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Published: Tuesday, 5/7/2002

Now is the time to restock cellar

This is the time of year when many American wineries introduce wines that have been in the making, or maturing, for as long as three or four years, or not much more than a year. (That reminds me to note, for your trivia collection, that last autumn's beaujolais is still “nouveau,” and will be until this year's harvest. The stuff that's trotted out with great hoopla in mid-November is indeed nouveau, but the word “primeur” sets it apart from good, properly aged beaujolais released only after a year or more.)

Now is the time to restock the cellar. This may be the only time you'll see a favorite, and the price for a good to top vintage will never be any better.

Have I some suggestions? Of course. I've been doing some early sampling, and my notes record some remarkable, very good domestic wines. (Foreign imports generally arrive in the retail shops a little later.)

If the name Chappellet is not familiar, it should be. The proprietors, Donn and Molly Chappellet, had the good fortune to build a winery on a choice piece of vine-friendly hillside - altitude 800 to 1800 feet - above Lake Hennessey on the east slopes of the Napa Valley. At that height the soil is volcanic, the setting gives the vineyards great exposure, drainage is good, and dry-farming produces small crops of intense, flavor-rich grapes.

Here is a comparison of a '98 Signature cab and a '99 Mountain Cuvee, both estate wines. My nose and palate said raspberry in both, with some black cherry and distinctively soft tannins in the '98, easy drinking from the start and better as the hour passes. Considering the quality, and that only 5,000 cases were made, the $25 is a bargain. The '99 - just half as many cases made - is also a bargain at $23, if you have the patience to let it lie at least four or five years.&tab;

The Chappellet label identifies another winner at a bargain price, $18 - a simply delicious '98 sangiovese. This is a nicely balanced wine with a well-defined structure. Once again - there must be a raspberry patch somewhere on that mountainside, my palate said - this is a fruit forward, plummy wine with moderate body. I should note that all these Chappellet wines are high in alcohol, between 14 and 15 percent, although it is well-handled.

DeLoach Vineyards began with the purchase of Russian River (Sonoma County) vineyard land some 30 years ago by Cecil DeLoach, a San Francisco fireman, and his wife, Christine. With the passage of time, the land holding grew to several hundred acres, from which today come remarkable chardonnays and a spectrum of single-vineyard zinfandels. Except for the five single-vineyard zins - the variety of styles and character make comparison an adventure - which sell for $28 each, these estate varietals sell in the $18 to $20 range. In addition, DeLoach produces four $10 California varietals, chardonnay, cab, zinfandel, and merlot, made partly from their own grapes, partly from other California sources; these bottles belong on an inexpensive, buy-for-dinner-this-evening wine list.

In next week's column, I will tell you about wines from Hope, an Australian producer.

Robert Kirtland is The Blade's wine critic.

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