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Originally published Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

Toasting the holidays on a tighter budget

It's no secret that consumers are trimming their wine budgets. According to wine-industry analyst Jon Fredrikson (quoted in Los Angeles...

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the Week

Ste. Chapelle 2006/2007 Winemaker's Series Dry Riesling; $7

Ste. Chapelle 2006/2007 Winemaker's Series Columbia Valley Riesling; $7.

Idaho's Ste. Chapelle winery has always made standout rieslings, and the two newest releases are right in the groove. The 2007 Winemaker's Series Dry Riesling, from Idaho-grown grapes, is a racy, lacy wine structured with the elegant strength of a spider's web.

The 2007 Columbia Valley Riesling is made with Washington state grapes. It's just as good, but off-dry, with honeysuckle, lime, grapefruit and orange candy flavors. Note that the 2006 vintage, also recommended, may still be in some markets. (Distributed by Young's Columbia).

It's no secret that consumers are trimming their wine budgets. According to wine-industry analyst Jon Fredrikson (quoted in Los Angeles Times), sale of wine priced at $9 or less is now the fastest-growing segment for the wine market. Previously unobtainable Napa cult wines are suddenly available, while sales of all high-end wines (especially Champagne) are dropping fast.

That said, there is a lot of room between the under-$9 stuff and the cult wines priced in the hundreds of dollars. Even the simplest holiday celebration is elevated by a nice bottle or two. So if you are on the hunt for something a little special that won't break the bank, here are some suggestions.

• Buy the best box wine you can find. Better-quality box (or cask) wines mostly come in 3-liter packages. Black Box is one name to look for. If you are planning a large meal for a sizable group, you can find a 3-liter Black Box Cabernet Sauvignon, for example — the equivalent of four regular bottles — for around $24. That's about $6 a bottle. Yes, I know, a big old box is not what you want to pass around the table. So, to keep the holiday table festive, decant the wine. That's right, pour it out of the box and into a nice decanter (any clean pitcher will do).

• Buy Australian, Chilean or Argentine wine. These countries all make excellent varietal wines that are value-priced. Argentina is great for malbec, and Chile for carmenère or any of the Bordeaux reds. These are all hearty and tannic enough to work well with your holiday roast.

From Australia, look for the Koonunga Hill wines from Penfolds, most notably the 2006 Cabernet-Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. These are not bottom-of-the-barrel priced (they are currently on special for around $10) but deliver much more authentic flavor than the really cheap stuff. It's a mini-splurge, OK, just a buck over that $9 barrier.

• Here's where I'd put the splurge money — on bubbly, the most festive wine you can pour. Lovely though real Champagne is, there are many less-expensive versions made around the world that offer excellent flavors. So when I say splurge, I do not mean, as one Champagne marketer recently suggested, that you substitute a bottle costing $150 for the one costing $250! If you can go as high as $20, you can find something that is really delicious.

From California, try the Scharffenberger Cellars Brut NV ($20). It's made from two-thirds pinot noir and one-third chardonnay, grown in the winery's Anderson Valley (Mendocino) vineyards. It shows the crisp detail, fine bead and light toast of genuine Champagne, and tastes as good as the top California sparklers costing twice as much.

For an even cheaper option, try the Yellowglen label from Australia. It offers two different, value-priced bubblies — named Yellow and Pink — priced at just $9 each. Yellow is all chardonnay and just 11 percent alcohol. It's quite dry, fresh and vivid; a fine oyster wine. Pink (also just 11 percent alcohol) is a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir and has a touch of sweetness (not too much).

• Of course, many of us fortunate enough to live in Washington want to enjoy a bottle from close to home. If you are serving a rich beef dish as your centerpiece, Washington merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah or a hearty red blend is always a good choice.

Widely available volume producers such as Hogue and Columbia Crest offer the best value for your dollars at the low end of pricing. Try Hogue's 2006 Merlot ($9), a fine, ripe red backed with earthy tannins. From Columbia Crest I like the mid-tier Grand Estates bottlings, priced at $11 but often sold for around $9. Best are the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many smaller Washington wineries are offering blended red wines that have benefited from the same vineyard care, fermentation practices and even barrel aging as the superpremium wines, but at the time of blending did not make the cut. Most are priced at or under $20 and in general give you far more depth of flavor at this price point than comparable wines coming from California.

All of these are highly recommended:

Bergevin Lane 2006 Calico Red ($19): 36 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent syrah, 7 percent zinfandel and 2 percent cab franc! Somehow, it all works.

Hedges 2007 C.M.S. Red ($13): 42 percent cabernet sauvignon, 51 percent merlot and 7 percent syrah. Always a soundly made, low-alcohol, beef-friendly wine in a Euro style.

Soos Creek 2006 Sundance Red Wine ($20): this perennially underrated winery sources grapes from Ciel du Cheval, Champoux and other top vineyards. The Sundance is two-thirds merlot, the rest cab franc and cabernet sauvignon. Priced substantially lower this year than last, this is a superb Bordeaux blend.

Syncline 2007 Subduction Red ($18): A great bottle of wine, 35 percent syrah, 21 percent mourvèdre, 16 percent grenache, 15 percent cinsault and 13 percent counoise. Bursting with gorgeous fruit mixing every kind of red and blue berry, with a vibrant and juicy mouthfeel that speaks volumes about the quality and clarity of the fruit.

Just slightly above the $20 mark, but worth the extra cost, are the Nelms Road wines from Woodward Canyon. Grab the 2007 Nelms Road Merlot or the 2007 Nelms Road Cabernet Sauvignon and see for yourself why Rick Small is one of the state's great winemakers.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Wine Adviser
My column, Wednesdays in Northwest Life, is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices.
wine@seattletimes.com

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