Jay Yang suggests two wines that are more
affordable than similar wines from the same vineyard.

Brian Follensbee recommends a wine from the
barbera grape for a higher-end house wine that still doesn't
break the bank.

Second-label wines: Good value and decidedly delicious

Published on: 11/01/07
Second of two parts.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but value lies in the pocket with the money. If that pocket is full, a $35 Napa cabernet sauvignon can feel like a steal when you normally pay $100 or more for the privilege of opening a bottle of California wine royalty.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested selecting a house wine to have on hand when guests pop over, or as a modest reward for yourself on a job well done. A house wine should have broad appeal and should be opened without thought about cost. Selections should, therefore, lean toward value-oriented purchases. Of course, one man's Rolls-Royce is another's Matchbox car.

In October, I reported on five perfectly good house wine candidates ranging from $10 to $20. This week, the wine shop owners I contacted for help with this question are taking us slightly uptown.

Jay Yang, owner of Smyrna World of Beverage, suggested Caravan from Napa Valley, Calif., which goes for about $35 a bottle. This is a fantastic choice. This is a killer wine with dark berry characteristics and exotic flavors of chocolate and roasted coffee beans. Also, it is the second-label wine of the expensive, impossible-to-find Darioush Signature Cabernet Sauvignon.

Almost all high-end winemakers declassify barrels that would otherwise go toward their premium label. These second-label (and sometimes third-label) wines are not bottom-shelf, closeout offerings. They often are delicious wines at half or a third of the price of their more renowned big brother.

"Sometimes I even like a second label better than the first label," Yang says. "This is especially true if I want to drink it right now. These second labels often have ripe fruit flavors that are ready to be enjoyed immediately and they will give you an idea of what the first label will taste like in a few years after it develops more in the bottle."

Darioush is a relative newcomer in the universe of cult wines. Introduced in 1997, it was rated a top 10 wine by several national wine publications and since then has been a media darling. A candidate for your house wine? No, not even if you could afford the $75 price tag and have the patience to wait five or seven years before opening it. Let's face it, if Tony Bennett is coming over to your house to sing for you, you'll probably want to make a big deal out of the occasion. And so it goes with wines possessing similar luminous star quality. You're simply not going to pop the cork on a Darioush for some reheated pot roast.

Staying with the second-label theme, Yang heartily recommended Meyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley's Hestan Vineyards. Technically, it's not a second label because it has its own grape sources, separate from the Hestan Vineyards Cabernet. It is made by Hestan Vineyards' winemaker Mark Herold (best known for his $350-a-bottle Merus Cabernet Sauvignon). The Meyer Vineyard Cabernet goes for about $56 a bottle. This is a bargain when you consider the price of the Hestan.

"Usually you will see them for $130 a bottle," Yang said, but he can't be sure because so little of the Hestan makes it out of the winery.

Perhaps the Meyer Vineyard Cabernet will ascend the ladder of fame and become too expensive and hard to find for your house wine, but you might think of getting your hands on a few bottles now before Yang drinks them all.

"Remember a long time ago when people were crazy about Silver Oak (Napa Valley) back in 1999? This reminds me of the Silver Oak when they made really high quality Silver Oaks," Yang said. "It is a really nice wine that you'll be able to find. It is good for the fall and winter time and it will be something that people can enjoy with a lot of dishes, especially heavy meals."

Lesser known, second labels are great sources for finding values, but lesser- know grape varieties work the same way. Nebbiolo is the king of grapes in Italy's Piedmont region, where they make the famed wines from Barolo and Barbaresco. While low-end, $40 and $50 Barolos are not unheard of, they are rare. Top-tier Barolos go for $200 and $300 a bottle.

Scrumptiously flying under the radar in Piedmont is the barbera grape. Brian Follensbee, general manager of Atlantic Wine & Spirits in Sandy Springs, suggests a case of Bruno Giacosa's barbera from Alba — just down the via from Barbaresco and Barolo — for your wine cellar.

"Barberas are food- friendly," said Follensbee. "They are a rich and round grape with not a lot of tannins. Tannins sometimes get in the way of the food. If you have a wine that overpowers the food, you have a wine and food pairing that is less for the effort."

Newly minted Barolos and Barbarescos can take years for the formidable tannins to give way to their inherent earthy, chocolate, licorice and trufflelike qualities. Wines made from barbera grapes, which can be found throughout the Piedmont, give you most of what you're looking for in a nebbiolo-based wine for less than half the price and you can enjoy them now. The 2005 Giacosa Barbera d'Alba goes for about $26. The 2003 Giacosa Rocche del Falletto Barolo retails for $225.

Inspired by Yang's domestic choice and Follensbee's selection from Italy, I decided to meld the two and choose a California winemaker that specializes in Italian varieties for my higher-end house wine. Ferrari-Carano's Siena is a lovely red wine made in Sonoma County, Calif. This sangiovese-based wine tastes like milk chocolate marinated in crushed black cherries. It's widely available and at $23 a bottle, it is not a bank breaker — at least not for some.

There are hundreds of candidates for your house wine selection and they're waiting for you at your local wine shop. For help with your choice, tell your sales associate what types of wines you like and perhaps bring a list of bottles that tickle your fancy, even if they are way over your budget. Avoid busy Saturday afternoons.





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