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Local reds blend thrift and thrill

There are many wine drinkers who live by the old adage of Piedmont: 'Wine is red.' Even if they've never been to Italy, you can't get them to lift a glass unless it's filled with red wine. I won't be the one to deny them some good options. Continuing on last week's theme of Northwest producers who are making exciting wines in the grand tradition of blending different grape varietals, here are some imminently enjoyable wines that won't break your bank.

Local winemaker Andrew Rich's wines already have a well-deserved reputation for quality and value, and his 1999 MŽsalliance ($20) is part of the reason. 'MŽsalliance' translates literally to 'misalliance' and was the whispered phrase among the courtiers of old France when a commoner married into royalty. Rich, however, makes a harmonious union out of the traditional Bordeaux varietals of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, along with some syrah Ñ the so-called commoner to the high class of Bordeaux.

This is a splendid wine, with all sorts of aromas coming through when you lift it to your nose, from blueberry tea to tobacco to dark berry fruits, it's a heady mix. In your mouth it's full-bodied, with a framework of well-integrated tannins and a finish that hangs around for a while. Wine this good could easily fetch almost twice the price, making it a great buy.

Another wine using the same combination of grapes is the Hedges 2001 C-M-S ($11), from Washington state. Initially put on the wine map for their merlots and cabernet sauvignons, Washington winemakers have been realizing their region's potential to make great syrah, both on its own and as part of a mix.

This wine is big Ñ plummy and rich with plenty of prominent acid. Hints of cedar and earth dominate the nose, which opens up significantly after a little time in the glass. In fact, this wine improves quite a bit the longer it's open, so pour some and let it sit a bit before you eat. And eat you should, since this wine's young tannins and acidity make a good match for something meaty and rich.

By introducing a slightly more unusual grape varietal for the Northwest, the Waterbrook 2001 Melange ($12) takes advantage of sangiovese, the classic grape of Tuscany. It is added to the mix of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. The nose here is a riot of aromas, from herbals notes of lavender to brambly fruits like blackberry and boysenberry. Round and full, the tannins aren't too powerful, making it easy to drink on its own. There's enough acid in the mix to make this wine feel complete, though the finish could pack a little more punch.