Tannic Attack 

A classic French red bests "tongue strippers" from Australia and Portugal.

The trend of French wine producers printing varietal names on their labels — rather than highlighting the appellation — seems to be gaining momentum. While I understand the rationale, it still makes me sad to see a big Pinot Noir smacked on a label once smattered with Vin de Bourgogne and other phrases that inevitably left me confused yet intrigued.

So this week, when faced with the choice between a classic label and a more accessible "French Pinot Noir," I reached for the former — with happy results. The 2008 La Closerie des Lys ($8.99), made by Domaine Antugnac from grapes grown in the foothills of the Pyrenees, was all gooey berry on the nose, along with pepper and cloves, with a medium body and off-dry flavors on the palate. It's not often that something strikes me as a summer red, but this wine did, given its lightness and subtle sweetness. I found it pleasingly French.

I purchased the Closerie des Lys from a purveyor whose store is known for its ample and reliable selection of wines under $10. He likened this wine to a Syrah, so I pitted it against another wine from his bargain bin: the 2006 Ku Dé Ta Shiraz ($9.95) from Australia's Barossa region. Granted, he was trying to move product, so it would have been unfair to expect him to warn me against the Ku Dé Ta, but I wish he had. Hot tar and cherry cola dominated here, accompanied by a general mustiness, and the tongue-stripping tannins buried the fruit on the palate. In this wine's defense, our Token Winemaker praised its nice, lightly oaked aroma and good balance, but he did note a bit of "old barrel" in the taste. There are so many good, cheap Australian Shirazes out there: You might instead consider Silverwing, Jacob's Creek, Rosemount Estate, and Penfolds' Koonunga Hill labels, as well as lesser-known brands such as Amaroo, Kilda, and Jip Jip Rocks.

Tannins also dominated the 2008 Bon Ventos Red Wine ($5.99) from Portugal. It's been a long time since I've tasted Portuguese wines, which I usually love for their simple goodness and prices, but to me this wine was a disappointment. While notes of black fruit and licorice were redemptive, it seemed thin on the palate, and the tannic was even more extreme than with the Ku Dé Ta. Token Winemaker differed; he praised the wine's big fruit, good balance, and luscious finish.

Given the mixed reviews in this tasting, I decided to pull out the 2007 Tré California Syrah ($9.95) — which we'd been sipping for pleasure. A strong aroma of strawberry jam was matched in the Tré by more jam on the palate, and its tannins were mercifully mellow. On the whole, it's a simple and satisfying wine, and unlike the Ku Dé Ta, it actually tasted like Syrah.

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