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Side Dish 

The latest offering from wine purveyors: the white merlot

A wily enologist has been toiling in a Napa Valley lab, blending beakers of white zinfandel with flasks of merlot. The result is white merlot, a hybrid wine that cashes in on the popularity of both wines. Beringer Vineyards, a high-volume California wine producer that recently added white merlot to its product line, describes the new wine as "rich in blackberry and raspberry flavors and aromas, complemented with a refreshing lemony-citrus finish." Canandaigua, another mass-market California producer, has created the label "Nectar Valley" to market its white merlot. "The taste is patterned after what the hummingbird looks for: delicate, clean, fruity," declares the product's rather sophomoric ad copy.

Winemakers create white merlot by leaving the juice of crushed merlot grapes in contact with the red skins for just 12 to 18 hours before fermentation. The finished rosé wine -- called "blush" wine in California parlance -- is low in tannins yet lacks the Kool-Aid sweetness of white zinfandel. Marketers of white merlot hope that white-zin drinkers will step up to the drier wine. No doubt the big producers will be, uh, tickled pink if wine drinkers find white merlot as easy to swallow as its red counterpart: Consumers bought 5.2 million cases of California merlot in 1996, when it was in greatest demand, compared with 800,000 cases in 1990. How do the experts rate white merlot? Wine reviewer Eric Asimov says that although some white merlots have the weedy edge characteristic of cheap red merlots, others are refreshingly dry and offer a good value, with a price tag of $5-$8 a bottle. Fetching alternative or bitter libation? Decide for yourself. The Wine and Cheese Place offers the 1999 Beringer white merlot ($5.49) and an Italian version, the 1998 Zonin white merlot ($6.49). The Wine Merchant stocks the 1999 Zonin white merlot ($6.99).

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