Spring in your step and in your glass

My wife recently expressed frustration with the unpredictable weather. She had just returned from a shoe-shopping excursion during which her biological clock told her it was time to buy summer sandals “or anything that gets [her] out of socks.”

But the normal transition from winter to spring seems to have stalled over the past several weeks; it isn’t time for sandals yet.

Hearing her disappointment, I felt some sympathy. I do not share her anxieties in front of a shoe rack, but I do in front of a wine rack. And it occurred to me that I’ve been feeling a similar subconscious frustration.

After months of enjoying heavy cabernet sauvignons, powerful zinfandels and mouth-filling chardonnays, my palate desires lighter, more invigorating experiences. It is just too early for thirst-quenching sauvignon blancs, pinot noirs and gew?miners. Early spring is a time for what I call transition wines — those that are at once comforting and refreshing.

The Rhone region in southern France produces such wines. The vines are among the oldest in the world, most originally planted before the Roman Empire. The reds are a blend of up to 13 different grape varietals in one bottle, primarily Syrah (also known as Shiraz), Petite Syrah, grenache (the grape of Beaujolais) and mourvedre. Whites are made from a blend of viognier, roussanne and Marsanne.

Successfully growing all of these different grapes, each with specific soil and climate needs, is challenging. They must be carefully blended to ensure the best qualities of each grape are expressed and balanced. The result is some of the best wine in the world, with price tags to match.

Many New World wine regions have planted Rhone varietals in the past 30 years, resulting in Rhone-style wines you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to afford.

One is Goats Do Roam in Villages 2004 ($9.99) from South Africa’s Fairview vineyard. The brand name is a clever play on C?du Rh? It is inspired not only because the vintner produces Rhone-style wines but because Fairview is a goat farm and South Africa’s largest producer of specialty cheeses. More than five different grape varieties from small vineyards are blended to produce this juicy, ripe, spicy wine.

An affordable, easy-to-find white is the 2004 Cline Cellars Sonoma County viognier ($11). Cline is one of California’s pioneering producers of Rhone-style wines. Viognier is a fickle grape to grow; it is prone to mildew and needs to be picked at its peak ripeness. An interesting characteristic of viognier is that the nose (or smell) is always far sweeter than the taste. Cline 2004 is full-bodied and rich, with orange-blossom and honey flavors.

Enjoy these wines during these awkward midseason days when you find yourself wearing shorts and a fleece jacket or, as my wife tells me, a pair of “cute 2-inch slingbacks” instead of sandals.

LaVallee is a public-affairs consultant for Susan Davis International and a certified wine buff. He can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.