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The leaves are falling and the wine tasting is getting serious

The passing of summer holds fewer regrets when wine is your passion.

Autumn is the time of the vintage, when wineries take on the powerful smells of fermenting juice. Into the crusher goes man's most ancient symbol of the good life, the ripe bunch of grapes. Gloppy, murky juice flows into containers, and by a natural process that inspired many of our ancestors to worship, a brilliant wine is born.

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And when the cool days come and the color green is in full retreat from nature's battlefield, there begins the finest season for savoring wine. Not the flippant wines of summer, but deep, golden whites and lush, brooding reds. Finish off remaining bottles of chenin blanc, muscat and white zinfandel -- it's time to find pleasure in seriousness.

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Here are some places to start:

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1991 zinfandel So great was the 1990 vintage of California red zinfandel that it is difficult to accept that 1991 is at least its equal.

But it's true. The 1991 cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays might have slipped a notch from their classic 1990 performance, but zinfandel held its ground.

Zinfandel -- the real, red stuff -- has never been more popular. These days, when a top-quality zinfandel appears in the stores, zin lovers swarm like sharks to blood. Within weeks, the shelves have been stripped.

The same happens with the most renowned cabernets, but the zinfandels seem to go even faster. The reason, perhaps, is that people hide their cabernets away in cellars. Zinfandels they drink.

The people who gathered electronically to taste zinfandels together on America Online one night earlier this month cited many reasons for their zin-fomania. They like the fullness of the fruit, the softness of the tannin, and the fact that you don't have to wait years to enjoy it. They praised its affinity with food and reveled in its relative affordability.

The wines that were most frequently mentioned were those of Ridge. This magnificent winery produced some mind-boggling zinfandels in 1991, especially if you count its proprietary red wine called Geyserville as a zin. (The Ridge Geyserville used to be labeled as a zinfandel, but now its zin content often falls below the required 75 percent to be labeled as one.)

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The Ridge Geyserville and Lytton Springs zinfandel now cost about $20 -- high for a zinfandel but still a bargain when you consider that cabernets with as much complexity and depth will cost you $40 or more. If you see either of these, buy first and ask questions later.

Luckily, Ridge has produced a less expensive (about $12), more abundant and almost as impressive Sonoma County zinfandel in 1991. Several on-line tasters showed up with this wine, and all who tasted it raved about it, including myself. This brawny, peppery wine with nuances of blackberry and chocolate is a brother of the classic Lytton Springs. This is a tremendous bargain.

Another extraordinary zin that was tasted that night was the 1991 Elyse from the Morisoli Vineyard ($17). This intensely flavored wine with hints of black cherry reflected the more elegant style of Napa Valley zinfandel, but it had enough guts to place it on a par with the better zins of Ridge and Ravenswood.

Other wines tasted during the electronic sip-in:

* 1991 Caymus Napa Valley Zinfandel ($12). This wine has the typical cabernet-like structure of Caymus zin, but there's an extra measure of berry-ish zinfandel flavor that makes this the best zin yet from this exceptionally reliable producer.

* 1991 Ravenswood Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($15). A peppery, burly wine, the Ravenswood has a rustic charm and an intensity that reveals its old-vines origins.

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* 1991 Quivira Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($13.49). This middleweight wine is not in the class of the previous wines, but it has an easy charm and is thoroughly drinkable.

* 1991 DeLoach Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($12.49). DeLoach is a fine producer, but something went wrong here. This wine wasn't corked, but there was an unpleasant onion-charcoal aroma and a touch of volatile acidity.

Local wines had their day in the sun last Sunday at the Maryland Wine Festival.

The annual gathering at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster brought gold medal honors to several Maryland wineries in the Governor's Cup Competition.

Top honors went to Basignani Winery 1991 Marisa, a fruity red wine. The Marisa is almost outlandishly inexpensive at about $6, and creating such a fine wine out of undistinguished hybrid grapes is the enological equivalent of alchemy.

Another gold medal winner was Woodhall Vineyards' 1992 Seyval, a dry white wine. Because seyval is a hybrid grape, and thus unfashionable, the Woodhall is also an outstanding bargain. Even better is the 1991, if you can find it.

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Among the more familiar European varietals, gold medals went to Catoctin Vineyards for its 1987 cabernet sauvignon and 1990 oak-fermented chardonnay; Elk Run Vineyards for its 1991 cabernet sauvignon; Woodhall Vineyards for its 1991 Copernica Vineyard reserve cabernet sauvignon; and Basignani Winery's 1992 riesling.

Maryland wine enthusiasts should pay attention to the 1991 cabernet sauvignons now coming on the market. It was an extraordinary vintage.

The best examples on the market are the 1991 Elk Run Montbray Vineyard cabernet and the gold medal-winning Woodhall Copernica Vineyard reserve. But enthusiasts should make an effort to get their hands on one of the 190 cases of Basignani's 1991 Lorenzino, a cabernet-dominated Bordeaux-style blend that might well be the finest red ever produced on the East Coast.

The supple but firmly structured Lorenzino, which reminded me of a fine St. Julien, is likely to be released in December for about $20 a bottle.

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The American Heart Association's annual wine auction weekend has become Baltimore's most prestigious wine-related event, and a look at its 1993 catalog shows why.

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The heart association's Maryland affiliate has put together its best roster of auction items to date. Besides rare wines, next Sunday's auction at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel will offer a variety of "experiences," including a dinner-tasting at the Milton Inn with Wine Advocate publisher Robert M. Parker Jr. and travel packages to California, Oregon and New York.

In addition, 10 Maryland restaurateurs have joined forces to offer a successful bidder a year of dinners for two at Baltimore's finest eating places. A group of female chefs from the International Culinary Society have donated a meal accompanied by wines made by some of America's most talented woman winemakers.

Wine items include horizontal (multi-chateau) collections of the great 1982 and 1989 Bordeaux; a four-bottle set of First Growth Bordeaux from 1952 and 1955; the 1924 Chateau Margaux; a vertical (multi-vintage) collection of Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape; and a six-magnum vertical of Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Sunday auction will wind up a weekend of events including a Friday night tasting, a Saturday night black-tie dinner and a Sunday morning tasting of 1990 California cabernets with Mr. Parker.

Honorary chairman this year is Marimar Torres, the North American representative for Spain's famous Torres winery and president of the Marimar Torres winery in California.

Admission to the auction is free. Call the heart association at (410) 296-2491 or (800) 624-4489.

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CRITIC's CHOICE

1992 Basignani Winery Riesling, Maryland ($9). This Baltimore County winery has oh-so-quietly emerged as one of the country's best producers of dry riesling. The 1992, which won a gold medal in the Governor's Cup competition, offers classic riesling flavors of slate, peach and apple in a firmly structured framework. A little tight now, it actually tasted better on the day after it was opened.



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