Wine is fascinating because it is always surprising. No matter how much you study and taste you can never quite be sure what’s in the bottle before you open it. Great expectations can be dashed; but low expectations can be redeemed by unexpected quality. Saturday night’s tasting dinner at the San Diego Wine Society had lots of unexpected quality.

  • Campania is one of Italy’s lesser known regions. Lacryma Christi is a little known wine from this little known region made from the Piedorosso grape, a little known varietal found, as far as I know, only in this region located on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. Even the backstory is sad. “Lacryma Christi” translates as “the tears of Christ”. According to legend, God cried when he found a corner of Heaven stolen by Lucifer: where his tears fell, there grew the grapes that make Lacryma Christi. Because this obscure wine sells for only about $15 and it was 20 years old when we opened it on Saturday, I fully expected to shed some tears of my own.

What a surprise. Meaty, earthy, dark dried fruits jumped out of the glass. This wine was still going strong even after 20 years in the bottle. And after the wine was allowed to sit in the glass for a few minutes, the musty, raisin aromas gave way to vibrant honeycomb that permeated the nose, an aroma wholly unexpected in a rustic red wine. This is an average wine when released that jumps several quality levels when cellared.

  • Chateau Chasse-Spleen is a left-bank Bordeaux wine from Moulis-en Médoc. Classified as Cru Bourgeois, and thus falling outside the Grand Crus classification, it is a respected but unexceptional, modestly-priced wine, made of about 70% Cabernet Sauvignon. Our bottle was 30 years old. I expected something just this side of vinegar. But this one held up well. Plenty of black cherry with the characteristic dusty earth like the old books at Grandma’s house, and soft well-integrated tannins. A bit simple but characteristically old Bordeaux.
  • From what region would you expect to get an elegant, bracing Merlot that avoids both the over-the-top, sexy, chocolate-bomb style from Napa and the dirt and acid style from modestly-priced Right Bank Bordeaux? Would you believe Temecula? Baily’s 2009 Merlot was spicy and well-balanced, one of the better Merlots I’ve had this year in the under $25 category.
  • If you were blind tasting white wines and you had before you a golden-hued, medium-full body, low-acid wine with aromas of  baked apple and roasted pear, what would be your guess? My guess was an oaked and aged Viognier that had lost its floral notes. Nope. It was a 2007 Alvarinho from Portugal’s Vinho Verde region. (The grape is Albarino in Spain) I have never tasted this grape with those characteristics. It is usually light bodied, high acidity, with peach notes.

The one thing that wasn’t a surprise was the 2001 Ridge Zinfandel. This winery usually delivers. Dark plum and baking spices with good acidity supporting a flavorful finish. Zinfandel has a reputation for not aging well. But the good ones do. The 2001 Ridge has plenty of mileage left.

This eccentric, unpredictable line-up of wines was anchored by a delicious 5-course meal served by the Red Marlin restaurant, highlighted by Seared Scallops with a creamed corn, Hon-Shimeji mushroom, strawberry-rhubarb sauce.

San Diego Wine Society has monthly wine dinners featuring wines from the classical wine regions of the world hosted by trained sommeliers.

Here is the full line-up of wines for this tasting:

Diseno Torrentes, Salta 2011

Avelada Alvarinho, Vinho Verde 2007

Baily’s Merlot Temecula 2009

Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio 1993

Chateau Chasse Spleen Moulis-en Médoc 1983

Northstar Merlot Columbia Valley 1994

Fairview Pinotage South Africa 2009

Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2001