Pass the remote. And the corkscrew…

George Clooney adorning the cover of the Irish Examiner Weekend section

George Clooney in the revamped Irish Examiner Weekend

Swit-swoo! Who’s just had a makeover? The Irish Examiner Weekend has just been revamped in a major way. As part of an overhaul of the paper’s Saturday package, the Weekend has gotten a classy new look, along with new features and columnists. Call me biased but I think it looks fantastic and I’m delighted to be serving up wine suggestions in a location that symbolically represents pretty much my idea of fun — right there between the restaurant review and the seven-day TV and radio guide. Pass the remote. And the corkscrew.

As well as the improved fashion, beauty, food and features in Weekend itself, the Saturday revamp also includes a pullout Sport section, the upgraded Forum comment and analysis part, plus a renewed and extended focus on Interiors.

Coincidentally, on the day that George Clooney is the cover story, my column is also swanning around in sunny California this week, and pointing out a handful of the best wines for under €10 and under €20.  They’re highlighted below. And to narrow the search down further, if I were to buy just two of today’s wines it’d be the ones I’ve highlighted in blue.

Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc

Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc

Most wine countries play an arpeggio of price points, from everyday entry-level numbers to costly bottles you’d only ever consider for a special occasion. There are exceptions though: New Zealand for instance is famous as marketing almost nothing but premium sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs — although prices have been tumbling recently due to oversupply.

But the greatest exception of all is California. There are two Californias on the shelves of Irish off-licences — dear and cheap, with precious little in between: Tiny quantities of premium, hand-made wines on the one hand; enormous volumes of more affordable, heavily-advertised brands of simple, unchallenging wines on the other.

The latter category could be defended as ‘cheap and cheerful’  except most aren’t really that cheap at all, especially when you compare them to the enormous swell of  excellent sub-€10 wines out there, particularly from France and Spain. Those countries provide plenty of good, honest, everyday wines priced at about €7 or €8 so when you’re asked, say, a tenner for a big brand Californian (many of them substituting sweetness for flavour) you’re really stumping up a massive premium for lavish advertising and marketing.

So is there anything a wine fan can pick from? Well, a recent tasting hosted  by the Wine Institue of California in Cork reinforced the view that there are two Californias — but between those extremes I did find some excellent moderately-priced wines (some of which, including the Mondavi Fumé pictured above, I found surprisingly affordable) plus a handful of big-brand bottles well worth investigating.

Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2006
€15 at selected independents
Fantastic value barrel-aged sauv semillon blend, fresh succulent fruit set in a spicy round-textured body. Wine fans will tell you that sauvignon blanc is at its best unoaked, but judicious use of barrel contact can add fabulous dimension of texture and spice to the acute edge of that grape. And so it is with this beauty from the winery that arguably single handedly put California on the map.

Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir 2008
€15 at Bubble Brothers in the English Market and on the Marina Cork or online via http://www.bubblebrothers.com.
Pinot can be user-friendly by virtue of its natural lightness alone — but this one’s even more amiable, its rounded texture more of a hug than a handshake. It’s a lovely soft bed for rich dark earthy fruit flavours, and a wine that all grounded in lovely earthy scent texture yet pinot gently-fragranced red meat dishes such as roast lamb.

Concannon Chardonnay 2008 Central Coast
Imported by Barry & Fitzwilliam and available at selected independent off-licences, €14.99
Typical upmarket Californian  chardonnay — there’s austere luxury in its fresh lemon acidity set off by a generous fillip of  tropical fruit in a creamy texture.

Gallo Family Vineyards Chardonnay
Widely available nationwide at about €9
Budget creamy-textured chardonnay, balancing citrus piquancy and warm tropical fruit flavours.

Gallo Family Vineyards Summer Red
Currently being launched, this will be priced at around €8.49
A dark deep rosé aimed at chilled-out red drinkers, this is an eclectic blend of pinot and smoky zin. There might be a very helpful spin-off to the mass-market appeal Gallo are hoping for: The very act of putting a wine with ‘red’ in its name may encourage a generation to experiment with cooling down their red wines a little.

Zin and the art of headline-writing

California’s strange duality can be seen most clearly in the mixed fortunes of the local signature grape, zinfandel,  commonly shortened to ‘zin’. An immigrant from Croatia that arrived in America via Italy, it’s used to make two styles that are worlds apart.

There’s ‘white zin’ or ‘blush’, a simple off-dry rosé most famously represented by brands such as Gallo And Sutter Home. It’s de rigeur for wine lovers to abjure the style. I am certainly not a fan. But really, such wines are not a million miles away in style from simple, robust, and reasonably well-made rosés you might encounter and enjoy on holidays in Spain and France, except perhaps generally sweeter.  My real problem with this particular  Californian model is that they tend to be grossly overpriced, having earned their place in our consciousness by enormous advertising and marketing campaigns, just like big-brand fizzy drinks such as Coca-Cola and Champagne.

And then there’s fully-fledged red zinfandel which can be a stonking great treat and an entirely different story. Two that showed particularly well at the tasting were…

Napa Cellars Zinfandel
Available at selected off-licences €20
With some wines, you’d almost pay just for the pleasure of sniffing them. This is one of them, its delightful nose suffused with aromatic highlights akin to those of a rich raisiny port. In theory, I imagine this bottle is supposed to be kept for a years yet… But to my tastebuds it’s ready to rock right now. well bedded-in highly enjoyable sipper long evening

Beringer Founder’s Old Vines Zinfandel 2007
€16 at selected independents

Rewarding dense dark zin – or try its partner soft-centered cabernet sauvignon.

[] Wine is produced in many other parts of the US by the way – principally Oregon, Washington State and New York. But for practical purposes, California is a country, and such is that state’s dominance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all American wines come from there. ♦

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