Caleo Nero d’Avola Terre Siciliane 2015

Fooling around with minority grapes like nero d’avola isn’t just great fun, it helps us understand the ways in which various elements of wine can fit together.

For instance, this Sicilian glass is on the upper end of the scale when it comes to alcohol, acids and tannins, as well as having a notable fruit character, which would lead us to think that it has everything. Right? Can a wine have big fruit character as well as being dry?

The mistake a lot of us make is to substitute fruit for perceived sweetness. That modifier – perceived – is important because sweetness is both grape-dependent as well as part of the alcohol and acid structure. I’ve been drinking zinfandels lately, and they appear sweeter in part because of their low acid and low tannin nature.

The first thought that comes to mind when inhaling this wine was furniture wax, which conjurs comforting memories for me, so it’s a good thing.  That might be more accurately described as the smell that comes from an old leather sofa behind which someone has dropped tobacco, which is a much more wine-y descriptor. Leather and sweet tobacco are recognized elements of nero. All that’s very civilized. Licorice, too.

Fruit? Yes. But there’s alcohol and delicious warmth. Vanilla. Smoke. Dried herbs. And look-ah here! Dryness and mild but distinct tannins. It’s easy to go too far with this kind of thinking, but one’s imagination goes quickly to Sicily in summer, all Mediterranean dryness, grilled meats and long comfortable nights.

Brilliant. Take me there. In the meantime, this glass will be a delicious second prize.

$8.99. Srsly?

Spier Chardonnay 2016

Being on an African jag is proving to be a tasty delight.

Here’s something from Stellenbosch (which should mean something) from a producer with some number of centuries making the stuff (which presumably means something else.)

The story goes that after 1994, the marking the end of apartheid, South African vignerons discovered a world outside. Pinotage is all fine and everything, but all those thirsty punters out there with hard currency and a jones for something new and interesting awaited. So the modern Springbok vigneron was born.

All credit to them. These folks collectively made a lot of smart decisions, not least amongst them planting the right grapes, winemaking in the right styles and finding a niche pricewise too. As well, they understood the marketing subtlety of going green (whatever that means) staying sustainable (ditto) and not completely ditching their history. This is just another chapter.

Just as this wine is another page. Classic lightly-oaked chardonnay is what we have here. Fruits from the tropical end of the range, including that somewhat elusive banana note of which I’ve heard much but never experienced. It’s a big, fattish aroma, almost like a candied or dried banana, which whatever molecule that is balanced nicely by cut pineapple and back of the mouth jazz. All very interesting.

Texture. That’s the word. There’s a kind of starchy feel to this wine, which is altogether distinctive and completely beguiling. Like a lychee, or even durian without the aroma. The finish has a deceptive minerality too, a tip of the hat to the old world, perhaps, or just a view of things to come from the new.

$9.49

Mad Duck Zinfandel 2016

The natural instinct is to lean towards the maximum…in many fields. Fastest, smallest, most expensive; the extremes interest us.

In wine this phenomenon is marked. Competition for the limit in any specific area serves the industry well by keeping interest ticking along. Think about how we look for the best value (for a given dollar amount) or the rarest (think Burgundy) or even the oldest (anything). The middle of the bell curve is where we live, but not where our imagination and desire resides.

Zinfandels are a niche example of this tendency. Producers vie to make the most overblown and BIG wines in an attempt to satisfy the edges of demand. In a way, zin is an ideal candidate grape because you can make its wine more fruity, more complex, more…just more!…because the differences between a BIG number and lesser models are clear.

Which leaves this one in no-man’s-land. As a mid- to value proposition it won’t find an enormous audience, and as a turbocharged flavor and intensity candidate it won’t win either. That, dear friends, is precisely where opportunity lies for you and me, because here’s a delicious and classic zin selling for appropriate money that gives us everything more expensive versions give, only slightly less of it. Think of it as one of those larger than life zins with the volume backed off a little.

Dark, mildly smoky ripe fruit on the nose with a distinct sweet licorice character that leads seamlessly to cola and juicy fruit on the palate, not much in the way of spice, but smooth acids and a balanced finish.

$12.99

Paradise Peak Riesling 2016

Not to be confused with the sweet riesling from the same name, here’s another example of the versatility of this wonderful grape. Although not in the least complex or enough of a wine to make one thoughtful, there’s enough going on to make one ponder the meaning of wine.

For starters, there’s a lovely barnyard-y creamy lime character to the nose, a kind of cool earthiness that distantly reflects the cool slate-iness of our German cousins. On the palate a ripe fruit salad appears, with clear pieces of ripe mild melon, creamy lime and luxurious pieces of canned tangerine in light syrup.

The finish never takes us back to the acids that might signal “the end” but that’s fine; it’s an off-dry wonder meant for pairing with something sweet or light, or just for sipping.

$8.99

Santa Ana Classic Chardonnay 2016

Speaking of classic chardonnay, we start at the textbook golden yellow color with green reflections. Check.

Then there’s the nose. Ah, such a wonderful fresh cut pineapple, tangerine, low-level citrus and other tart delights all working together.

Now the taste: measured acids carrying balanced dry wine fruit notes (those mentioned above) to a clean distinct finish.

In my opinion, the yardstick by which to measure a wine like this is the enormous gallonage of Australian chardonnay at the same pricepoint that sloshes all over the world. Most of that is oaked, and poorly oaked at that. They’re just unsubtle yobbos.

But here is the same grape at the same or lower price that actually tastes of intelligently made, thoughtfully cultivated quality wine. Good fruit made into as good a wine as the price allows.

What more could we ask for?

$7.29

Macchia Zinfandel Mischievous Lodi 2015

This might be called the monster truck of wine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not applying any snark whatsoever, but, boy, is this thing enormous!

When you want to find yourself lost in a big velvet blanket, to be surrounded by the bounty of the vineyard, try a glass of this. From the dried, macerated fruit and vanilla nose, through juicy, smooth alcohol-infused ripe dark fruits, everything stops just short of going too far.

Critics like to use the word “jammy” for wines like this, but jam does not have the basis of bass-note acids of this wine. Jam is fruit and sugar; here’s something completely different and way more sophisticated. Sure, we can find ripe – verging on sweet – fruit, but that’s all balanced out with the strength of oak and the tartness of some smoky cherry notes.

I think I even found I kind of sweet potpourri element.

In short: Wow. A real event. All for…

$21.99

Hands Chardonnay 2016

The opportunity for those of us who like chardonnay is enormous. Because so much of this grape is grown, niches of unknown production must exist in the same way that big cities hide little secrets – there’s room for subversion when there are lots of diversions.

So while everyone’s falling over each other for Burgundian anything, drooling over Margaret River and thinking of moving to Otago, you and I can sit back and turn our attention to South Africa. Although Cape Town is a kind of perennial long-distance destination for the glitterati, the really sexy stuff is happening in their wine business.

That line of thought’s for another time though, because what we have to hand here is an inexpensive beauty. Mildly oaked but still crisp, mid-ripe fruit that works in some green apple and pineapple notes and delicious zesty acids that resolve nicely. There’s even a nice mildly salty lick to let us know that two great oceans aren’t far away. Don’t tell anyone. This niche will be our secret.

$10.99