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What's Ripe in What Region

To save you some tasting, here are the key regions and their strongest grapes.

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California

California has turned into a theme park roller-coaster ride. Prices went up — way up. Now apparently they might come down. How far, nobody knows. One thing is for sure, chardonnay is almost always a good bet.

Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay, Sonoma, 2001, $14, is a masterful creation of pear, tropical fruit and the flavors of oak. This is a wine you can't go wrong with.

Merlot can be a good bet from a top winery. The Grand Archer Merlot, Sonoma, 2000, $15, has enough fruit to make the merlot juicy, and enough oak to power it all up. The top year for cabernets is still 1999, but they may be pricey; 2000 is good but not of the same quality.



Spain

The Spanish have finally decided that there is a rest of the world with which to share their wines. It's good timing, because there are lots of interesting new-styled wines coming out of Spain, and at reasonable prices to boot. Torres has been making and exporting wines for ages, but never quite like its Torres Vina Sol, Penedes, 2001, $10. It's amazing for its crispness and freshness.

Most Spanish reds are made from tempranillo, a local grape that tastes like a cross of pinot noir and merlot. Because they are low in natural acidity and don't receive a lot of oak aging, the wines can be enjoyed young and will taste well.

An example of a young, delicious tempranillo fruit is the Vina Rey 70 Barrica, Vinos de Madrid, 2001, $8. It's not very complex, but for $8 you can't go wrong.

The Artazuri, Navarra, 2000, $10, is made from grenache, the other local red. This one is fuller-bodied and will work well with ribs. The two most important words that can occur on labels of Spanish reds are crianza and reserva. Crianza means aged in oak and means a step up in flavor. Reserva is a higher classification, aged in oak longer and in the bottle longer. In a word, a more complex wine. There will be lots of good, basic, everyday wines coming our way from Spain, along with the higher-priced producers.



France

Unlike the Spanish, the French export everywhere and are not afraid to hype — or even overhype — their wines. The big splash locally will be the arrival of the great 2000 vintage of red Bordeaux. The smaller chateaux are arriving now, with the better-known names still a few months away. This is truly the finest vintage of the region in the past 40 years.

When you work with up to five different grapes, all of which bud and ripen at different times, a vintage can either end in celebration or terror. Right now on the world's stage, Bordeaux represents a large amount of wine as well as some of the world's benchmark reds.

The Chateau Thebot, Bordeaux, 2000, $13, (85 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon) with its ripe fruit, is full-bodied for a merlot-based blend. On the lighter side, the Chateau Bel-Air, Cotes de Castillon, 2000, $16, (85 percent Merlot, 10 percent franc, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon) is well put-together, an excellent drinking Bordeaux. Owning the middle ground, the Chateau La Tour Prignac, Medoc, 2000, $15, (60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc) has plenty of fruit extraction; it's a well-rounded Bordeaux.



South America

The land of the $10-and-under wine is making a charge onto higher ground. If California's prices get too high, South America may just take over. The medium body Errazuriz Cabernet Sauvignon, Aconcagua Valley, Chile, 2001, $12, has a good, basic cabernet flavor. It's not a big wine, but it's a good glass of reasonably priced cabernet. A giant step above those $10-$12 Chilean wines is the Errazuriz Max Reserva Merlot, Aconcagua Valley, 2000, $25. This is a luxurious cherry and berry flavor merlot. For such a young wine, the Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Aconcagua Valley, 2000, $60 has a much darker color and fruit extract with a longer lingering finish than most its age. It has great finesse but lacks the power of California cabernet and the earth of French Bordeaux. Yet this is a very well-grown and well-made wine.

To truly know where Chile is going, buy a bottle of each of the reserve wines, blend them and see what the final outcome is.

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