Speaking of Zinfandel, its long-neglected Italian brother, Primitivo,
is on the rise. Grown in Puglia (Apulia), the province that forms
the heel of the Italian boot, Primitivo has recently been determined
to be genetically identical to California's Zinfandel (the origins
of Primitivo/Zinfandel are a bit mysterious). The best Primitivos
now available in the U.S. deliver the load of ripe berry fruit
and pepper you expect in a Zin, with full body but moderate tannins.
Two very good and widely available examples are from A Mano (look
for the 1998 or 1999, about $10) and Terrale (the producer is
actually Calatrasi, but look for Terrale on the label; the 1998
is a steal at $7 or less).
Another contender is Argentine Malbec. Used as a blending grape
in small percentages in red Bordeaux, Malbec is the dominant grape
of Cahors, in southwest France, but it really thrives on the slopes
of the Andes in Argentina. There it is typically made as a varietal
(single-variety, as opposed to blended) wine, and it is often
delicious: full-bodied, fat and chewy, with ripe plummy flavors,
notes of licorice, leather, or smoke, and solid tannins. Nicolas
Catena, who makes a beautiful example under the Catena Alta label
(at about $50), also makes a terrific one for $10: the Alamos
Ridge Malbec Mendoza 1998. Another good buy to look for, similar
in style, is the 1999 Malbec Mendoza from Altos Las Hormigas ($10).