New Spanish wines are love at first sip

* The following article was first published on-line in Saturday’s edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The world is swimming in wine and there is probably no better time than the present for lovers of the grapevine. With over one-third of the world’s nations producing their own wine and all fifty of the states in our union getting in on the wine-game, it can become a bit daunting for a wine or winery to stand out from the crowd. One thing that separates my favorite new Spanish winery from the rest is its ability to simultaneously embrace certain old world winemaking techniques with modern advancements in technology.

In the winery’s less than quarter century existence, Chozas Carrascal has done just that. Located in a small town called San Antonio de Requena, the winery may soon be the pride of the entire region of Valencia. Whether it is a nod to the past through the winery’s use of concrete tanks when vinifying its Cabernet Franc or just the contemporary innovations that allow them to produce a high-quality 100% Cabernet Franc in a part of the world where you don’t first equate it to, is proof enough. And not that I need more nudging to be convinced of Chozas Carrascal’s diverse splendor, but I am also still reminiscing fondly about its amazing and very unique Cava.

(L-R) Ana Hervas Export Manager for Chozas Carrascal, Rich Dixon Off-Premise Wine Manager for Knoxville Beverage Company and Maria Jose Lopez Peidro Marketing Manager at Chozas Carrascal recently presented the winery's remarkable lineup at Cru Bistro & Wine Bar.

(L-R) Ana Hervas Export Manager for Chozas Carrascal, Rich Dixon Off-Premise Wine Manager for Knoxville Beverage Company and Maria Jose Lopez Peidro Marketing Manager at Chozas Carrascal recently presented the winery’s remarkable lineup at Cru Bistro & Wine Bar.

The Spanish are proud of their sparkling wines, but often times the Cavas that make their way back to the states can be a little lackluster. Fortunately, Chozas Carrascal produces a mid-priced Cava with a peerless profile. Succinctly named El Cava (or THE Cava), the winery’s only sparkler combines the traditional French Champagne making grape, Chardonnay, with the beautiful Spanish grape, Macabeo. Aged for three months, El Cava produces a wine with particularly fine bubbles that settle in nicely. Citrus notes, an orchard full of green apples and a rounded texture all intertwine to create one masterful and original Cava.

The winery’s other white wine of distinction is the vineyard-fresh 2013 Las2Ces Blanco. Playing off their mastery of the Macabeo grape, they combine Sauvignon Blanc to produce a lively wine with orange blossom and citrus aromas, as well as a texturally pleasing and tantalizing taste akin to ripe fleshy pears. The Las2Ces Blanco is an absolute steal and safe case buy at only $12.

Lastly, no up-and-coming winery would be complete without affordable and quality red wines in their portfolio. Guess what? Chozas Carrascal hits the trifecta! Their red version of Las2Ces is a lightly oaked and plum smothered blend of Bobal, Tempranillo and Syrah. But it is their 2008 Las Ocho that leaves the biggest impression. Aromas of sweet oak spice and anise meld into a wonderful and luscious French oak-inspired red. A blend of eight grapes, including Bobal from ninety-year old vines, Las Ocho delivers all the components of a powerful red wine without skimping on style.

Fabulous French Finds for the New Year

* A version of this column was first published in the on-line edition of Saturday’s Knoxville News Sentinel.

New Years aren’t just for resolutions; they’re also for doing something a little different, like getting out of the old comfort zone. 2014 has already offered some fabulous wine finds from the country that gave us both Lafayette and Lady Liberty. And keeping with that “road less traveled by” theme, these food-friendly French wines aren’t from well known Bordeaux or Burgundy. Rather, some of the first great finds for the New Year come from less heralded French regions like Languedoc Roussillon and the Loire Valley.

Ode to the food friendly French!

Ode to the food friendly French!

If the beautifully earth-toned mosaic label of the 2011 Tessellae Old Vines isn’t enough to rattle your curiosity to attention, then perhaps the aromatherapy it’ll deliver will be. From the Côte du Roussillon and made from a traditional GSM blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, the Tessellae has a wonderful appetite inducing bouquet of mixed berry fruit reduction, saddle leather and bacon fat.

Remember the old adage, “fat is flavor, flavor is fat?” You’ll want to pair this sultry French red with a salty pork dish like tenderloin medallions, covered in a creamy béchamel sauce with nutmeg and sweet onions.

Trying new things, especially wines, often produces the dual effect of causing both excitement and some trepidation. So, don’t let the moniker of this next wine scare you off or have you feeling alone. Instead, embrace its intended adventure!

The 2011 Flying Solo is a Grenache/ Syrah mix from France’s southern wine hub, the Languedoc Roussillon. Its peculiar microbiological aroma quickly opens up and gives way to some fast fruit. Cherry bombs continue to drop from one quick quaffable sip to the next. Great with a heart warming, youth inspiring comfort food like tomato soup, the Flying Solo could be your road map for better drinking in 2014.

When France’s Loire Valley is mentioned in the company of wine lovers, the first thing to come to mind is usually a white wine from Sancerre, Sevre-et-Maine or Vouvray. But this coastal influenced wine region also makes great Cabernet Franc. The 2011 Laporte “Le Bouquet” is a prime example of 100% Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. Herbaceous and earthy aromatics of asparagus and bell peppers are greeted by the wine’s lower alcohol level, producing a thinner easy-to-drink red with some notable red berry fruit. Look for a healthy pairing of marinated Mediterranean vegetables and some roasted poultry to go with the Laporte.

All these fabulous French finds will retail for under $20, making your New Year an even happier one!

Three wine categories to avoid in 2013

* A version of this column originally ran in the Saturday on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

It’s easy to tell a consumer what the good wines are from year to year. The more difficult, or truthful, aspect is telling them which wines or at least which wine categories to avoid completely. Getting that extra special, insider information usually requires building up a respectable relationship with your favorite wine merchant. And that can take time, especially if your favorite store has a lot of turnover.

Like any year, there will be some hits and some misses. But based on personal experience these are three wine categories that I’d be hesitant to embrace this year, along with a little rationalization as to why.

First, inexpensive and domestic red blends have been hot for over two years now. Everybody, and by that I mean every supplier, has gotten in on the trend of putting out a cheap, but quite enjoyable red blend. Originally, this was done because a lot of wine producers had some quality, left over juice. Now that most have depleted their extra baggage, they’re left to sourcing cheap wine from wherever they can find it. This typically means a lower quality of wine that is often reflected in the taste.

Wine Cave

Have you ever wondered why a certain red blend just seems to get lighter and lighter or sweeter and sweeter from one vintage to the next? Often the answer is money. It costs more to produce quality wine, but many wineries know that they won’t be able to sell as much from one year to the next if they raise their prices. And if they’re out of the good, leftover juice, then they have to resort to finding a cheaper and lower-grade supply line. After putting out a great value their first vintage, many producers (of the trendy red blend) will assume they have you hooked on their brand and not necessarily maintain the quality into the second or third vintages.

Second, sidestep the cheap Pinot Noir shelf. Since the movie Sideways came out, vineyards in California have ripped up more vines and replanted them with more Pinot Noir grapes than most of us have ripped up and replaced our new year’s resolutions. That means the bottle of cheap Pinot Noir is being filled with juice from vineyards that aren’t very mature. It’s kind of like asking a newborn to recite the alphabet…backwards.

Third, oaky-style Chardonnays have started to take a backstage to the trendy, un-oaked version. Some aficionados argue that this is happening because American tastes are changing. However, the argument could be made that the movement is actually driven by costs. The production of oak barrels and subsequent aging in them is quite expensive, so wineries could be looking for ways to cut back.

Over the years, they have used the insertion of oak staves into the grape juice to impart the creamier textures and buttery nuances that oaky style Chardonnay lovers prefer. And in more recent years, they have used a “dusting” of oak in the Chardonnay to accomplish the same goal. That being said, it may be best to avoid oaky-style Chardonnays under $10.

Once again the reason is simply a matter of dollars or in the sometimes smelly case of wine, scents.

Dessert in a Bottle

* A version of the following article originally appeared in the Sunday edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

When it comes to the pride of Portuguese red wine, nothing stands as prominent and posh as the tawny or amber colored elixir of a delectably sweet port. Customarily made from native grapes such as Touriga Nacional, port hails from the historical vineyards of northern Portugal. Here, many producers often have a British background, linked to days of old, when port was a preferred libation of the island nation.

The old world practice that separates the production of wines like Port, Madeira and Marsala (from most other wines) involves the addition of neutral grape spirits to the fermenting grape juice. Essentially, this method has a dual effect. First it stops the fermentation, allowing some of the sweetness to stay in the wine, as not all the sugar is turned into alcohol. And secondly, the addition of the grape spirits increases the alcohol content of the wine, thus fortifying it.

The fortification makes for a longer lasting, well-preserved wine that travels better in old world Europe, or more specifically for those trips to the Isles just north of the Iberian Peninsula and numerous other outposts of the once British Empire.

Ports

Across the world, the names of key port producers have become universally renowned and include the likes of Fonseca, Dows, Taylor, Croft and Grahams. These vintners have been making port for centuries and they’re still getting it right today. From the young cherry notes and light-hearted appeal of Dow’s Crusted Port to the aperitif like quality of its White Port, Dow’s is a prime example of how the best port houses make successful fortified wines that range from the aforementioned entry-level ports to a pricier and more rare vintage port.

Over the years Fonseca has become a personal favorite of the big port houses. Its Ten Year Tawny Port is dessert in a bottle. With a cornucopia of flavors like butterscotch, plum and toffee, the Fonseca Ten Year is a hard-to-beat introduction to what the wonderful world of port is all about.

Additionally, there are less recognized port houses that deserve some props. The William Harrison import of Quinta de la Rosa also makes a fantastically focused Ten Year Tawny Port. Since most ports come in a traditional darker glass bottling, it’s refreshing to see the clean, clear glass of the Quinta de la Rosa displaying the wonderful and rustic burgundy-like hues of the port wine. A sturdy 20% alcohol by volume, the Quinta de la Rosa has a wonderful honeyed aroma whose magnetism is only surpassed by its decadent and indulgent essence of raisons and dates.

During the wintertime, the sweet and warming charm of a good port may make for a cozy fireside companion, but throughout the year port is the quintessential embellishment after a magnificent meal.

American Syrah still the bridesmaid

* The following article originally appeared in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Special thanks to Russ, Daniel, Lee and Julie.

The last holdout for taking its turn as America’s darling red wine has to be the Syrah grape. Although the US consumer had a brief fling with the Australian Shiraz, the domestic version has yet to capture our imagination or fill our stemware like Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and, more recently, Pinot Noir have done.

Less than 25 years ago, the Syrah grape accounted for just more than 500 tons during California’s crush season. Now its grape crush tonnage is over 125,000. Yes that sounds like a lot, but in reality, Syrah represents only three percent of California’s total haul. So, it may be quite some time before domestic Syrah is elevated to rock star grape status.

In the meantime, keep your eye open for higher quality Syrah’s that are priced over $15 from both California and Washington State including these three stylistically different options.

A voluptuous Syrah that makes a superb first impression is the 2009 Klinker Brick Farrah Syrah for $18. From Lodi, Calif., the Klinker Brick winery may be better known for its big, luscious Zinfandels, but their Farrah Syrah should not go unnoticed. A round, creamier mouth feel introduces surprising favors of vanilla and milk chocolate truffles. Hints of sweet oak and perfumed clove contribute to this wine’s intoxicating appeal.

In contrast, the 2006 Novelty Hill Columbia Valley Syrah, which goes for about $19, offers a bit more of that Rhone-style Syrah profile. This Washington State Syrah may need a little time to open up; however, once it does you’ll enjoy an array of aromas from cedar and smoke to a funky blue cheese predilection. A definite food wine, the Novelty Hill’s rich meatiness and lively pepperiness begs for a fat steak au poivre.

And if your tastebuds lend themselves to a wine with a little softer, more approachable fruit style or a need for immediate gratification, grab a bottle of Charles Smith’s Boom Boom Syrah from Washington State at around $16. With lighter, fruitier and really affable raspberry notes, the Boom Boom will be the fruit bomb your palate is thirsty for.

Since this is gift giving season your shopping list may include a very hard to please wine guru. Syrah is an often overlooked variety that would impress the most grape-savvy friend. Consider a nicer bottling of the harder to find Truchard, Tablas Creek, Qupe or Longboard Syrahs.

Bring home the bubbly and celebrate

Bubbly might have as many affectionate nicknames as my dog, Layla. She goes by Layla Great Dog, Layla Lou, Lou Bear, Boo, Pretty Girl, Boo Radley, Petunia, Brown Eyes and Sweet Heart.

Bubbly is almost as well regarded with nicknames like champagne, champognay, sparkling, fizzy and tiny bubbles. With so many terms of endearment it’s no wonder so many people embrace sparkling wine (like their faithful companion) as a symbol of fond memories and celebratory times.

This New Year’s Eve is the perfect time to challenge your notion of cheap champagne or affordable sparkling wine by venturing beyond the Andre, the Totts, the Cooks and the Korbel and toasting to something a little bit better. Indeed, toasting to the hope of a new year, a new beginning and a new view of what truly matters is cause enough to celebrate.

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Frugal finds for the New Year

* One of your resolutions this New Year may be to save a little money. That doesn’t mean you have to give up good quality, especially when it comes to wine.  In fact, you can find some good value wines between $8 and $12 representing several different categories.  So if you haven’t resolved to be on the wagon this year, then peruse your way through this exercise in frugality.

Sparkling Wine: Codorniu Cava ($8)

Here’s one of those rare moments when the wine is actually worth more than the going price.  Codorniu is a Spanish sparkling wine with roots dating back to the 16th century.  Although modern bottling didn’t start until 1872 it is considered the “Original Cava” and truly blows the competition away.   It has persistent beading, a nice balance of fruit and medium yeastiness, without being doughy.

Sparkling wine should not be reserved for special occasions, because it does pair well with many foods. That being said you can grab a case of this Super Value for about $87 and pull for your favorite team at the upcoming Super Bowl party.

Pinot Noir:  2005 Silver Ridge Pinot Noir ($11)

Fred Franzia and the Bronco Wine Company continue a long trend of offering solid wines at very fair and affordable prices. If you consider some of their other super values like Coastal Ridge and Napa Ridge then you know they’re all about passing the savings on to the consumer.  The 2005 Silver Ridge Pinot Noir from California is no exception, or slouch for that matter!  With cherry notes and a tart finish, this Pinot Noir makes for a good food wine on weeknights. Plus, unlike a lot of value priced end Pinot Noirs, this winery doesn’t seem to be running out of juice anytime soon.

Riesling: 2005 Bonny Doon’s The Heart Has It’s Riesling ($11)

If the Salvador Dali inspired label on this bottle of wine doesn’t grab your attention, then the uniqueness of its flavors will.  The Heart Has It’s Riesling by Bonny Doon Vineyards is an all west coast Riesling produced in California with grapes grown in Washington State.   Low in alcohol at 8.3%, it has flavors of Gala apples, aromas of slate stone and funky fruit nuances that may remind you of fresh mangos.  It might best be described as an American Riesling with a German flair.

French: 2004 Le Paradou Rouge ($10)

A few months ago I sent out an email about a “local boy done good.”  Jon-David Headrick is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and worked at the Orangery for years. After school his passion for wine grew and bam, before you know it, he’s personally selecting wines from the Loire and Rhone regions of France!

The 2004 Le Paradou Rouge is a blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah.  Aromatic and spicy, the blend has silky tannins, delicious black fruit flavors and no oak influence. It’s so good you may be tempted to finish the bottle or even return to purchase a case.

Merlot: 2004 Capolan Sonoma Merlot ($12)

From the Purple Wine Company, makers of the beloved Avalon Cabernets, comes a new Merlot from Sonoma County called Capolan. Unlike a lot of similarly priced Merlots that are overloaded with green herby flavors, this wine has none of those obvious flaws.  It is rich and round, with a medium body and soft tannins but successfully avoids being “tooty fruity.”  Look for the bottle with the bright red parrot on the label.  Polly may want another.

* A version of this column was published in 2007 in the Knoxville News Sentinel

French wines that are winners

* My Scottish (non-French) historian friend often reminds me that French wines and French food go together well for a simple reason. The Romans planted the vines centuries ago and the great Florentine noble Catherine de Medici brought her famed chefs and culinary fashion with her from Italy to France in the 16th century.  From there the Italians pulled the French out of the Dark Ages of food preparation and into a Renaissance of cuisine.  The following six wines epitomize some of the best values the French have to offer.  All are readily available in the Knoxville market and are great food wines. Enjoy.

ALSACE:  2004 Hugel Gewurztraminer ($17)

For centuries the French and the Germans have battled for and swapped out the rights to a nice swatch of land called the Alsace.  Known for its dry white wines, the region boasts some great producers including Hugel, Zind Humbrecht and Trimbach to name a few.  One of these whites, the gewürztraminer, often receives much acclaim for its “spiciness” which balances perfectly with its subtle sweetness.  Logically then, it’s often paired up with spicy foods, like a nice Thai curry dish from Stir Fry Café (West Hills location).

The 2004 Hugel Gewurztraminer has floral and mineral notes with flavors of pears, apples and stone fruit. It is light and refreshingly clean with only a trivial hint of honey.  My former colleague, Erin, who has an affinity for apples, suggests pairing it up with grilled chicken that’s been marinated in Paul Newman’s Sun-dried Tomato Vinaigrette.

LOIRE VALLEY: 2004 La Craie Vouvray ($12)

The Loire Valley is the premier wine-growing region in the northwestern part of France. One of the things to keep in mind about French wines is that they are identified by location or village. Not surprisingly, to know the region often means knowing which grapes are in the bottle of that difficult-to-decipher French label.  Take the 2004 La Craie Vouvray for example:  Vouvray is a village nestled in the eastern part of the Loire Valley and is made from the Chenin Blanc grape.  So, even if you don’t know the language, you can still determine what’s in the bottle.

The 2004 La Craie Vouvray is a drier style white that I’ve discovered to be a wonderful aperitif wine. The name “La Craie” means the chalk and is derived from the chalky soil located in the village of Vouvray. If you’re looking for something to start off a dinner party that pairs well with cheeses and fresh fruit, then this wine is the ideal complement.  It has mineral and floral aromas and a soft lingering acidity.  It’s like sweet tarts for the adult palate.

WHITE BURGUNDY: 2005 Olivier Leflaive Les Setilles ($15)

On to Burgundy we go, or if you were in France, it would be pronounced Bourgogne.  White wines made in Burgundy mean that you’re more than likely enjoying a nice glass of Chardonnay.  This is true of our next great white wine, the 2005 Les Setilles from renowned producer Olivier Leflaive. The grapes in this wine come from the esteemed villages of Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault. Typically, that should translate to a more expensive price tag but in this case it fortunately does not.  The name “Les Setilles” comes from the location where Napoleon Bonaparte once established a settlement camp prior to his invasion of Burgundy.

However, unlike French military endeavors, this wine is a never a loser.  The 2005 Les Setilles has understated creamy aromas, crisp acidity and a balanced almost crystal clean finish.  So, do what Napoleon would do if he were around today; boil up some shellfish from the Shrimp Dock, slide an old 45 of Edith Piaf onto the turn table, pop open a bottle of Les Setilles and toast to an early Spring (just like it was Russia, circa 1812 all over again).

RED BURGUNDY: 2004 Joseph Drouhin La Foret ($15)

If you’ll remember that white Burgundy is Chardonnay, then you might also note that red Burgundy is the Pinot Noir grape.  That’s right. The wine that Miles from the movie Sideways made popular here in the States has been a part of French culture since the Romans swept through the region a few thousand years ago.

The 2004 La Foret from Joseph Drouhin is a great entry level Burgundy and a model wine to express the French style of Pinot Noir.  Not as fruity and luscious as a domestic Pinot Noir, it has more muted nuances of red cherry and a somewhat earthier finish.  La Foret, or the forest as it’s translated, has gentle tannins that make it precariously easy to drink. When it comes to cuisine, Miles would almost certainly snarl at my suggestion of paring it with grilled salmon, but then again he snarled at everything.

SOUTHERN RHONE: 2003 Paul Jaboulet Cotes du Ventoux ($11) and 

2004 Beaumes de Venise ($14)

The southeastern part of France is a hotbed for popular and inexpensive French reds and one of the areas best producers is Paul Jaboulet.  His 2003 Cotes du Ventoux blends a sweet marriage of Grenache and Syrah and is ready to go from the start.  Aromas of blueberry give way to a jammy medium-bodied palate and a pleasantly dry close.  You can’t miss seeing this bottle on the wine shelf as its brilliant violet label stands out from the traditional French wine labels.

Another southern Rhone that has everything going for it is the 2004 Beaumes de Venise by Jaboulet.  Its high level of freshness and quality (at a fraction of what the cost would be for a similar bottle from California) is comparable to a French rifle.  It’s never been fired and dropped only once!  The Beaumes de Venise is another predominantly Grenache/Syrah blend with garnet color, deep fruit aromas and a smooth consistent tannin structure.  My new friend, Vanessa, called this a sexy wine with bright vibrant fruit that beckons for heavier foods. It will definitely call you back for more.

NORTHERN RHONE: 2003 Guigal Croze-Hermitage ($20)

OK, it’s obvious by now that the French make better wine than war.  And if you’re willing to pay a little more to have one of these first class wines this weekend, then the Croze Hermitage by Etienne Guigal is just what the wine doctor ordered. This Syrah based wine has powerful, intense aromas of black currant and leather, flavors of plum and black cherry, and is not for the novice wine drinker. It has firm tannins, that when first opened, make the wine seem a little tight.  However, with a little patience this northern Rhone delight opens up and makes for an exceptional companion to braised osso bucco with risotto Milanese.  Bon Apetite!

*A version of this column was published in 2007 in the Knoxville News Sentinel

Winter dinners and wine to fight the chill

The cold and rainy winter months keep us cooped up in the confines of our homes, affording us some extra time in the kitchen preparing home-cooked dinners that are hearty and warm. Some of my favorite recipes are usually reserved for these cold weather months. And for every season or seasoned dish, there is a wine to cozy up next to it.

Sausage, red beans and rice with a Barbera

The more I try Italian Barbera, the more I love it. In the Italian region of Piedmont, where Barbera is from, it is often the preferred red wine. Because it is meant to be consumed young and because of its bright fruit and rich texture, Barbera is an accessible and food-friendly red. This is a great wine to pair with a robust meal of sausage, red beans and rice. If you’re like me and still on that New Year’s diet, then I recommend turkey sausage as an easy-to-find substitute. Likewise, using a rice grain that is low glycemic can help you stick to that January nutrition plan. Basmati rice does have plenty of carbohydrates, but they are complex carbs that take longer to break down and keep you feeling full longer.

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Organic wine category grows naturally

The category of organic wines is growing slowly but steadily. The USDA lists certain requirements in order for wines to be certified as organic. These prerequisites state that a grape’s origin must be from pesticide-free vineyards. A wine maker is also prohibited from adding any additional sulfites to the wine. Although the movement is still a little green, there are several easily accessible brands producing quality wines.

If California had an organic wine Mecca, then it might very well be Mendocino County. Lolonis Vineyards in Mendocino has been making organic wines long before it was trendy. Their non-vintage Cuvee of French Columbard, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay has naturally solved the dilemma of how to be pesticide free. Lolonis Lady Bug White comes from vineyards that use Mother Nature’s own pest remover, the lady bug. Smooth as slate with fresh mineral notes and stone fruit flavors, Lolonis Lady Bug White is a perfect patio sipper and one of the more affordable organic wines at $13.44. It also comes in a red blend mysteriously dubbed Lolonis Lady Bug Red.

Another of Mendocino County’s organic output comes from Jeriko Vineyards, the 2003 Jeriko Merlot. With a vanilla creaminess and loads of soft fruit flavors of plum and cherry, Jeriko Merlot makes it easy for the rookie organic consumer to cross over to the green side. The Jeriko Merlot may cost a little more at $18.99, but it’s a biodynamic attempt at doing what comes naturally. Similarly, if you’re looking for the same quality that is also food friendly, then check out the 2003 Jeriko Syrah with its drier style and heartier overtones.

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Picking a bubbly for toast not so hard with these tips

It can sometimes be difficult to remember the difference in terms on a label of French champagne or other sparkling wines. This column is dedicated to helping party goers and party-throwers know the terminology and offer some safe suggestions.

Essentially, for something to be labeled champagne it must come from the region in France known conveniently as Champagne. Yes, champagne is a sparkling wine, but the French quickly take exception to anyone else using their designations.

Often, French champagnes will have flavors that are bread-like or yeasty. Their stream of bubbles is usually fine and well beaded. Domestic champagne will often reveal citrus notes and create a bubbling effect that might be visualized as a lava lamp for adults.

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Holiday wines to be thankful for

Followers of this wine column know that I’m not a fan of Beaujolais Nouveau. Suffice to say, I truly believe it’s just a gimmick to sell a bunch of overpriced, jug-like French wine that in all actuality is really quite, well, bad. Some may argue that it’s traditional to buy and drink Nouveau for Thanksgiving. To them we should remind that mud-slinging has become a political tradition that benefits no one.

This column is dedicated to the pursuit of introducing alternative wines for Thanksgiving dinner that are not only better compliments to the meal but also a lot better tasting than bathwater.

One of the preeminent new German Rieslings to reach the Knoxville market this year is by a producer named Geil. Although not as well known as other German wineries, Geil makes up for its lack of notoriety with an astonishingly vibrant Riesling that has all the right stuff for pairing quite properly with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. From Germany’s Rhein River region, the 2009 Geil Riesling Kabinett exhibits exotic fruit notes of guava and a clean petrol bouquet. A tropical delight, the Geil Riesling is just what the turkey gobbled for.

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All that sparkles on New Year’s Eve

December 31st is right around the corner, and every New Year’s Eve consumers are confronted and perplexed about which Champagne or sparkling wine to ring in the new year with. Whatever you choose, just remember that it doesn’t have to read champagne on the label to be good, and you don’t have to pay a boatload to find a good one. These three sparkling wines are from California and reveal that great tasting holiday toasters are easily accessible. From Anderson Valley, Sonoma County and the Russian River Valley, these “bubblies” are proof that domestic “Champagnes” are on the rise.

n Scharffenberger Brut Non-Vintage ($17.99)

The name may be a mouthful, but once you’ve tried the Scharffenberger Brut, that’s exactly what you’ll want. From Anderson Valley California, Scharffenberger is an elegant, flavorful sparkling wine for under $20. A rare find in both quality and price, this non-vintage bubbly has a subtle apricot aroma and delightful sprig of citrus. Its prolonged finish and favorable avoidance of being overly dry or acidic makes this domestic version of French Champagne one of the best buys for New Year’s reveling.

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Simple everyday Tawny Port

Quick, while the weather is nasty and cold, log up the fireplace, turn down the lights, scroll the iPod over to some Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, kick back and start sipping on a little port wine. Port wine seems to be one of those seasonal drinks that we enjoy in the cold months of winter. Besides the bottom shelf cooking port or the ruby port you might have sampled at communion, tawny port is another affordable everyday port that offers a higher quality and sense of enjoyment. Recently, I was fortunate enough to sample and compare a host of tawny ports with three witty, intelligent and beautiful ladies. We found some interesting discoveries and agreed upon the following recommendations.

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Dinner parties made with great wines, good friends

Dinner parties with friends and other couples are a great way to entertain and create a stronger bond. Nothing shows your endearment towards friends more than cooking, serving and sharing a nice dinner with them in the trappings of your own home.

From great dinner parties arise great conversation, interesting wine discoveries and that connection of having gotten to known someone better. I’ve teamed up with a good friend of mine, who is a recovering chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, to help me to put together this Italian-themed wine dinner.

The best part about doing an Italian wine dinner is that most Italian wines make for great food wines. We decided to kick ours off with a fantastic white wine from the toe of the Italian peninsula. The 2006 Statti Greco is versatile and ready to go as either an enjoyable welcoming wine or first course partner.

Its pleasant mineral notes and stone fruit flavors create a soft, rounded wine that isn’t marred by barreling. If you’re tired of the same old soup starter, then this wine makes for an excellent compliment to a risotto small plate. The recovering chef recommends serving a light seafood risotto infused with basil and combined with scallops and shrimp.

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Barbera wines little known outside Italy, but spreading

There is a long history and pedigree of revered Italian wines, but Barbera hasn’t yet been enrolled into that club.

Grown primarily in the northwest province of Piedmont, Barbera has often taken a backseat to other wines of the region like Barolo or Gavi. Its success in traveling to other areas of the world has been limited but the promise of the new world and early plantings by Italian immigrants has laid the groundwork for growth of the varietal.

The Barbera grape is characteristically fruity and focused, with a lighter mouth-feel and a supple cranberry color. You’re most likely to find the best Barberas from Italy; however, Amador County in California produces one striking version that’s worth seeking out.

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Ring in the New Year with new bubbly

Wine consumers and aficionados alike are left with one burning question at the end of December: What should I celebrate the new year with? Most likely, wine drinkers turn to their familiar standbys, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you’re looking for something that’s just as good but perhaps a little different, you’ll be excited to know that there is sparkling French wine that goes beyond Champagne and sparkling Italian wine that goes beyond Spumante.

This New Year’s Eve or anytime this month is an ideal moment to sample some new sparkling wines. The following selections are from Germany, France and Italy.

- Hansen Lauer Brut Riesling 2007 (Germany)

The 2007 Hansen-Lauer Brut Riesling is a unique bubbly that has similarities to both French Champagne and Italian Prosecco. The aromas display fine notes of wheat and crisp breadiness, which Champagne often demonstrates, while the flavors have enjoyable fruit notes of peach, lemon zest and grapefruit, that are typical for most Prosecco.

Made from 100% Riesling, this Brut bubbly is a solid performer whose light yeasty bouquet also intermingles with a powdery aroma of fresh cotton. It’s great for first time sparkling wine drinkers who want something refreshing as well as experienced admirers of bubbly who want something unique.

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Three wines worth drinking this year

At the start of each new year, some people take time to look back and do some personal inventorying, while others prefer to look forward and explore what this new year has to offer. Fortunately for the latter, three wines are emerging as phenomenal super-values in 2011.

- Lamarca Prosecco Brut NV

Just because the New Year has already begun doesn’t mean that you need a special reason to celebrate. You do, however, need a great bubbly to do the celebrating. Lamarca Prosecco (from Italy) isn’t shy in showing a little swagger about being the first Italian Prosecco to make Wine Spectator’s “Top 100″ list. Not nearly as dry as French Champagne, Prosecco creates a softer, more approachable texture with fresh fruit flavors of peach and citrus.

- 2009 Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut

While more and more wineries are going out of their way to find flashy ways to market their labels, one French producer is paying attention to what’s behind the label as well. Back in the 90s, Chapoutier became the first winery to put Braille on its label, informing the blind as to where the wine came from, when it was made and whether it’s red or white. Wine promoters may have perceived the change as a stroke of marketing genius, but more importantly, wine lovers were merely impressed that Chapoutier continued to put quality wine in their bottles.

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Fabulous finds for under $15

If you’re looking for a nice step-up from that everyday $10 bottle of wine but don’t want to go overboard in cost, there are quite a few fabulous finds from around the world. The good news is you can sample a bottle for under $15, and actually taste the reason that it costs just a little bit more.

n 2005 Cesari Mara Ripasso ($14.99)

From the well known town of Valpolicella, the Cesari Mara Ripasso is an outstanding food wine. Its rich flavors are due in no small part to a traditional method that allows the grape juice of this Italian blend to rest on the lees of Amarone wine. This procedure extracts a deeper color and richer flavors that could fool the best of wine geeks into thinking this bottle is worth more than its $15 price tag.

n 2005 Alamos Malbec Seleccion ($13.50)

The Catena family of Argentina knows and produces Malbec like no one else. Systematically, the 2005 Malbec Seleccion continues that pedigree with a juicy red that incorporates mild spices with an easy-drinking flavor profile. The best thing about this affordable Malbec is that it doesn’t take a millennium to open up and show off all that delicious fruit and smooth texture. Great for any day sipping or frugal party planning, the Alamos Malbec Seleccion is the real thing.

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