assuming you’ve chilled it a bit first. You could serve it as an aperitif, or pair it with a medium flavored cheese and crackers. Probably about $6-8.

Louis Jadot 2004 Beaujolais-Villages -- A very "fresh" smelling wine -- a little mineral, blackberries, and licorice. This wine has a very earthy character for such a light wine, coupled with more of a smooth berry taste and a little pepper. The finish is mildly dry, but contains a refreshing tartness. This is $8-11. I had this one with a light dinner of artichoke, tomato, and white bean bruschetta and it worked wonderfully. It was light enough not to overpower the fresh tomatoes, but still had enough body to hold its flavor afterwards. It's a very flexible wine -- you could put this up against chicken, pork, hamburgers, lighter red sauces -- and it would still do fairly well. If you have a large group coming over for dinner, this isn't a bad idea to have around -- because it's something for everyone. It's an ideal Thanksgiving wine, for instance.

Georges Duboeuf 2003 Beaujolais Chiroubles -- Back to Duboeuf again, since it was the only Beaujolais cru I could find in my local wine store at present. This one has a much more pronounced nose of cherries and plums. There's hardly any tannin on the tongue when you taste it -- and those berry flavors last a long time. The body is markedly fuller than the other two wines. The finish is light, crisp, and slightly tart. While you can certainly give this wine a slight chill -- there's enough body to carry the fruit tastes, so you can drink it at room temperature if you like. I'd put this with grilled tuna, chicken in any kind of sauce (like coq a vin), veal, or even kabobs and Mexican food. Crus can also be aged for a couple of years, but the 2003 I found was probably about as old as you'd want to drink a Beaujolais. The others should be consumed within a year or two. This will probably be $11-14 or thereabouts.

A couple of other quick notes: Around the globe, there's a huge rush every year on the third Thursday of November to snatch up a wine called Beaujolais Nouveau. 65 million bottles, almost half of the region's production, gets sold in the several weeks following. Beaujolais Nouveau goes from barrel to bottle to store in a matter of weeks. This wine should not be confused with regular Beaujolais – it’s an entirely different animal. This wine is incredibly light (some would almost say watery) and fruity. There's not enough time for the tannins (or much else, really) to get engaged in this wine, so you end up with a "sluggable" product. Beaujolais Nouveau is not a wine to be savored -- it's a party wine. That, of course, doesn't mean that it's not fun to get caught up in the rush of the world running out to snag a bottle. You want to drink this as soon as you get it.

Second, although most French wines are sold by regional classification, some French producers have begun putting the varietal name on exported wine. For a number of reasons, France actually is in the midst of a wine glut – and is trying to improve their wineries’ marketing, especially among inexpensive wines. Since most consumers don’t know offhand, for instance, that a white wine from Burgundy is going to be a chardonnay. I haven’t tried any of these “new labels” yet – perhaps down the line.

Until next time…À votre santé!