AROUND THE WORLD WITHOUT LEAVING TOWN

It would be nice to travel the world and taste wines at boutique wineries with the winemaker and owner, who is probably a fifth generation family member to hold that position. Then, after the tasting you’d be especially fortunate if offered the opportunity to purchase a bottle or two of a favorite wine and pay less than $20 for that treasure. But for many people, that isn’t possible without a passport and a few thousand dollars. Enter the master sommelier, whose job is to visit these wineries and sell his top picks to local wine shops.

Fran Kysela is the master sommelier who makes multiple visits to Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand each year to barrel-sample and bottle-sample handcrafted wines of wineries he has established friendships and professional relationships with over the past decade. I had the occasion to taste about 20 of these wines at a small gathering at Square One Restaurant. The tasting was arranged by Heather Helman, who represents Kysela’s wine imports in our area.

Heather’s husband, Richard Helman, Kysela’s director of operations and sales in California, shares a common heritage with Kysela; they both grew up in families that consumed and appreciated quality wines with meals. Kysela’s wine background led him to the position of national sales manager for the import arm of Kermit Lynch's sprawling wine business. It was during that decade that he met Richard, who was working in sales at Chalone Winery. When Kysela founded his own firm in 1994, he brought Richard on board.

Kysela’s Imports currently imports more than 300,000 cases of wine from nine countries and 160 producers. This includes about 600 wines from some wineries so small that their total production is 25 cases. Kysela says one reason he can sell his imports at reasonable prices is because he is both the importer and wholesaler. In addition, he does business with smaller wineries that are for the time being, less well-known, so their prices have not yet caught up with the wine’s quality.

As we sipped a 2005 Obvio, Torrontes, Mendoza ($8.49) Kysela told us that the Torrontes grape is “the white grape of Argentina because it thrives in their high altitude vineyards and winemakers are known for stressing individuality in their style.”

Explaining what he looks for in a wine, Kysela says he likes to taste barrel samples because that is where the fruit is so rich. “I like fruit-driven, fresh, lively wines that are age-worthy, but great to drink immediately,” he says.

Kysela predicts countries such as Argentina and Spain will take the lead in giving the next “it” wines. “Argentina will keep producing better and better Malbecs and Spain is hitting it big because their cuisine is among the world’s best now and the wines are being crafted to match,” he explains. “Southern Rhône and Australia will keep up their pace, but we are likely to see a drop off in popularity of New Zealand wines due to inflated price and I don’t think Chile or South Africa are likely to produce many great wines. I predict that Grenache is moving to the top worldwide. It is already one of the most planted grapes with over half a million acres planted. Grenache is so food-friendly, I see it moving from a blending grape to more of its own showcased varietal.”

One such Grenache was the 2004 Alain Jaume, “Clos de Sixte,” Lirac ($20) from a vineyard with old vines that impart an intense red garnet color and nose of ripe black and red fruit to this Rhône blend (50% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre). The mouth is full with blackcurrant, spice and vanilla on a long, complex finish.

Germany was well represented by several wines, but my favorite was a 2005 Bastgen, “Kestener Paulinshofberger” Riesling, Auslese ($21), which came from a meticulously tended 4.5-hectare vineyard along the middle Mosel River. The soil’s slate is credited for giving the estate's wine a perfect balance with rich, earthy minerality.

“I love these wines because they are not only top quality, but because they are also so affordable,” Richard says. “These are the bang-for-the-buck wines that people share with friends who appreciate high-end wines.”

These imported wines can be purchased at East Beach Wine, Wine Cask and Vino Divino.

Sip Tip

If you’ve been a fan of Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs of years past, you are in for the luck of the Irish. Burt Williams’s daughter, Margi Wierenga, owner and winemaker of Brogan Cellars and recipient of the Woman of the Year award from the Wine Chapter of American Business Women’s Association, has released her second vintage of Pinot from Burt’s five-year-old vines growing on his Anderson Valley, Mendocino county, Morning Dew Ranch. This year, she and dad will each release their own take on these Pinot grapes.

Since Burt doesn’t have a mailing list, I wonder whether those of us on Margi’s list will have first crack at both Margi’s Brogan Cellars wines and Burt’s first Pinot release, since he sold Williams-Selyem more than five years ago.

For more info visit www.brogancellars.com.