Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Sutter Home family offers much more than White Zinfandel

Nearly four decades ago the Trinchero family, proprietors of Sutter Home Winery, revolutionized the mass-market, entry-level wine business with the introduction of White Zinfandel, that omnipresent “pretty in pink,” easy-drinking, slightly sweet, wine made from the free-run juice of the red Zinfandel grape.

In recent years Trinchero Family Estates has expanded to include wines from several labels targeted at more sophisticated palates. Last week, the Greater Lansing Vintner’s Club had an opportunity to sample several of these more limited production wines. All prices are recent shelf prices at Goodrich’s on Trowbridge.

As an aperitif, we sampled a Joel Gott 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($11.59), which was an olfactory delight. After three minutes of enjoying the nose, which was redolent of grapefruit, lemongrass, and green hay (like a concentrated New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), I realized I hadn’t yet tasted this California wine. It presented with bracing acidity and a cleansing palate. Fellow board member Ed Groves, a local singer/songwriter and also a wine buyer at Merindorf’s, was impressed with the full body, unusual richness, and long finish.

We next enjoyed a 2008 Joel Gott Chardonnay from Monterey ($11.59), paired against a 2008 Napa Cellar Chardonnay from Napa Valley ($17.99). Ed observed that the light straw-colored Gott presented with a nose of melons and a tasting profile characterized by apples and peaches. Board member Teresa Hyndman noted the clean, crisp presentation with overtones of lemon, which is so characteristic of stainless-steelaged wine that does not go through malolactic fermentation.

As a counterpoint, the Napa Cellar Chardonnay is aged in French oak and presented with a rounder, creamier, more viscous mouth feel and vanilla oak overtones. This wine is not an overblown, buttery Chardonnay, which frequently is so typical of California Chardonnays. It lacked the crispness of the Gott Chardonnay, but added a broader and more complex palate.

Barbera grapes rarely produce wine on any “must buy” wine list, but this grape deserves more attention. We tasted a 2006 Barbera ($19.59) from Amador County’s Terra D’Oro Winery, in the Sierra Foothills of California. This appellation is a premier domestic growing region for many Italian varietal grapes, including Barbera. Sierra Foothills wines frequently represent excellent values.

Ed noted that this Barbera presented with a bright cherry nose, while on the palate it displayed darker cherry flavors and wonderful supporting acidity, a characteristic of the grape variety. Michigan State University hydrogeology Professor David Hyndman commented on the beautiful, fresh berry nose with ripe fruit on the palate. Lansing Community College administrator Deborah Cole picked up a smoky note, with overtones of almond and cedar box. A bit of Petite Syrah was added to the blend for extra color and weight.

Next, the big bruisers joined the show. The 2006 Terra D’Oro “Deaver 100-year-old vine” Zinfandel from Amador County weighed in at 15.5 percent alcohol. It is characterized by a nostril-opening bouquet and broad, dark fruit flavors, such as plum and black cherry. The vineyard for these grapes was planted between 1881 and 1884, and the shy bearing vines produce very intense fruit. At $22.99, it is a bargain.

Then came the yin and yang of Cabernet Sauvignons. A 2007 Trinchero Chicken Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($28.99) from the Rutherford Region of Napa Valley was paired against a 2007 Trinchero “Mario’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99) from the St. Helena region of Napa Valley. The Chicken Ranch Cab, from a certified organic vineyard, was a deep garnet color. The very effusive nose included hints of cinnamon, spices, and dark fruits. On the palate, this wine was all about balance, which is always the hallmark of a well-made wine. There were soft, lingering tannins, notes of Bing cherry and other red berries, and a taste that lingered long after the swallow.

The Mario’s Cab, at least at this stage in its evolution and without decanting, had a much more reserved bouquet, but offered more intense and concentrated flavors. Grown in unirrigated rocky soil, the fruit displays round, dark-fruit flavors enhanced by sweet French oak.

The 2007 Trinchero Petite Verdot ($49.99), an opaquely dark and brooding wine, was all about power and intensity. While the nose was very floral, the wine presented with dominant but not overpowering tannins and a long finish. Only a few six-packs of this wine were allocated to Michigan. It is a good one for the cellar.

Finally, the tasting was capped with a Terra D’Oro Zinfandel Port. One half of the grapes come from 100 year-old vines in the Deaver Vineyard. While it does not have the complexity of a vintage Port from Portugal, it would be a notable finish to a meal, and should pair beautifully with chocolate bars or pecan pie. At only $20.99, this very drinkable young Port styled wine is value-priced.

While it is comforting to stick with wines and grape varieties one knows — and enjoys — some of the wines above, while new and untested to many readers, are certainly worth a taste.

In vino veritas.

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)