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Through the Grapevine 

Wine ramblings and trends

Hot Grape in the City
Viognier [VEE o NYAY] comes in as the hot grape to cool you down this upcoming summer. Originally from the Rhone region of France, it wasn't until recently that winemakers in California woke up and smelled the perfume inherent in this better-than-the-average-bear grape. It's heavy-weighted and smooth like a Chardonnay, but less acidic than a Sauvignon Blanc, and oozes floral character all its own. A few years back, Bonterra Vineyards released a delicious, organic Viognier that made me fall in love with this varietal, and I've been hooked ever since. Add a few to your summer wine rack and see if you love it too.

Glut's Getting To Everyone
There's reams of ramblings about the wine glut in California. With new technology, Mother Nature's continual gifts of great weather, and a lower-than-expected demand for juice, winemakers have literally tons of excess grapes on their hands. This is great news for consumers who patiently waited for California wine prices to come back to earth, but bad news for struggling wineries begging for decent revenues. It's gotten so bad, some wineries have closed their doors, and low-quality vineyards planted in Central Valley during the explosive growth in the '90s are being ripped up. It simply costs too much to upkeep grapes with little to offer and so much competition.

But even with the apparent slowdown in demand, American consumption rates have climbed from 423 million gallons of table wine in 1990 to 532 million gallons in 2002. This survival of the fittest reality test in wine country happens every once in a while -- last time was the late '80s -- so more power to those who can duke it out.

Chards Are Becoming...
Since Chardonnay reigns as one of the most widely planted grapes in California, it's a shame people like me have ragged on the buttery, over-oaked California-style. But we needed to in order to return to the way Chardonnay is supposed to taste. The call from the throngs of wine critics and enthusiasts has been heard. Lately, Chardonnays with a crisp, flinty character all their own have emerged from wineries wanting to get back to the unadulterated flavor of wine. Hooray.

Up and Comer Areas
After hundreds of years, Europe figured out which types of grapes grow best in which areas, and American winemakers are getting the same education. For instance, Santa Barbara County land has emerged as a powerhouse for flavor, especially their incredible Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Bien Nacido Vineyard location. Wineries producing amazing wines from Bien Nacido grapes: Testarossa, Qupe, Au Bon Climat, Steele, and Villa Mt. Eden. We'll also be seeing more from the Central Coast and Paso Robles, because the quality of their fruit has multiplied in the past several years. Their secret lies in the grapes getting loads of sun to ripen to juicy perfection.

Recommended Wines

2001 William Hill Napa Chardonnay Clean, steely, flinty Chard without sucking on oak bits. Juicy pineapple and other exotic tropical flavors like honeysuckle. Fascinating wine. $15

2001 Cline Sonoma County Viognier Floral and peachy on the nose and follows through with tangy citrus and green apple on the tongue. A bit on the pricey side like most Viogniers, but worth every penny since it goes so well with food. $18 1/2

2000 Justin Isosceles An outstanding blend of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from Paso Robles, and the fruit just bursts in your mouth. This wine's got some guts to it, but it's approachable with food. Worth the rather high price. $40

The Wine List
Decoding Wine Labels Estate Vs. Generic, Old world, New world. June 3, 6:30-8 p.m. Mint Museum of Craft & Design, 220 N. Tryon St. Also June 4 (10am-11:30am) the Design Center, Westye Group Kitchen, 127 W. Worthington Ave #104. $30. 704-344-8027.

Entry Level Wine Classes The Science of wine making: overall process, style, grape varieties, aging. Westye Group Kitchen. Wed., May 28, 10-11:30 a.m. $30. The Design Center, 127 W. Worthington Ave # 104. 704-344-8027.

Four for Friday Four premium wines are featured in four ways: 2 oz. sample, 5 oz. glass, by the bottle or in a flight. Fridays. $20. Reid's Fine Foods, 7th Street Station. 704-377-1312.

Italian Wine Tasting Includes five tastings with presentation and complimentary tapas. Tue., June 3, 5:30-6:30 p.m. $15. Villa Antonio, 4707 South Blvd. 704-523-1594.

Unique White Wines Taste and learn about exotic white wines from Italy, Spain, California and more. Registration required. Wed., June 4, 7-8:30 p.m. $20. Southern Spirits, Hwy 521. 803-548-8888.

Wednesday Night Flights Very informal. Three wines tasted each week. Wednesdays, 5:30-7:30 p.m. $10. Reid's Fine Foods, 7th Street Station. 704-377-1312.

Wine Classes May 17- Pinot Noir. Great for beginners. Every month on the first and third Saturday, 12:30-1:30pm. $15. Dean & Deluca Wine Room, 6822-G Phillips Place Ct. 704-552-5283.

Wine Tastings Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m. $10. Barone's Wine Room, Birkdale Village, Huntersville. 704-987-0011.

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