What have I been sampling? Oh, happy wines, good and relatively inexpensive - those are the kinds of wine I've been sampling. Let me tell you of a few, the first of the stream flowing our way across the broad Atlantic, or from here eastward, or from the far side of the great plains and the mountains.
With a plate of oysters on the half shell, Chincoteagues, the pride of Chesapeake Bay, I doubted that the restaurant's modest wine list would include a sample of either of the two near-perfect wines for shellfish: Chablis, which is costly, and once opened, doesn't last long, or Muscadet, from the mouth of the Loire River, steely dry, which is rarely seen in a restaurant cooler, although it's a bargain (you'd have to search wine shops for a bottle priced at more than $12), simply because it's unknown to most Americans.
Well, lo and behold! No chablis, my server said, but yes, "we have muscadet, by the bottle or glass." And so they did - from the mouth of the Loire to the mouth of the Maumee. This classic white, impossible to confuse with sweet muscat, is made in two neighboring French departements (like American counties), Sevres and Maine, and the best, labeled "sur lie," is bottled direct from fermentation.
Happily, a bottle at the Rose & Thistle is "sur lie," vintage '02, from an excellent producer, Chateau de L'Hiverniere. What sets it apart from lesser bottlings is the texture, not sharp, not thin, but smooth and as dry as any wine could be.
Texture, too, is what lingers from a glass of zinfandel, the current release of a long-time favorite, vintage '02 Old Vines Zinfandel from Sonoma County's Dry Creek Vineyard ($21-$22). Some critics and writers speak of "mouth-feel," and I suppose that's as good an effort to pinpoint what sets apart this Dry Creek bottle for me. Dry Creek Valley, gouged northward by Dry Creek from Healdsburg through the gently rolling, fertile soil of upper Sonoma County, is very hospitable to the zinfandel and sauvignon blanc grapes and the wines made of them.
Another reliable producer of zinfandel from farther up Dry Creek Valley, by the way, is pioneer Lou Preston, whose wines are now labeled Preston of Dry Creek, and sport a distinctive round label looking much like a seal.
You may have discovered for yourself, or heard from others, that the popularity of zinfandel varies considerably from one producer to another. What happened, I believe, is that when the magic of good zin was suddenly discovered by post-1960s California winemakers, everybody tried his hand at it, at first with the fruit from a tentative acre or two, and liked well enough what his vines and his winemaker gave him or her to keep on producing a growing number of cases. The results, and popular enthusiasm, continue to be uneven, from superb to so-so.
A friend opened a bottle of a Franciscan cabernet the other evening, and we both found it very much to our taste. To be exact, it was a classic Bordeaux cabernet blend, tempering the vigor of the cab with cabernet franc, merlot, and malbec. Franciscan, a Napa property, is one of the California and Chilean wineries put together under the skillful hand and creative imagination of Agoston Huneus.
It was bound to spread out from California across the country, like a glass of red wine splashed on a white table cloth, but I was given a bottle of authentic right-from-the-West "Two Buck Chuck" At the moment it sits on my kitchen counter, but I'll report after I've uncorked it!