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Not all wines age gracefully


If only it were possible to expunge the trite, inaccurate and all-too-common phrase "aging like fine wine."

Yes, some wines age magnificently. But these are a tiny minority. In fact, a wine needn't age well to be more than just fine. And a wine isn't necessarily fine because it will age.

Some of the world's most delightful wines should be consumed in their first year - ideally in the summertime. Young, fruity whites, crisp pink wines and even many reds are never better than when they are so fresh that drinking them is like sinking your teeth into ripe fruit.

Unfortunately, the American wine trade often acts as if it is dealing with a product that will last forever.

You see retailers letting decrepit 1997 rose wines languish on store shelves --- still at full price. You see distributors delaying their orders of fresh, lively wine until the old, tired vintage sells out. You see wineries shipping products that were meant to be consumed in summer after Labor Day.(A modest suggestion to the industry: expiration dates. Even the soda pop industry cares enough about quality to use them.)

Fortunately, the shelves of local stores are filling up with vibrant, refreshing wines of the 1999 vintage. A recent tasting showed that none of these wines was released before its time. On the contrary, they are right on time.

So which kinds of wines are best drunk before the age of 2? The list goes on and on:

Pink wines: There are still roses that will last more than 18 months, but I've yet to taste one (except for champagne) that actually benefits. California is producing some excellent ones these days, especially those made from Rhone grape varietals, but don't write off the white zinfandel category. Some of these are very well made.

Recommended 1999s: Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare ($9); DeLoach White Zinfandel ($8); 1999 Beringer LVS, 80 percent white zinfandel, 20 percent chardonnay, ($8).

American rieslings: U.S. rieslings seldom have the complexity or the durability of their German or Alsace counterparts, but they are often delicious wines for casual sipping on hot days. They also go well with spicy Asian cuisines.

Recommended 1999s: Trefethen Dry Riesling, Napa Valley ($14); Jekel Riesling, Monterey ($10 ); Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County ($9).

California chenin blanc: This neglected varietal is capable of wonderful things in California when the wineries don't hold on to it too long or try to turn it into soda pop.

Recommended 1999: Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg ($8). A wonderful wine at this price.

New World sauvignon blanc: Many of these wines hold up quite well for two or three years, but there's a lot to be said for kicking them out the winery door quickly, with minimal oak aging and intense herb and fruit flavors. This is especially true for Australia, New Zealand and South America, where the wines get a six-month head start.

Recommended 1999s: Casa Lapostolle, Rapel Valley, Chile ($10); Geyser Peak, Sonoma County ($11), both of which are superb. Also good are the Rosemount Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Southeastern Australia ($9), and Kunde Magnolia Lane Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma Valley ($12).

Dry Loire Valley whites: Often these French wines arrive at 2 years of age. In many cases, it's hard to see why the second year is necessary. This goes for the sauvignon-blanc-based wines (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Menetou-Salon, Quincy) as well as the more fruity chenin-blanc-based wines of Vouvray.

Recommended 1999s: Christian Salmon Sancerre, Cuvee Vieilles Vignes ($14), a ravishingly beautiful, intensely herbal wine that is a superb value; Domaine Pichot Vouvray, Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette ($11), drier and more complex than most Vouvrays.

Lesser-known French whites: The white wines of the Cotes de Gascogne are especially good values, but fade fast after their first summer. And there's nothing like a glass of Picpoul by the pool.

Recommended 1999s: Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet, Coteaux du Languedoc ($7); Domaine du Rey Vin de Pays de Cotes de Gascogne ($7).

East Coast whites: Such varietals as seyval blanc, vidal, riesling and even chardonnay can be superb in their first year. In Maryland, too many wineries have tired old product on store shelves, holding back the new wines.

Recommended 1999: Boordy Seyval Blanc, Maryland ($8).

Italian whites: It's hard to think of any Italian white, except Gaja chardonnays, that wouldn't taste better in its first year.

Recommended 1999: Fazi-Battaglia Verdicchio de Castelli di Jesi ($10), for those who like a bone-dry white.

Chardonnay: Most of the chardonnays on the market now are 1998s or 1997s, but some of the 1999s out there could make you question whether the wines need to be hanging around in oak barrels so long.

For a wine that could challenge your notions of how chardonnay should taste, try the 1999 Hardy's Mill Cellars Unwooded Chardonnay from Southeastern Australia ($7). This wine offers intense flavors of apple, lemon, melon, tropical fruit and white pepper. Where's the oak? Who cares?

Other recommended 1999s: Beringer Founder's Reserve ($17.49), from magnum; 1996 Canyon Road ($10).

Red wines: While white and pink wines dominate the list of wines to drink in their first year, there are some superb 1999 reds. Especially noteworthy is the performance of Georges Duboeuf, the master of fine Beaujolais. His 1999 bottlings of Beaujolais-Villages may be his best ever.

Recommended 1999s: Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages flower label ($7); Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Special Selection ($8); and the Duboeuf Chateau de la Grande Grange Beaujolais-Villages ($9).

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