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Wine without Pretense: Some fussy grapes make for popular blends
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Wine of the month

The wine: Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chardonnay 2008

The grapes: 100 percent chardonnay

The source: Napa Valley and Sonoma County, California

The verdict: Sometimes you just go for nostalgia. That’s how I feel about this wine. I’m nostalgic about Robert Mondavi, the man, and the winery that prospered and flourished under his inspired leadership for nearly four decades. Bob’s gone now, and his winery is owned by a mega-corporation. But this wine takes me back to a time when the Mondavi name was a virtual guarantee of high quality. This very nearly is a retro chardonnay. Maybe it’s because the growing season in 2008 battered vineyardists with terrible spring weather, followed by a bountiful summer. The vines and fruit were stressed. But once harvested the grapes got tender, loving care. Partially fermented in new French oak barrels, and with malo-lactic fermentation induced with some of the wine to soften it, this bright chardonnay tastes like chard used to many years ago. You’ll find aromas of pears and green apples, crisp acidity with a falling-away softness in the finish. I like this wine. Thanks, Bob.

The price: About $20

OK, did we make it through winter? I know that technically the season still has a couple of weeks to go, but, with any luck, it's over. My lips to God's ears.

Last month I wrote about a trio of uncommon white wine grapes — picpoul, albarino and petit manseng. This month I'll do the same for some little-known red wine grapes. As with the whites, these are all vinifera — classic European — wine grapes. They are in the same family as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but are among the stepchildren of the wine world.

Wine grapes become popular for two primary reasons: (1) They are easy for growers to grow, and (2) they produce wines that simply taste good to the wine-drinking public.

Grapes that are overly fussy about soil types and climate, that have strict limitations on where they will grow and flourish, or that are prone to diseases such as mold, mildew and blight, are eschewed by wine makers. Some of those, however, defy the rule and become iconic with wine drinkers. A good example is pinot noir. This grape is the spoiled brat of the wine world; temperamental, difficult. But the wine is quite popular, whether from Burgundy or Oregon.

Why? If you've tried a really good pinot noir you need not ask.

First of these rad reds is one with a fairly long history — cabernet franc. This grape is one of the five approved blending grapes in Bordeaux and generally is blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot for fruitiness and color. It does produce a lovely medium-bodied dry red table wine on its own, without the depth of its broad-shouldered relative cabernet sauvignon.

Cab franc is thinner-skinned and has lower acid levels than cab sauvignon or merlot, therefore the fruity flavors are more apparent. Cab franc also does not require the depth of aging that the sauvignon wines do. Not surprisingly France grows the most cab franc in the world. However, the New World is catching up. California has more than 2,000 acres planted to this grape, most in Napa and Sonoma.

Tempranillo is a name most often associated with Spain. It and garnacha (known as grenache in the Rhone) are the top red wine grapes from Spain, although California is growing more of this hearty grape every year.

Tempranillo produces full-bodied hearty wine; its acidity held in check by deep fruit flavors, such as red cherries and raspberries. I like a few years of age on my tempranillo — at least three, four if possible. I'm fond of this wine with a rich beef dish, whether a New York strip steak on the grill or a really good hamburger.

This next grape can be found fairly easily around here at some Georgia wineries. It's tannat. Its home is the Madiran region in southwest France. But tannat is grown at Frogtown Cellars, between Cleveland and Dahlonega, and at Tiger Mountain Vineyards in Rabun County, producing lovely wines at both locations. It also is grown in Uruguay, where it is known as harriague, and Argentina.

Tannat wine is not subtle. When young it's earthy and smoky; the tannins take a couple of years to settle down. The Georgia examples especially need about three years of bottle aging. But it's a remarkably complex wine. In Uruguay, where red meat is a staple of the diet, tannat is a first choice with beef and lamb. It's also quite good with flavorful soft cheeses.

If you are interested in tasting wines made from these minor grapes, you'll have to shop around. Chances are pretty slim you'll find them on supermarket shelves. Consult with your wine merchant for available selections.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? Contact him at