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Some wine wishes for 2005

Winemakers could make a few wine resolutions this year to help all of us.  Also, readers ask: How to tell which grapes go in French wines?

It's a tad late for resolutions, but I'm still remiss with my own wine promises for 2005.

One I already started last fall: to take better tasting notes. This can be helpful to everyone — even basic notes help you remember which wines you enjoy.

While I think of other pledges, I've devised a few for winemakers to consider. We're in a new year, and the dollar's precipitous drop against foreign currencies means that U.S. wineries, especially, have a great chance to expand their markets. Some thoughts:

No more darn cutesy animal labels. It's so over. They range from tasteful (O'Reilly's) to flat-out annoying (Little Penguin), but too often they're just a heavy-handed effort by big wine producers to shill to new, younger drinkers. It's like that late-'90s "Extreme!" craze with which marketers dazzled themselves — and no one else. (Really, should Jell-O be "X-Treme"?) Wine doesn't have to be snooty, but it shouldn't be patronizing either. What's next: Chateau Hello Kitty?

Take pity on our wallets. There are still too many newly minted wineries that see nothing wrong with charging $30 or more per bottle. The wines may come from primo grapes, and there may be big costs to recoup, but reputations need to be earned with time. I used to think this was a California problem, but it's crept all over. By contrast, some very well respected winemakers keep making affordable entry-level wines. Among zinfandels, for example, there's Ridge's Sonoma Station and Rosenblum's Vintners Cuvee. If they can price modestly, newcomers should be able to do the same.

Sell us on screwcaps. The first step was convincing winemakers that they could live without corks. Now it's time to sell the idea to consumers. Retailers need to help, too, but wineries like Vincor's R.H. Phillips have put big marketing dollars toward explaining the screwcap. Others should follow suit.

Keep blending. It's not doing much for terroir, but you have to appreciate the explosion of generally great domestic wines made with less traditional grape mixes. It's now possible to get the domestic equivalent of Super Tuscans (sangiovese blended with Cabernet sauvignon, merlot or both) and even more curious options (pinot noir plus syrah). Not all work, but many do — and they help move drinkers further from the merlot-chardonnay axis.

Readers ask ...

Michael Lucich, Mount Pleasant, S.C.: "It seems that French wine labels state the region, appelation, vineyard, chateau, etc. of a wine, while U.S. labels identify the variety of grape and the region. How can one learn the variety of grape used in a French wine?"

The French are so focused on using certain types of grapes in certain areas that they have laws to ensure it happens. But these laws also prohibit most winemakers from using grape names on their wine if they label it under a specific appellation, or geographic name — like Champagne or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. French appellations, known as AOCs, have specific rules and standards that decree which grapes can be used and how wine can be made. White wine from Sancerre, for instance, can only use sauvignon blanc grapes.

French wine has been able to use grape names on the label, but only if sold as vin de pays ("country wine"), less prestigious than AOC wine. Understanding how U.S. and other consumers buy wine, new laws now allow more French wines to be exported with the varietal name on the label.

Otherwise, it requires detective work. Some AOCs allow a whole heap of grapes (Châteauneuf-du-Pape permits 13 varieties), and there's no one source in English to get your answers. But most good wine books can help, and it's worth having one around.

Also, many AOCs have their own Web sites that explain how their wines are made. Onivins, the French wine trade association, has a good Web portal to start you off.

Stephanie, Richton Park, Ill.: "I received a bottle of Champagne: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin ... I noticed that the bottle did not have a year on it. Do Champagnes have an aging stage like some wines?"

The lack of a vintage simply means it's a non-vintage, or NV, Champagne. Much sparkling wine is NV — which doesn't mean it's bad, only that winemakers used a blend of grapes from multiple years to craft the wine they wanted. This practice is traditional in France's Champagne region, and has been widely adopted elsewhere.

Sparkling winemakers may also choose to release top-notch wines from some years under a single vintage. A few Champagne makers (Pol Roger) maintain the tradition of only bottling vintage Champagne in an exceptional year, while others produce one nearly every year (Louis Roederer's Cristal).

All true Champagne is aged at least 15 months after bottling, or at least three years for vintage bottles. Some are aged five years or more before release.

Most should be ready to drink immediately. But many, especially vintage Champagnes, will improve with age: the flavors will deepen, the bubbles will become finer. Even a nonvintage should be fine for at least a few years if you store it properly.

On that note ...

Larry Bowers, Chatsworth, Calif.: "Expensive Champagne left in sunlight?"

Definitely not good. Sunlight not only heats up wine (which cools again at night) but can strip it of aromas and flavors. One original reason for dark-colored wine bottles was to help prevent light from impacting the wine inside. A key element of wine cellars is not only proper temperature but a modest amount of light, or none at all. My sunny living room probably destroyed more wine than I'd care to admit. (Long story.)

If it was only in the sun for a short while, Larry, you may still be OK — but put that bottle somewhere dark and cool right away, and let it settle. Otherwise, it may be too late. You should probably pop the cork and enjoy it as a casual toast to the new year.