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An Appellation A Day
A little geography makes wine shopping easier...

By Jonathon Alsop
September 1, 2004

Summery sparkling red from northern Italy.Hanging out in wine shops is fun for a lot of reasons. First of all, you can get great deals on wine. After you and the salespeople are friends, they invariably turn you on to a great bargain that everybody else isn't already into.

Second, you can taste some great wines, and when people start tasting wine, they start speaking in tongues -- winespeak, that is -- and walking funny, and that's always fun to watch.

Finally, you can learn things in a wine shop about food and wine and wine lovers that surprise you, and as a writer, I need to be surprised by wine at least 52 times a year.

A while back I was standing around tasting wine chatting about nothing with a salesman in a big wine shop in Boston. Up walked a customer with a bottle of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages, a wine that wine snobs generally look down upon because it's tasty, simple, cheap, and available literally everywhere.

"Excuse me: what's this like?" the man asked. The salesman turned to him and said, "Beaujolais is composed of dozens of important appellations and sub-appellations, each one with its own distinct flavor and character."

An awkward silence filled the uncomfortable clumsiness of the moment. "And this wine?" the man persisted. "This wine doesn't have that," the salesman replied, and the customer skulked away, no closer to knowing what it was like than before.

To have said "tasty, simple, cheap, and red" would have been more helpful.

A wine's appellation is important: it means where the grapes are grown and where the wine is made, literally and geographically.

European wines are often named after a nearby town, hill, or other important landmark. So long as you know on the map where all those things reside, you're fine. But to ask an American to point to Beaujolais on a map of France is like asking a Parisian to point to Miamisburg, Ohio, much less to understand what the 2003 Miamisburg Heights Cuvee might taste like.

Next time someone says something to you like, "This wine is grown in the foothills of the Dolomites," you say, "Really? Show me on a map."

2003 Alasia Brachetto d'Acqui (about $13, from Classic Wines, 617-469-5799)

If you looked on a three-dimensional map of Italy, you'd see that in the north, the foothills of the Alps -- called the Piedmont -- rise up and face south and west, toward the setting sun. I've always imagined this geography as an avid sunbather on the beach propped up in a chaise-lounge in order to catch the rays at a more direct and intense 90-degree angle. It's this geologic attitude towards the sun -- among other things -- that makes the Piedmont one of the worlds most famous wine regions.

Alasia is a fun, summery sparkling wine that breaks lots of rules. It's low in alcohol -- only 6 percent, lower than some ales -- it's somewhat sweet, and it's a sparkling red wine, which we almost never see. It comes from a neighborhood south of Asti, world famous for sparklers, and north of Monferrato, home of famous reds grown on volcanic soils, so that explains how this delicious sparkling red -- it's almost light enough to be a rose -- came to be. Chill it down nice and cold and serve with a big antipasto of Italian meats, cheeses, olives, and artichokes.

Hard To Find, Easy To Drink

Big numbers don't normally make me salivate unless they're on a bank check with my name on it, but Baumard from the Loire valley in northwest France has been knocking them dead in the press lately with huge wine scores, especially for white wines. The Wine Speculator (Spectator, that is) has awarded multiple golds for the Baumard 2002 Coteaux du Layon Clos Ste. Catherine (normally about $45, on sale at Marty's in Newton for $32 right now) and Baumard 2002 Quarts de Chaume (regularly about $60, also on sale briefly for $44). Supplies are scarce, but if you're a fan, you'll want to load up. Keep telling yourself it's only $8 a glass.

Just Trying To Be Funny

Last week, I thought I was joking when I suggested that the dream of owning your own Scotch distillery was about as unlikely as the dream of owning your own winery. James Thomson wrote from the UK to tell me about his venture, The Ladybank Company of Distillers Club, a joint ownership program limited to 1,250 members with ownership in the distillery. The program was launched last year in the UK and is scheduled to launch in the US soon. Benefits include 12 bottles a year, more than enough for me by a factor of about 12. Visit the website at whisky.co.uk for information and membership.


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