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Harmony, rather than shock, on the vine

Not too many years ago consumers demanded — and winemakers supplied — powerful and highly extracted red wines that tried to outdo each other in concentration and alcohol levels. Maybe winemakers decided to see how much they could push the limits of winemaking and consumers just decided they loved these bruisers. We'll probably never know.

Wine writers were of no help in discouraging this trend. In fact, they awarded high scores to wines with ripe, extracted flavors and alcohol amounts that exceeded 14 percent. But eventually many people — including some winemakers — concluded these wines were poor matches to food and their ferocious assault wore out the palate.

Lately, we've seen a not-so-subtle change.

Not long ago, we met up with John Geber, owner of Australia's Chateau Tanunda. His country's wines burst on the scene in the 1990s with full-throttle shirazes that eventually stereotyped Australian wines — and not positively so. Geber's wines were a counterpoint: elegant and balanced with normal alcohol levels. The wines encouraged contemplation instead of shock and awe.

More recently, we met with Eric Stein, winemaker of Langtry Estate Vineyards and Guenoc Wines. Stein, who holds both grape-growing and winemaking degrees, also stressed balance and harmony. While tasting the 2012 Langtry Sauvignon Blanc Lillie's Vineyard ($23), Stein described how picking ripe fruit and stirring the lees created an easy-drinking and food-friendly wine instead of one dominated by herbs and classic cat pee characteristics.

Langtry's 2010 Estate Chardonnay Genevieve Vineyard ($25) and the 2010 Langtry Tephra Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) also demonstrated balance. The subtleties of these wines were quite opposite of the monsters we have tasted from other producers.

Although these are only two producers, they crystallize a trend toward a kinder and gentler approach to making fine wine. We hope it spreads.

Wine picks

•J. Lohr Cuvee St. E 2009 ($50). J. Lohr makes incredible wine in Paso Robles, Calif., and their cuvee series is top drawer — and expensive. It seems like everything that comes out of this producer is fruit forward in style — generous and hedonistic. We like the Cuvee St. E, made mostly from cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon grapes. Seriously dark in color, it has cassis and floral aromas with supple tannins and generous black berry and plum flavors.

•Geyser Peak Winery Devil's Inkstand Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($55). Now under the ownership of Australian-based Accolade Wines North America, Geyser Peak has released several exciting and new blends. The vineyards and winery were sold to Francis Ford Coppola, but the label retained to launch several new premium wines. This reserve cab is heady stuff with good complexity and fruit purity. Glad to see one of California's oldest names still kicking.

•LangeTwins Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($13). We loved the citrus and pineapple notes the musque clone brings to this delightful summer wine. Crisp acidity and long in the finish.

•Rodney Strong Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Sonoma County 2011 ($27). Attractive cherry cola nose and flavors with subtle cedar notes. Very easy to drink and pleasing to the palate.

•Terra d'Oro Chenin Blanc/Viognier 2013 ($16). From the Amador County, this intriguing blend will appeal to those who like juicy, almost sweet white wine. The viognier gives the wine a tropical fruit bouquet and the chenin blanc delivers the flavors and smooth texture.

•Vincent Avril Le Petit Vin d'Avril ($24). A blend of two vintages, this wine has juicy cherry flavors, a bit of pepper and spice. Meant to be drunk on release, it has fresh but rich flavors for summer drinking. Best served a little chilled. It is primarily a blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah.

•Smith & Hook Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($25). The 7 percent petite sirah in this wine provides nice color and dimension. Reasonably priced, it is a delicious Central Coast cabernet with black cherry notes with a good dose of vanilla.

•The Seventy Five Wine Co. "The Sum" 2012 ($20). Tuck Beckstoffer Wines of St. Helena, Calif., has come up with a tasty blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and syrah. Surprisingly firm tannins with expressive aromas of blueberries and chocolate.

•Hoopla "The Mutt" 2011 ($17). We enjoyed the ripe berry flavors of this Napa Valley blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petite sirah. Firm tannins, yet copious blackberry and cherry flavors.

Tom Marquardt is the retired editor and publisher of Capital Gazette Communications. Patrick Darr works in the local wine retail business. Some of the reviewed wines were provided as samples by the producers. To reach the authors, or get help in finding a wine, go to their website http://www.moreabout wine.com.

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