Occasionally the tasting I do at home falls out this way, serendipitous, lively, instructive, fun. So here are three pairs of wines, some closely related, others a bit less so, but all fruitfully compared and contrasted.

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Kendall-Jackson is well-known and sometimes derided for its low-priced Vintner’s Reserve wines, which tend to cost from $12 to $16. A second Vintner’s Reserve line, with the designation “Jackson Estates Grown,” is priced at $18. The ubiquitous K-J Vintner’s Reserve kjmeritage.jpg Chardonnay and Merlot are probably the best-known of these wines, though the line includes sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. All of the wines carry the broadest California appellation.

New to the roster is the K-J Vintner’s Reserve Meritage; the 2003 and ’04 have been released. Each is a blend of cabernet sauvignon grapes, merlot and (traces of) cabernet franc. I’ll say that at the price, $12 for the ’03 and $14 for the ’04, they shouldn’t be missed. These are thoughtfully conceived and well-made wines and can go head-to-head with the best inexpensive wines we love from Spain, Italy, Argentina and (less so) California, especially paired with hearty red meat dishes. Winemaker is Randy Ullom.

The K-J Vintner’s Reserve Meritage 2004 is a blend of 65% cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot and one percent cabernet franc. My first note is: “Amazing depth & dimension for the price.” The bouquet teems with classic Bordeaux-like notes of cedar. tobacco and black olive, with black currant and black cherry fruit that segues seamlessly into the mouth. Support is provided in the form of dusty, chewy tannins and polished oak from nine months aging in French (56 percent) and American barrels. I rate this wine Very Good. Drink through 2009 or ’10. About $14

The Meritage 2003, one year older, is a deep purple color and offers a real mouthful of wine that balances a pretty tough structure with a lovely plush texture. The blend here is 49 percent cabernet sauvignon, 47 percent merlot and four percent cabernet franc. Is it the whisper of cabernet franc that provides the touches of walnut shell and underbrush, of blueberry and bitter chocolate? The lively spice and whiplash acid? Actually I would say that the blend works in canny harmony here, with black currant and black cherry flavors permeated by cedar and dried thyme and earthy tannins coming from every element. Very good+. Now through 2009 or ’10. About $12, great for buying by the case.

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What’s the idiom for “poles apart” in Spanish? These two wines from the well-known Rioja region, where the red tempranillo grape reigns, could not be more different, in intent and in result.

The Castillo de Fuenmajor Gran Familia Rioja 2004, 90 percent tempranillo and 10 percent graciano, is just a sweetheart of a wine. granrioja5.jpgIt’s rich and ripe, soft and warm, elegant and harmonious; it flows across the palate like satin woven with slightly macerated and roasted black currant, plum and blueberry flavors infused with dried spice, cedar and tobacco and a hint of orange pekoe tea. Gosh, how lovely and untroubled by ambition, toasty oak or high alcohol. Imported by Well Oiled Wine Co., Leesburg, Va. Very Good+. Now through 2008 or ’09. About $15.

On the other side of the spectrum is the hugely ambitious and just plain huge Bodegas Bilbainas Vicuana 2003, a blend of 75 tempranillo and 25 percent graciano. Touted as the “new expression of Rioja” by parent company Group Codorniu, Vicuana ’03 ages 15 months in oak barrels, the result, combined with dense chewy tannins, being a structure of impregnable firmness. It’s true that vicuana-2003.jpgthe wine delivers a tremendous burst of succulent black fruit and a powerful, pungent bouquet steeped in smoke and potpourri, but with its elements of briers, brambles and underbrush and dusty minerality, Vicuana goes from robust to rustic. The finish, unsurprisingly, is long, dry and austere. Imported by Vinum International, Napa Ca. Very good+. Best from 2008 or ’09 through 2012 to ’15. Prices vary from a deeply discounted $18 to about $26.

I don’t know about you, but my sympathy here runs to the old-fashioned, ripe, approachable and tasty Gran Familia Rioja ’04. If I were tackling a lamb shank tonight, that would be the wine for me.
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Mer Soleil, which produces a chardonnay from California’s Central Coast, is closely associated with the venerable Caymus Vineyards, being operated by Charlie Wagner II, grandson of Caymus founder Chuck Wagner. Mer Soleil (“sea/sun”) makes only one chardonnay, fashioned in a full-throttle, oak-tinged fashion that actually calmed down a bit starting in 2004; the winery was launched in 1992. Though grapes mersoleil.jpg for the Mer Soleil Chardonnay 2005 came from a vineyard in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, the wine’s designation is still the boarder Central Coast.

Mer Soleil 2005 is bright, bold and brassy but pretty well-balanced. It’s a chardonnay that takes risks with super-ripeness and spicy oak, mingling pineapple, grapefruit and mango flavors with cinnamon toast and spice cake. Touches of lemon curd and Key lime pie come up, contrasted with chiming acid and a burgeoning mineral element. Frankly, I thought that I wouldn’t care at all for this wine, but its carefully managed sense of nuance, combined with Californian exuberance, won me over, slightly grudgingly, I’ll admit. Excellent. Now through 2009 or ’10. About $42.

Seeing the need for a chardonnay not influenced so heavily by oak, or let’s say in which the grape is allowed to express itself more freely, Wagner brought out the aptly named Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, with a Santa Lucia Highlands designation, in the 2005 silver1_011.jpgvintage. The new release, Silver Unoaked Chardonnay 2006, is sleek and clean as a whistle, very Chablis-like in its dryness and heady minerality. The wine sees no oak contact and does not go through malolactic fermentation, so it’s notable clean and crisp and very spicy, bursting with fresh apple, lemon drop and lemon curd flavors with a touch of pineapple. The texture is lovely in its satiny flow, dense and chewy, and the finish is bright, resonant and vibrant. The wine displays so much character that you don’t miss the oak a bit. A complete success. Excellent. About $42.

On the other hand, why should the unoaked chardonnay cost the same as the oaked chardonnay? I mean, one of the major costs of making fine wine is French oak barrels, which can run from $800 to $1,000 each, not to mention the time that the wine rests there in the barrels, tying up capital and doing nothing to pay for its upkeep. Silver is on the market in about six months, and no oak was involved. How about knocking a few bucks off the price for that?