Could you imagine a world without wine? How about a world without <i>French</i> wine? This concept sounds like vinous hell to me, an admitted Francophile (and Italophile and a lot of other -philes), but then, I like to sample life and wine in all its infinite variety.
Still, when a bunch of wacky wine buddies announced plans for a tongue-in-cheek "Anti-Bastille Day" gathering - a just-for-fun, non-political party at which everyone must bring wines neither made in France nor using any French-heritage grape varieties - I was willing to play.
The challenge wasn't as easy as it seemed: Part of the game is that wines were to be inspected at the entrance, and any lapses from non-French form sent back to the donor's car amid much jeering and happy scorn. Not only were Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Alsace and the Loire off the table, but I couldn't even bring my Napa Syrah or my Australian Marsanne.
I could have wimped out with something easy like an Amador County Zinfandel or maybe a Missouri Norton or even a Manischewitz Concord, but what fun is that?
No, with wine geeks at the level of this group - Master Sommeliers and candidates, wine servers and chefs - I needed to step away from France in an extraordinary way.
Fortunately, a walk through some really offbeat wines awaiting tasting came up with a couple of "interesting" samples. They're not French, and chances are that they'll be hard to find in most parts of the world. But I thought you'd find them interesting just for their oddity.
Please take note that we're not poking fun at these wines just because they're "different." They're interesting wines from out-of-the-ordinary places, but both proved to be well-made in its fashion if a far cry from the usual fine-wine paradigm. Even if you're conservative in your wine tastes, it's worth an occasional step outside your comfort zone, if only as a learning experience.
<table border="0" align="right" width="100"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/aiko0722.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Tree of Life Collection NV Pomegranate (Armenia)
Apparently destined to be promoted on the basis of the pomegranate fruit's purported health qualities as a rich source of heart-healthy antioxidants, this "semi-sweet Wine fermented from 100 percent pure squeezed pomegranate juice" is made by Proshyan Brandy Factory in Yerevan, Armenia, and imported in the U.S. by Aiko LLC, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
It bears a fairly close resemblance to an off-dry red table wine made from grapes. Light purple in color, not much darker than a rosé, it's passable but a bit quirky in the aroma department, with markedly vegetal characters and a distinct whiff of the dill-pickle jar. It's much more appealing in the flavor, juicy and fresh pomegranate juice, soft in acidity and gently sweet. Probably best chilled or even used with soda over ice with plenty of lemon or lime chunks as a summer spritzer.
<table border="0" align="left" width="170"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/sangwhang.jpg" border="1" align="left"></td></tr></table>Sansu Sangwhang Korean Traditional Wine (Korea)
Packaged in a 375ml screw-capped "half-bottle" and apparently intended primarily for the Korean-American market, this oddity bears very little English on the label. It's made not from fruit but is described as a "liquor" (17 percent alcohol) made from a distillate of <i>Phillinus linteus</i> ("Sangwhang" in Korean), a yellow tree fungus that grows on mulberry trees and is a prized Korean delicacy.
Pale golden-bronze in color, it breathes a distinct, pleasant mushroomy scent akin to dried black Chinese "wood ear" mushrooms, along with a slightly floral scent of aromatic rice that's reminiscent of sake. Indeed, its overall character is reminiscent of a good, clean sake with a distinct mushroom aroma added, from its delicate aromas to its strong, slightly sweet flavor. I'd try it with Korean vegetarian fare or bring it to the sushi bar as an interesting substitute for sake. U.S. importer: Precious Wine Corp., Flushing, N.Y.
Now, for those who'd prefer something a little more traditional, here's a recent arrival, the 2006 vintage of a long-time California favorite. It wasn't eligible for the non-French gathering because of its French-heritage grapes. Too bad. More for me.
<table border="0" align="right" width="170"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/pine0720.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Pine Ridge 2006 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc-Viognier ($15.99)
This blend of mostly (86 percent) Chenin Blanc with 14% Viognier is a pale, straw-color wine. It shows hints of both varieties on the nose, honeydew melon attributable to Chenin and light, delicate wildflowers suggesting Viognier. Fresh, lively flavor, a hint of prickly, barely carbonated "petillance" adds a refreshing vibe. Crisp white fruit and zippy lemon-lime last and last in a long, clean finish. A wonderful summer sipper, pleasantly slurpable at just 12.2% alcohol; it shows more than enough complexity and character to lift it well above the ordinary. (July 20, 2007)
<B>FOOD MATCH:</b> Fine with seafood, poultry or pork, it served delightfully with spaghetti <i>aglio e olio</i> tossed with sauteed bites of mixed cod, sea bass, grouper, tilapia and tuna.
<B>VALUE:</B> It's still a fine value in the mid-teens, but shop around, as the retail price I paid is at the high end of the range; some vendors around the U.S. offer it for as little as $10, at which point it's a no-brainer for buying by the case.
<B>WHEN TO DRINK:</B> Fresh and delicious now, but the dominance of ageworthy Chenin Blanc and the sturdy screwcap suggest it should hold up well, and perhaps gain complexity and richness, over the next several years.
You'll find a fact sheet about this wine and vintage, with tasting notes and a vineyard report, on the Pine Ridge Website:
<B>FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:</B>
Check prices and find vendors for Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier on Wine-Searcher.com:
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