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Monday, April 13, 2009

The Conundrum Conundrum.

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I like to know what I'm drinking.

One nice thing about American wines is that they're generally pretty easy to figure out. A sauvignon blanc will say "sauvignon blanc" right there on the label. Merlot is "merlot." White Zinfandel is...well...pink. No great mysteries.

Like many novice wine drinkers, I was flummoxed by European wines because I had no idea what they were -- and there aren't usually "Hey! Pouilly-Fuisse is really Chardonnay!" signs posted in wine stores. I usually avoided Eurowines and others without grape names on the labels since I had no idea what I was getting into. There was, however, one notable exception:


Conundrum.

Back in the day, it was "Caymus Conundrum" -- and I adored this wine. The SPinC and I used it as our "special occasion" white for years. (We used to save all the corks as remembrances -- so we were disappointed when it went to a Stelvin closure.) I was fascinated by it. Sauvignon blanc, muscat, chardonnay, and viognier all happily co-existing in a deliciously complex white wine. "Who ever thought that blending a bunch of different grapes together could create something this good?" I thought.

I knew that there were plenty of red blends. I was used to seeing "Grenache/Syrah" on the side of a bottle of Rosemount, for instance. But whites -- aside from the occasional Australian "Semillion/Chardonnay" which I generally didn't care for -- I just didn't think they got blended.

[Factoid: For an American wine to be labeled with a grape, it must contain at least 75% of that grape. A U.S. made chardonnay is at least 75% chardonnay, for instance.]

I've learned differently, of course -- few European whites, especially French whites, are 100% of any kind of grape. There are predominant grape varieties, of course, but blends are more common than not, which is one of the reasons that I find whites from Europe more "textured."

American winemakers are learning, though. Much like the "Rhone Rangers" in California first came up with "meritage" to mimic some of the French red blends, a number of American winemakers are starting to experiment with white blends to make the most of what they have on hand. None of the white blends -- at least as of yet -- have drawn the star power of Conundrum, but most of them also don't carry the same pricetag.

I've run into a few of these blends recently that I think are worth your while. One quick note on almost all of these, though. At least in my experience, white blends tend to be considerably more temperature-sensitive than straight varietals. All of these wines will be much more complex and flavorful if you let them warm up a few degrees above where you'd normally pour whites. Trust me, it's worth it. Here's a few for you to check out:

Magito 2006 "Rivertrace Blend" White Wine -- The back label of this bottle leads with a quote from one of my favorite poets, the Persian poet Rumi: "Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love." What that exactly has to do with this particular wine, I'm not sure, but it was enough to get me to give it a whirl. This complex, interesting wine from Sebastopol is made primarily from sauvignon blanc with some viognier and verdelho blended in. With the presence of those "V" wines, I expected a perfumey wine. Instead, there's a gentle nose of pears and lemons. The body is rather full with some melon flavors. The finish is a little bit dry and pleasantly acidic. I really enjoyed this wine with a meal of grouper with jicama & tomatoes in a black bean sauce over some yellow rice. The wine was assertive enough to let those citrus notes through while not detracting from the other yummy flavors flying in every direction. $10-12.

Seven Daughters (NV) White Wine -- This wine struck me as blend where it seems the winemakers said, "Let's just throw all this extra grape juice together and see if it works." I know that there's more care than that -- but it's interesting to see that many grapes on the label. French Columbard (the backbone of cognac), Chardonnay, Riesling, Symphony (a relatively new clone from California), Orange Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc make up this little California creation. The wine itself? Well, at first we tried it after we'd eaten some red fish... Swedish fish to be exact. [Fail. Reboot wine drinking...] After a couple of crackers, we tried again, took a sip and weren't impressed. There was a nice fragrance of oranges and flowers on the nose, but the body quickly turned bitter. We put it aside for a bit. That made all the difference, since the wine needed to warm almost to room temperature. The body then broadens quite a bit, with more melon and mineral characters standing out. The finish becomes more crisp and less bitter. Once it got to that point, it reminded me a little of a Loire wine with its minerality -- and I'd pair it with many of the same foods: white fish and shellfish, Thai, and other cuisines with a bit of spice. $10-13

Hedges 2006 "C.M.S." White Wine -- Hedges winery makes a number of higher end red blends and single varietals. Their second-label blends are known as "CMS." They've done a cabernet-merlot-syrah blend for awhile, but they've started doing whites -- the "CMS" stands here for "Chardonnay, Marsanne, Sauvignon Blanc." Marsanne is a grape grown largely in the northern Rhone Valley but made its way via California to Washington -- where it gets blended into this very interesting wine. French Marsanne creates rich, spicy wines on its own and is blended in with other grapes to create depth. A little goes a long way. While there's only 3% in this mix, that's plenty to enrich the flavor. Coupled with the creaminess of cool-climate chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, this white winds up with a very complex, well-balanced flavor -- especially since you're drinking something with a $10 pricetag. There's some pear flavor, some oak, some mineral, and a firm, lasting finish. Again, fish and shellfish are the obvious pairings.

Since it's possible to create reasonably complex, yet inexpensive, wine through blending -- I think you'll see more and more blends like this showing up on the market. The trick will be figuring out where they'll be shelved in your local wine store.

As for Conundrum, it's still out there and it's still a good bet. If you want to give it a try, a bottle's around $25.