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Five ways to expand your wine sense

Make a pledge to try something new before Labor Day. Jon Bonné takes a look at some worry-free options

Now is the time of year when wine habits slip effortlessly into the familiar. It is hot, and easy to find yourself back with the wines you know best — especially wines that are light, crisp and a sign of cooler weather soon to come.

All of which is to say: It’s time more than ever to challenge yourself. Summer’s final days make a great case for new and unusual wines that would feel, at other times of the year, too light, too inconsequential or too frivolous. As you plan for your final round of pre-Labor Day parties and gatherings, with an eye toward the fall, think different.

To which, here are five different directions to go:

1) White Rioja. Could these wines be any more underrated?  They can offer all the complexity of a white Burgundy at a fraction of the price. Yet “Rioja” implies red. The whites are misunderstood and overlooked.

  • Muga 2005 blanco Rioja ($12, Tempranillo, Inc.): Largely from the native viura grape, which forms the backbone of most white Rioja. Bright citrus is the base, with dried herbs and a musky, earthy undertone. It has smoothness (from barrel aging on the lees) that will commend it to lovers of a more buttery style, but also the hard edges that sauvignon blanc lovers insist upon. An excellent pathway into Rioja whites.

2) Riesling. Yes, riesling. Have you hugged a riesling today? My friends know I will find any excuse to drink it, in part because it expresses itself with more clarity and more adaptability than any other white grape in the world. The usual counter argument is “Nope, no sweet wine,” but that sells riesling way short. Dry-wine lovers can find bone-dry specimens in a snap. Christoph Tyrell of the Karthauserhof winery in Germany’s Saar told me earlier this summer that he’s on a mission to get Americans to drink dry riesling. He’s definitely on to something.

  • Karthauserhof 2003 riesling kabinett Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($17, Rudi Wiest): Despite Tyrell’s mission, here’s a prime example of what else he can do. It’s rich with nectar and almost dusty slate minerality, with an opulent, almost prosciutto-like fatness that’s typical of the 2003s. Yet the classic German acidity comes rampaging through, with hints of petrol and pear. The lushness is balanced out, and it tapers to a refreshing, compelling finish. Hard to beat at this quality level.
  • Treleaven 2005 dry riesling Finger Lakes ($14): A wine with great backbone from New York’s Finger lakes. Fresh lime and guava, bolstered by a tart minerality and a mainline of bright acidity. Gets juicier at the end, and shows its layers — an appealing complexity beyond the hard edges of the dry riesling style, and a far cry from the lush West Coast versions.

3) Chinon and other Loire reds. If you’re a lover of big red wines, just skip to No. 4. Loire reds, usually made from cabernet franc and malbec (called cot in the region), and sometimes from gamay noir, eternally live on the edge of underripeness. When they’re underripe, they can be filled with green, vegetal flavors and harsh edges. But when they’re just ripe enough, they are sublime: light-bodied and yet densely aromatic, custom-tailored for food.

  • Yannick Amirault 2003 Bourgueil “La Coudrage” ($19, Weygandt-Metzler): Heady, perfumed scents of red fruit, graphite and violets.  It’s a classic Loire red, almost fragile with a light body. Finishes soft and long, with fine tannin woven in. The depth of the scents, and a density of fruit flavor, helps balance it out.
  • Bernard Baudry 2004 Chinon “Les Granges” ($16, Louis/Dressner): Smoky, filled with dried herb and dried cherry. Lovely and supple, a bit on the light side but with an invigorating dry mineral character. Juicy and fresh.

4) Sweet, red, sparkling. Done with all the jokes?  Good.  Because you can mock this stuff all you like, but at least a few serious winemakers see the virtues in making it. A couple years ago we of off-dry Bugey-Cerdon (which I still drink every chance I get) from France’s Jura, and now the sweet-fizz fever is spreading.

  • Jean-Paul Brun NV vin mousseux demi-sec “FRV 100” ($15, Louis/Dressner): The strangest, and most exhilarating, of Beaujolais wines.  It’s sparkling, it’s more pink than red, fresh and light (7.5 percent alcohol), just slightly sweet and completely unique.  Ripe strawberry juice is the smell, with dried flowers and a bit of talc.  Beautifully bubbly, with just enough sweetness to push you to one more glass, but not enough sugar to weigh you down. Carefree and irresistible. The name is pronounced the way the French say “effervescent” — eff-ehr-vay-sahnt.

5) Find yourself a new white. For months, I’ve been picking on drinkers of the more standard white wines, like and . It’s not entirely fair, but white wine drinkers have a habit of falling into a rut, often because the new can be scary. A couple years ago at The Slanted Door in San Francisco, I watched a very exasperated bartender field a dozen or more requests for either of the two aforementioned wines. The restaurant — whose wine list specializes in German and Austrian varieties — offered neither, so he patiently offered tastes of riesling and gruner veltiner to wary drinkers. The easiest path to change here is to focus on just one type of new wine at a time. For months, I’ve been mildly obsessed with the Valle d’Aosta, in Italy’s far northwestern corner, where it intersects France and Switzerland. The region makes barely any wine, usually from local grape varieties, and only a scattering of bottles makes it to these shores. But the mountainous vineyards and cold winters make for sharp, clear-eyed wines.

  • Grosjean 2005 petite arvine Vallée d’Aoste ($23, Rosenthal Wine Merchant):  From a grape best known in Switzerland, this develops an almost meaty, heavy nose, filled with white flowers, grapefruit and lime. Bracing and fresh, despite being on the big side (13.5 percent alcohol), the fruit mixes with a bracing grassiness, like a torrontes or a more subtle sauvignon blanc.
  • Cave de Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle 2004 Vallée d’Aoste DOC ($13, Polaner Selections): Made from the prié blanc grape, it’s like an Alpine version of Muscadet — tart, with bright lime and white floral overtones. Fresh, lingering acidity and a limestone minerality cuts through the fruit.