Vine reader Steve K. asks:
"You go through a lot of wine, and you seem to like most everything. I get it -- there's a lot of good wine out there. But do you ever get surprised by a wine at this point?"
When you taste a lot of different wines, it's true -- wines tend to fall into categories. When I get a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, for instance, I'm expecting it to be acidic, have a bunch of tropical fruit flavors, and smell like freshly cut grass (or cat pee, depending on your nose). A good Chianti will have a chalky flavor that doesn't taste so good on its own, but with a plate of pasta -- yummilicious!
I know I've written about my dismay when someone says a wine is supposed to taste like something, but with enough "experience" (VineSpeak for "a lot of bottles under the bridge"), you get an idea of what to expect. At this "price point," there can be great degree of uniformity. Every now and again, however, I'll run across a wine that showed me a little something outside the normal cognitive schema.
So, with that in mind, here are a few recent selections I've tried, cocked an eyebrow at the glass, and said, much like the blonde chick in the KFC commercials: "Whoa...I didn't see that coming..."
Douglass Hill 2006 California Chardonnay -- Honestly, I can't remember what possessed me to buy this bottle. I was sauntering by the "2 for $10" section, and I saw this wine there. Nondescript label, no notes on the back. I knew that I was going to need some white cooking wine, so I figured that it wouldn't go to waste if it ended up being unacceptable as a drinking wine. I cracked it, poured a little, and it honestly didn't taste like much of anything. Almost watery, in fact. I put my glass on the kitchen counter, went off to do something, came back -- and I swear this wine changed when it warmed up. Instead of watery plonk, this chard developed a soft, green apple nose. The body was crisp for California chard, with just a hint of oak leading to a semi-dry, slightly oaky finish. For $5, an impressive bottle.
Monkey Bay 2006 Rosé Wine -- I'd had the Monkey Bay sauvignon blanc before. I like it. It's a solid if unspectacular New Zealand sauvignon. While ambling towards the checkout on a recent shopping trip, I picked up the rosé on impulse because I needed something pink in the house. I had a couple of recipes in mind, but didn't want to think too much about pairings. I figured that this would be a safe bet as a sluggable rosé -- specifically, something that could go with whichever meal got cooked, that I could have a couple of glasses of and be done with. This rosé led with a full nose of strawberries and flowers, so I expected this to be a little on the sweet, fruity side. Instead, while there was certainly plenty of fruit, there was a surprisingly nice level of acidity to balance it out. There was more strawberry along with some citrus on the palate with a zesty, dry finish. Oh, for dinner? Halibut and white bean stew. Went nicely. $8-10.
Bota Box 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel -- I usually keep a couple of boxes around these days. It's economical, there are decent ones out there, and when I'm on the third or ninth glass of the day, I don't necessarily want to crack the good stuff. I've also been on a bit of a Zinfandel kick lately, so when I saw this new three-liter, I was interested -- but I was also dubious. More and more people have been turning on to Zin (red Zin, that is), and the market response is obviously to put more and more of it out there. There are a lot of six and seven dollar Zins out there right now, but they're the American answer to cheap Australian shiraz...many of them are fruity, slightly sweet messes. I figured I'd give this a try. What's the worst that could happen? I'd have a box of cooking wine. So I poured a glass, took a sip, and quickly smiled broadly. There's plenty of fruit on the nose, sure, but there's also a little spice and smoke to back it up. The flavor is full of big, dark fruit, but there's a smoky, toasty taste as well. The finish is hearty, dry, and with nicely balanced tannin. It's a very nice end-of-day wine with chocolate and at $18-20 a box, it's a steal.