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Alluring appeal of young wines


Summer belongs to the young. If you have any doubt, just walk along the boardwalk in Ocean City and watch the people passing by.

It's much the same with wine. Though connoisseurs may praise the subtleties and complexities of well-aged wines, July is not their time of year.

When the days are long and the weather is hot, youth becomes a virtue in wine. The producer who can kick last year's vintage out the door fast enough to reach store shelves by Memorial Day becomes a winemaking genius.

This July, the Vintage of the Century is 2002. Next year it will be 2003. I guarantee it.

That's because freshness is the paramount virtue in the types of wines that shine in summer -- fruity whites without a trace of oak and crisp roses with character. Wines bought new also benefit from spending less time in the distribution system, where they can suffer all kinds of indignities.

Too often one sees wines just reaching store shelves as their moment has passed. The fresh new vintage gets backed up behind the drinkable but no-longer-enthralling 2-year-old wine. So a California chenin blanc that would have been delightful in summer arrives in October, when its time has passed.

Consumers today can count on finding an abundance of 2002 wines from the Southern Hemisphere on store shelves. But those are six months older than wines from the United States and Europe and have had to take a long trip across the Equator. For maximum freshness, go for the northern half of the Earth.

The following U.S. and European producers have managed to put crisp, refreshing 2002 vintage on the market in time for their peak season -- between now and Labor Day. Serve them cold, outdoors and with grilled shrimp. That's what they're made for. They are listed in rough order of quality, but all are delightful.

(Note: Many of these wines use artificial corks, which should be viewed as a plus. Screw caps are even better. Natural cork makes no sense with these wines.)

* 2002 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($26). Usually wines this complex and expensive take longer to get to market, but Cakebread has made the right move in selling this wine young. It's a full-bodied, ripe, smoky, intense wine with wonderful fig and herb flavors. This would be best served in the outdoor dining area of a fine restaurant along with swordfish, monkfish or the like.

* 2002 Ca' Montini Pinot Grigio "L'Aristocratico," Trentino ($14). Pay no attention to the gimmicky bottle -- this is great wine. It's full-bodied, dry and beautifully textured, with a subtle and lively blend of nut, pear and herb flavors.

* 2002 Ca' del Solo Malvasia Bianca, Monterey White Wine ($13). More of a true summer wine than the Cakebread but almost as complex, this delicious young thing displays penetrating flavors of grapefruit, lime, pear, melons and herbs.

* 2002 Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg ($9). Consistently one of California's greatest values, Dry Creek's chenin delivers a fruit salad of flavor with nuances of honey and herbs and a sleek, refreshing finish. Bravo!

* 2002 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier ($14). This nontraditional blend of two of France's greatest white-wine grapes has yielded an exceptionally fresh, fruity, dry wine with lively flavors of pear, lemon, minerals and spearmint. It's pure fun, with a nice bite in the finish.

* 2002 Gini Soave Classico ($16). This is not your father's old style, watered-down Soave. It's a full-bodied, nut-flavored white wine with flavors of mineral and apple and a touch of bitters. Imported by the estimable Marc de Grazia.

* 2002 Banfi "Le Rime" Chardonnay & Pinot Grigio ($9). After tasting a corked sample of this wine, I decided to give it a second chance and was glad I did. It's a delightfully dry summer quaff with crisp flavors of apple, lemon, white pepper, nuts, slate and sweet pea. It would be great with sauteed soft crabs.

* 2002 Marques de Caceres Rioja ($6). This very dry Spanish white wine is simply a spectacular value. It's crisp, clean and refreshing -- with more complexity than one could ever expect in a $6 wine. Flavors in this wine include pear, minerals, mint, lemon, lime and white pepper. Imagine a cross between a fine California sauvignon blanc and a well-made Italian pinot grigio.

* 2002 Domaine de Pouy, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne ($7). This property from France's Cognac region consistently produces one of the world's great summer wines -- bone-dry but incredibly fruity and refreshing. Drink liberally between now and September, then forget it.

* 2002 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare ($10). Well-made pink wines are great antidotes to wine snobbery, and this perennial winner from California is one of the best. A bone-dry wine, it offers enticing strawberry and cherry flavors with hints of herbs. Serve with salmon, ham or hors d'oeuvres.

* 2002 Groth Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($15). This full-bodied, lively sauvignon blanc, with icy flavors of pineapple, pear and fresh tarragon, would make a terrific match with grilled seafood.

* 2002 Castello Banfi San Angelo Pinot Grigio ($9). A wine can be light-bodied and still can have excellent grip, as this bone-dry Italian white wine shows. Its crisp, lemony, herbal flavors make it a great match for grilled seafood.

* 2002 Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($12). Another well-made Italian white similar to the previous wine.

* 2002 Beringer Johannisberg Riesling ($8).This fruity, off-dry riesling shows fine grip and length in a style with broad appeal to veterans and new wine drinkers alike.

* 2002 Tin Roof Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast ($10). This secondary of Murphy-Goode shows that good things can come under screw caps. It's not especially complex, but its light, dry, lemony character will have broad appeal.

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