'Mutt' wines are often hit-and-miss, but never dull

My annual search for the year's most exciting, mixed-breed, budget red wines — which I like to call "mutt" wines — is based on a simple premise: You don't have to pay high prices for lively, interesting wines ... IF you are willing to drink something less familiar than the usual merlot or cabernet or syrah.

Mutt wines are like a dish I had in England some years back called "Bubble 'n' Squeak." It was one of the best vegetable concoctions I've ever tasted, and it was made out of the previous night's leftovers. But it was done with style and pizzazz.

Winemakers have leftovers too. Once a winemaker has blended his or her high end wine, there will almost always be a few unused barrels sitting around. These contain individual lots of wine that for one reason or another did not make it into the final blend.

They aren't necessarily bad; they just didn't quite fit. Individually, they may not be all that exciting. But put them together, and you might — the operative phrase here is might — stumble upon something quite good.

With this hope in mind, many winemakers, wishing to engage their inner mad scientist, go back into the lab and concoct some sort of witches' brew using whatever is available. The result may be odd, flawed or edgy, but it is rarely dull. And dullness, these days, is the bane of the wine industry.

In seeking out the best of the current crop of mutt wines, I want to look beyond the ordinary blends of Bordeaux grapes, or varietal wines that may include a small percentage of other grapes. I want to find delicious 'drink-me-now!' red wines that observe no rules as far as what may be blended with what — except the one rule that really matters: How does it taste?

Some wineries succeed so well with their mutts that they make them every year. Sometimes they are vintage wines, but often they are not, so they are labeled with lot numbers.

A case in point is Marietta Cellars' Old Vine Red, a non-vintage blend whose contents vary from year to year (currently, Lot #31 and Lot #32 are out). There will always be plenty of zinfandel, and probably petite sirah, carignan, gamay and maybe even a little cabernet sauvignon added, just for fun. The wine sells for around $10.

Apart from good flavor, an affordable price and some creative grape management, I like a sense of humor with my bottle of mutt. A wine such as Goats Do Roam — a South African take on a Cotes du Rhone — brings a chuckle to its friendly blend of pinotage, shiraz, cinsault, grenache, gamay noir and carignan. In California, Rosenblum makes a Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Roan, which doggedly mixes carignan, syrah, mourvèdre and grenache.

Gundlach Bundschu's Bearitage, Fess Parker's Frontier Red and Belvedere's "Jest Red" are some other reliable blends that add life to the party.

Read the back labels; they often contain some useful notes about the wine, along with whatever zany scribblings the winemaker may have wanted to put there. Count on Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm to be among the weirdest of all; the back of his "Big House Red" reads like a ransom note!

A good bottle of mutt wine should not cost more than the pizza you eat it with; $10 to $15 is just right. When its price tag heads up into the over-$20 range, a wine starts to take on airs, and with it our own expectations also rise. So a bottle such as Preston's "Lou's Red" from the Dry Creek Valley, though it is a big, warm, pleasant enough bottle, takes itself out of the mutt wine category with its $24 price tag.

The spirit of the wines recommended below is nicely summed up by the back label of Fess Parker's Frontier Red, which notes that "you don't have to over-think this wine. Simply enjoy this wine."

Here are some good ones.

Best buy

2 Brothers 2002 "Big Tattoo Red" ($8). A Chilean red that is a bit on the herbal side, yet still good and dark and tannic, with cassis, cocoa and blackberries front and center. It's a perfect mate for grilled red meat.

Best bottle

Abundance Vineyards 2000 Abundantly Rich Red ($11). Here you go. This one has syrah, carignan, merlot and sangiovese, a classically non-classic mutt blend. Spicy, with good focus, ripe fruit and a prevailing note of cinnamon/nutmeg.

Brave and bold

Thurston Wolfe 2001 Dr. Wolfe's Family Red; ($15). Last year the blend was syrah/lemberger/sangiovese/merlot; in 2001 it substitutes touriga (obscure Portuguese grape) for sangiovese. The embodiment of a mutt wine, it offers rich berry fruit against a chewy, smoky, tannic backbone.

The rest (in order of preference)

Marietta Cellars Old Vine Red Lot #31 ($11). Round, ripe fruit highlights this popular blend, designed to replicate the old "field blends" planted by Italian immigrants a century ago. There's plenty of soft, sweet cherry fruit, and some smooth, silky tannins too.

Incognito NV Red Table Wine ($15). From Lodi, the bottle's red mask logo excites your interest, while the flavors send delicious sweet cherries and plums, wrapped in chocolatey oak, racing across the palate.

Tamarack Cellars 2001 Firehouse Red ($15). Stylish, smooth and soft, with a kiss of chocolate over sweet cherry fruit. This Columbia Valley mutt mixes cabernet sauvignon, cab franc, merlot and syrah.

Jest Red NV Red Table Wine ($10). A classic mixed-breed blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite sirah, petit verdot, pinot noir, syrah and zinfandel. It's scented with violets and wild strawberries, with herbal highlights.

Cline 2001 Oakley Vin Rouge ($7.50). Cline changed winemakers in 2002, so this may be your last best chance to grab a bottle from the "old school." Rhone grapes from old vines set up a good, balanced, slightly chalky budget wine.

Wirra Wirra "Scrubby Rise Red" ($11). This Aussie wine blends shiraz, cabernet and petit verdot. A creative mix that delivers smooth, solid and substantial cherry/cassis flavors, along with a finishing kick of vanilla.

Turnbull 2000 Old Bull Red ($14). Napa Valley fruit, tasting of sweet strawberry preserves and candied cherries.

Rosenblum 2001 Ch. La Paws Cote du Bone Roan ($10). Beaujolais nouveau-style flavors, juicy and fruity and clean, show off old vine carignan and other Rhone varietals.

Fess Parker "Lot 22" Frontier Red ($12). Big, brawny, syrah-driven wine with Davy Crockett on the label.

Goats do Roam 2002 Red ($8). Well-priced South African wine with simple, spicy, likeable flavors, somewhat loosely modeled after a Cotes du Rhone.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com