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SusanLeonardiWineauxW

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In search of yummy low-alcohol wines

By August 10, 2011

Sylvie, almost 4, a Berkeley resident, likes to pretend she has broken a limb. I’m the doctor. Treatment consists of a round of imaginary herbs, some faux acupuncture and a bandage (or two or three).

As soon as she recovers (this usually takes about 30 seconds), she becomes the doctor, and I feign a dislocated shoulder, headache or bleeding wound.

One day while I was “resting” (“Keep your eyes closed, Nonna”), I felt little fingers working my scalp. “Are you massaging my head, Sylvie?” I asked.

“No,” she said cheerily, “just checking for lice.”

Sylvie, the Very Young Urban Sophisticate.

Her cousin Sasha, the same age, lives a rural life, as yet untroubled by preschool and its attendant critters. But the organic farm offers its own sophistications (as well as critters, of course), including a vocabulary of fruits and vegetables that, anywhere else in the country, probably would elicit eye-rolling and the really annoying “only in California” comment.

Which is not to say that he’s willing to consume them all; he’s a highly discriminating (that is “picky”) eater and drinker. Last time I visited, the chaos level even higher than usual, he was on my lap, seemingly absorbed — as was I — in the spirited adult conversation.

I absently reached for my glass at one point, which was empty. He looked up at me with a sly grin, “I finished your wine, Nonna.” A nice Vinho Verde. Oh well, at least the alcohol was only 10 percent.

Yet another argument for restrained wine-making: You just never know who might pick up your glass.

I suspect some of my readers think I’m a bit obsessed with alcohol content, and perhaps they’re right — especially since that number is approximate (fungible?) at best and can even change after bottling.

But when I picked up an award-winning California “Rhône” blend last week and saw 16.2 percent, I wondered what self-respecting (French) Rhône wine-maker would let his or her grapes get that ripe or what self-respecting chef would want such a beast overwhelming his or her food.

At least I know I’m not alone in this “obsession.” Last April, the San Francisco Chronicle Food and Wine section decided to list the alcohol level of every wine reviewed to help consumers make informed choices. Wine merchant Kermit Lynch — who has, for three years now, offered a much-sought-after low-alcohol sampler — even overheard a client claim that lower levels of alcohol in wine have become trendy. About time.

That 16.2 percent did, though, inspire me — not to drink it but to go in search of some nice low-alcohol bottles that are delicious, food-friendly and affordable. The first one I picked up at Whole Foods — Opala Vinho Verde. I’ve written before about this wonderful — especially in summer — varietal, and I’ve liked nearly every one I’ve tasted, but the Opala seemed to me even more wonderful than usual.

The fruit is more intense than other VVs, for one thing. But it maintains the characteristic VV crispness and slight bubbliness. My three companions all loved it, too — and this particular group (which included the mother of above- mentioned small imbiber) seldom agrees on a white wine. Alas, the bottle disappeared all too quickly — and Sasha didn’t even get a sample.

Alcohol content of this Portuguese beauty: 9 percent! Price: $8.99.

Some people really dislike the strong grapefruit and gooseberry flavors of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but I’m not one of them. To me, that intensity, coupled with good minerality, makes a really refreshing drink that pairs surprisingly well with food of all sorts.

I recently found an incredibly good (though short-lived) deal on Brancott SB at Nugget — only $5 a bottle. It usually sells for $10. At either price, it’s a bargain — a delightful example of this varietal in the Marlborough style. I wish I had snagged a case or two. Alcohol: 12.5 percent.

Also on the Nugget shelves is a simple Italian red that I’ve been drinking all summer with my pastas and pizzas. Called just Vino Della Casa, it’s a little fruity, quite dry, pretty soft, a bit spicy and eminently drinkable. Nugget’s selling it for $5 to $6 a bottle.

The Davis Food Co-op has a Portuguese Tinto (Bons Ventos) for $6.99 and an Italian Sangiovese (Brumaio — organic grapes) for $8.99. All three of these wines: 12.5 percent.

To be honest, it’s not all that hard to find low-alcohol wines from Europe. California? The “trend” hasn’t quite hit.

One good thing that may come out of this atypical weather we’ve had the past couple of springs and summers is that our grapes may not ripen quite so much, which will result in lower-alcohol wines. For some wine-makers, this situation disappoints and alarms. Others, though, welcome the prospect of crafting a more traditional style wine.

Sparklers offer one opportunity to sample local lower-alcohol treats (and I’ve only recently discovered their wonderful compatibility with all manner of food, especially cheese of every sort). Try the delicious Capay Valley Sparkling Viognier at 11 percent — and on sale at the Co-op for $11.99.

Other excellent, reliable and reasonable local whites include the Noceto Pinot Grigio (13 percent), the Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc (12.5 percent)and the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier (13 percent) — all available at Nugget or the Co-op for under $13.

The Co-op also carries the Simas Family Marsanne (13 percent), a terrific example of a white Rhone blend, from our own Capay Valley.

But whites tend to be slightly lower in alcohol anyway. It’s more surprising to find a really good local red that hasn’t climbed above 13.5 percent. I like the Simas Family Capay Red, a Rhone blend similar in grape profile to that 16.2 percent monster — at 13.1 percent.

Like many European wines, this one won’t knock your socks off when you taste it (one reason that lower-alcohol wines often don’t score well in competitions), but when you savor it with a nice mushroom pasta or a rosemary lamb chop, it will start to unfold. Like the Marsanne, you can buy a glass at Monticello Seasonal Cuisine or a bottle at the Co-op.

Sasha’s little sister, Alea, is teething. Like generations of nonnas before me, I rubbed a fingerful of my wine — the Opala — on her gums. She licked her lips and grinned. I imagine it won’t take long for the two of them to start arguing about whether that’s apple or pear on the nose, lemon or lime mid-palate.

— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Susan Leonardi

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