French whites and fresh fruit

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

Fresh French Whites!

Fresh French Whites!

With the advent of spring, the farmers markets and produce aisles are rapidly starting to fill up with the bright, luscious fruit of the season. And as our eyes are tempted and lured-in by the vibrancy and freshness of these colorful fruits, it becomes a suitable time to pair them with some nice and inexpensive white wines.  Just as strawberries and champagne make for great pairings, so too do these French wines and fresh fruits.

The grape variety Picpoul has been picking up steam in our market over the past few years.  Produced in the southern most part of France’s Rhone Valley, it will often come from a growing appellation known as Picpoul de Pinet. Here you will find some of the best examples of the variety.

The Domaine Delsol 2012 Picpoul de Pinet is a stunning representation of the wine. Not only do the grapes come from a single vineyard but the wine itself is estate bottled, giving the Delsol meticulous care from start to finish. Its golden pear color isn’t typical when compared alongside many of the other Picpouls.  The Delsol’s balanced acidity is its secret weapon, as citrusy notes like grapefruit persist from start to finish.

Picpoul is universally paired with shellfish, but I’ve found that the Domaine Delsol offers a bit more balance and roundedness without losing its edge. So look to enjoy it with some sliced kiwi fruit or even something sweeter like honeydew when it starts to roll in later this summer. Imported by the Marchetti Wine Company, the Domaine Delsol Picpoul de Pinet sells for around $10.

Other Rhone varietals to seek out include Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier.  The first two can shoot up in price in a hurry so it’s often better to track down a blend to save money or as an introduction to the wine. The estate of the Saint Cosme vineyards is a great place to start; it dates back over half a millennium and today offers a host of traditional regional wines including a blend of the aforementioned grapes.

Saint Cosme’s Cote-du-Rhone Blanc has more of fleshy texture than a Picpoul and shows off delicious pear and apple flavors. Something tropical, like pineapple, makes for a nice partner to the Saint Cosme and it tends to be more forgiving with various red berries than most still white wines. The Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc retails for around $20 and is imported by the Virginia based County Vintner company.

Although I have an obvious partiality towards French white wines and fresh fruit, that predilection is not limited to the Rhone Valley. Case in point is the very lovely, Chateau Pilet 2012 Bordeaux Blanc. Comprised of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon, the Pilet shows off an exotic bouquet and some lip-smacking acidity. The citrus side of the Chateau Pilet Bordeaux Blanc requires a similar natured fruit like tangerines or navel oranges, so here’s to hoping this year’s Florida crop stays warm. Chateau Pilet is imported by HB Wine Merchants and goes for $13.

 

Italian importer brings Spanish wines to market

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

As one of the top importers of Italian vino, Winebow has been expanding their European portfolio through a reinvestment of contemporary Spanish wines. That venture includes some reimaging for a few of their own brands as well as a concerted effort to build long and lasting relationships with regarded and established Spanish wineries.

Two of the in-house labels that Winebow has seen success with have reemerged in our market touting a fresh new look without sacrificing style or substance. Los Dos Red made a big splash in Knoxville about seven years ago. Comprised of just two grapes, Garnacha and Syrah, the wine is well on its way to being a mega-value and big hit yet again. With the 2012 release of this Spanish blend, the wine takes on a Rhone-like nuance of savory aromas that combines well with Garnacha’s immediate cherry and red-berry fruit profile. The 2012 Los Dos will retail for around $9 and may have few Spanish competitors that can match up to it in both price and quality.

A second Winebow-owned brand that is making some waves is the nicely viscous and aromatically alluring Lícia Albariño. The 2012 Licia is 100% Albariño from the Rías Baixas and shows off beautiful white peach and melon aromas. Albariño has long been one of my favorite pairings for seafood dishes especially authentic Spanish paella with jazzy saffron arborio that’s embedded with fresh shellfish. These two together make for a nearly unbeatable beachside substitute.

With the recent success of Italian Proseccos, Spanish bubbly producers have been charging full steam ahead with some incredible Cavas, and Winebow is in on the game. The Juvé y Camps winery in Catalonia is nearly a century old and is quite simply regarded as the prime producer of exceptional Cava. Their Brut Nature Gran Reserva is perhaps the signature representation of all that is perfect and pleasing about Spanish Cava. Made from Xarello, Macabeo, Parellada and Chardonnay grapes, the wine’s fruit comes entirely from estate vineyards. Dry with a slight bready note, the 2008 Juvé y Camp Brut Nature Gran Reserva will have sparkling wine and Champagne drinkers alike wooed by its balance and refreshing crispness.

Finally, few Spanish portfolios would be complete without a sassy Rioja. And the 2010 Finca Valpiedra Cantos Crianza is one of the most intensely flavorful Riojas I’ve had in years. Roughly translated as Songs of the Stone Valley, the Finca Valpiedra Cantos Crianza is all Tempranillo, with flavors of sweet oak and black cherry. This very contemporary Rioja provides immediate satisfaction to any lover of fruit-forward red wines, so much so that it should be dubbed the saltimbocca of wines, as it “jumps in the mouth.” The attractive bouquet of mint and vanilla unite glass and palate like long lost lovers.

If Winebow can replicate the success it has had in delivering amazing wines from the Italian peninsula, then Spanish wines and indeed the entirety of the Iberian peninsula might very well be the staging ground and next foothold for doing so.

 

Offer a salute for Father’s Day

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

Wines fit for a king

Wines fit for a king

This Father’s Day you may not be able to send dad on that much needed vacation touring the vineyards of the Tuscan countryside or to be pampered by any of the countless numbers of wineries in California’s Napa Valley. But you can bring the vineyard to him, at least the best part of it. On his day of appreciation, give dad a beautiful and distinctive bottle of wine that he may enjoy at his leisure. Who knows he might even open it the next time you’re around.

Some dad’s are all about comfort. They like to know or be familiar with something before they dive into it. These are the old school, map in hand Pops whom plan almost everything in advance and are going to want to at least be able to pronounce the wine gift you chose for them. Chances are they’re quite aware of Napa Valley and their award-winning litany of sturdy, reliable Cabernets.

With that in mind, the preferred Napa Valley Cabs that I recommend for Father’s Day come from Cliff Lede Vineyards and Bell Wine Cellars. The 2009 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon, in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, represents the tannic, bold style Cabernet with its firm structure and dark berry fruit. The Cliff Lede (pronounced lady) is a steak lovers Cab that will need to be opened well in advance of firing up the grill. Look to pay around $60.

Likewise, Anthony Bell’s 2009 Claret will amaze any wine enthusiast. Its local popularity was made possible by Mr. Bell’s continued presence in the market and by the long time listing on the wine menu at the Northshore Brasserie. A mostly Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, the Bell Claret is excellence defined. For the ready-to-drink wine man, only the layers of supple, luscious fruit surpass the Claret’s polished tannins and elegant mouthfeel. And it’s a very reasonable gift for under $40.

Father & Son

For the jet setter, aspiring world traveler or even the modern day “foodie” father, one needs to look no further than the vineyards of Tuscany for an impeccable bottle of wine and exceptional gift idea. Aged for three years in oak, the 2008 Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino is a delectable mouthful of 100% Sangiovese Grosso grapes. With dense black cherry flavors, a hint of anise and a finish reminiscent of wild berry reduction, the Castelgiocondo Brunello just begs to be paired with some braised lamb shank. Leather notes and holiday spices combine for an aromatic tour de force, so Dad will know his $70 gift was special the moment he leans in for his first sip.

Keep in mind that buying an expensive bottle is a commitment and not an investment. Always ask your local shop for a discount to defer some of the cost of your purchase. They should be more than glad to help you with such a special gift.

Off the beaten (white wine) path

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

Original and interesting white wines are always emerging in the market this time of year. And this spring I’ve noticed a continued effort by winemakers, importers and distributors to move beyond the old trappings of Chardonnay and other more prolific wines into offerings of lesser-known and more curious creations. These bottlings express fresh, lighter bodied wines and include new interpretations of wines from an obscure Rhone or southern hemisphere Gewurztraminer to a pumped-up Portuguese white.

Another wine heard from

Another wine heard from

Parents, teachers, coaches will all tell you the same: you’re never done learning. So when I opened a newer label of French wine named Marc Roman Terret, I had to quickly discover more about this unfamiliar grape. Sure I knew that Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines were blended. But I had no idea that one of those grapes (sometimes used in production) is Terret. The Marc Roman bottling may be one of the few if only 100% Terret wines in the market, but you shouldn’t dismiss it.

A great all-rounder especially for hot weather drinking, the Marc Roman possesses a salty oceanic zephyr essence and a minerality that make for a natural “fruit of the sea” pairing. I highly recommend it with some fresh halibut that’s been lightly rolled and pan seared in panko crumbs before being added to a tortilla filled with coriander chutney, diced vidalias, sour cream and a hit of lime juice.

The first thing that comes to mind, when one thinks of Chilean white wines, is probably not Gewurztraminer. In fact, the more popular locale for such a wordy wine is the old world strip of land between Germany and France known as Alsace. Still, the 2011 Miquel Torres Santa Digna Gewurztraminer is a surprising effort for a wine that’s not grown extensively in the southern hemisphere.

Southern Hemisphere G-Wine

Southern Hemisphere G-Wine

A minimal touch of sweetness, a cleansing finish and a mouth-full of stone fruit flavor make this wine a natural sparring partner for spicier food. Almost universally recommended with fiery Asian cuisine, Gewurztraminer like the Miquel Torres also matches up nicely with some plump gulf shrimp combined with buttery grits and spicy Andouille sausage.

I’ve often referred to the Portuguese wine known as Vinho Verde as a lite-beer lover’s wine. Its lower alcohol content, slight fizz and lighter body position a Vinho Verde to be a simpler white wine, that is both refreshing and easy-drinking. What I like most about my new favorite version, the Conde Villar Vinho Verde, is that it goes a step beyond the typical green-apple notes of the wine.

Recently, I blogged about the Conde Villar’s tropical tendencies. After an unexpected but ephemeral whiff of cotton candy aromas, the Conde Villar Vinho Verde exposes its equatorial inclination with some softened pineapple and guava flavors. Perhaps the quintessential pairing to most spring-fresh green salads, the Vinho Verdes like the Conde Villar also couple-up nicely with a plate of seasonal fruits from strawberries and pineapple to cantaloupe and honeydew.

Interview with an importer

* This column was originally published in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Once you’ve met him, Ronnie Sanders is one of those people you won’t forget. The animated owner behind the bustling wine import company Vine Street Imports has brought some of the most interesting and conversation-starting Australian wine labels to the U.S. Some of Sanders’ eye-popping labels include Cycle Buff Beauty, Barrel Monkeys and The Mistress.

Q: You have some fantastically insane visual designs on the labels in your portfolio. Where do these producers and/or yourself derive these creative influences?

SANDERS: I’ve always been fascinated with record albums, and when I was kid I bought records according to the album cover. Of course, there were mistakes (Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” comes to mind), and for me I really equate what I loved as a kid with albums to wine label art. It’s hard to put a finger on it but I’ll see an artist that I really like or a concept maybe in a magazine or the cover of a book, and that just gets the creative juices flowing. Considering that I have absolutely no artistic ability at all, I’ve aligned myself with people who are super-creative and let them do their thing.

Q: Do you have any new endeavors on the horizon that you’d like to share with us?

SANDERS: We are having an event in Philadelphia that I am pretty excited about called “Defend Australia,” which is essentially a master class. The vast majority of our distributors nationwide are coming in, including your very own Rich Dixon from Knoxville Beverage as well as many top retailers and sommeliers from around the country. Although we feel the pull again on our category, we wanted to give it a push, as well as feature many of our new wines from wineries that are brand new to the market.

Q: What’s your opinion on the changing of the guard at Wine Advocate now that founder and owner Robert Parker has sold it?

SANDERS: Lisa Perroti-Brown is an incredibly gifted person and I think she’ll do a great job. So far I think her Aussie reviews have been on point. I’m curious to see who will review Italy now that Antonio Galloni is no longer doing the Italian reviews for the Advocate.

Q: Do you think the ongoing debate about the 100-point wine rating system in America (where one or a handful of people crown a wine as king) will lead to any real change in the near future?

SANDERS: I never had a problem with the system as it stands. Nowadays, I think that the average wine-drinker seems to be more comfortable with their palates, but I still have friends who will only buy on press. Hopefully, that will eventually change.

The second half of this interview will be posted on Friday.

Time to think pink – with these hand picked selections

* A version of this column originally ran in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Get ready! They’re going to be here before you know it; the annual and swift invasion of fresh French rosé wines will touchdown in the East Tennessee marketplace in early April and won’t let up until mid summer. So it’s time to shake off those rainy winter blues and to start to think – pink.

Over the past few years, importers like Robert Kacher, Fran Kysela and Dan Kravitz of Hand Picked Selections have done a remarkable job at bringing reliable, high quality rosé wines to the US. With the rosé portfolio of Hand Picked Selections fetching wines from France that are incredible and rousing, this year is no exception. Here are five Hand Picked choices worth asking for at your neighborhood shop this spring.

The Four Rosemen of Notre Dame

The Four Rosemen of Notre Dame

Finding value in a wine category where prices tend to inch up every year can be formidable. For this very reason, I wanted to seek out at least one French rosé that is both under $15 and still rocking and rolling. That quest led to the discovery of the $13 Le Cirque Rosé. The indulgent and tempting fruit-laden essence of Le Cirque matches its grape make up of being half Grenache and nearly as much Mourvèdre. A unique hint of clove as well as a lively cotton candy color would seem intriguing enough. But throw in a melon patch of summer time flavors and suddenly it’s like having an amusement park in your glass.

Although the previous vintage may have been a little uninspiring, I’m a big fan of the 2012 Domaine de Malavieille Charmille Rosé. Organic conscious wine drinkers will appreciate the extra effort by the winery to attain its biodynamic certification. A dry, Syrah-based wine with richer than normal rosé-like flavors, the Charmille pairs up well with some garden ripe strawberries and a slice of shortcake. In fact, it’s one of those wines with a long and winding, if not meandering, finish that ends right at the point where you find your lips meeting glass for yet another sip.

If you don’t mind paying a little more, then you won’t be able to get enough of the 2012 Chateau de Lancyre Rose from the Languedoc. With spicy notes and a gulp full of tangerine and grapefruit, this wine has been one my favorite rosés for the past few years. A classic blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, Lancyre is a clean representation of all that is good and fresh in the world or French rosé wines.

Finally, lovers of the bone-dry and mineral style rosé won’t be disappointed with either release of the 2012 Commanderie de la Bargemone or the 2012 Château du Donjon Minervois rosé wines. With cheery cherry, strawberry and quince notes both of these wines make it easy to think pink as the new batch of springtime rosés roll into town.

Overcoming Veritable Quandaries in Modern White Wines

Revered sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin said that the one thing that makes life possible is “permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” This uncertainty can occur at any time, like when you get home from the hospital with your firstborn and you’re left with the feeling of “now what?” Or when you move forward with what you’ve always known or start something completely new.

Here’s another similar situation: Since you’ve drunk only Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio all your life, can you actually find a different white wine that you’re not sure you’ll enjoy or even know how to pronounce?

Fret not, because the only thing that’s tentative about the new 2010 Veritable Quandary White is trying to guess what the wine is comprised of. With typical Spanish varietals like Albarino, Portuguese varietals like Verdelho and Rhone varietals like Marsanne and Roussanne, this all-American wine is diverse in composition but still manages to deliver a seamless spirit. Dry without being Saharan, the Veritable Quandary White establishes a juicy tropical fruit flavor held together by an unctuous frame and thick golden color.

Continue reading at knoxnews.com.

Oriel brand consistently hits it out of park

There’s a new team in town, and these Boys of Summer have been honing their game with a little warm-weather spring training.

Oriel wines are a hot new brand with a unique story. Unveiled in 2006 by John Hunt, the company has sought out more than 20 established and respected wine makers in more than nine countries. What they bring to the table are years of experience and a specific knowledge of the wines they are making. As a result, consumers are presented with high-quality wines that are true and indicative to the region where they are made. The Oriel brand continues to grow and offers some new arrivals this spring.

I’ve covered a few of these ringers in the past and done some play-by-play analysis, but never before have I seen a new team hit like these fence busters. You won’t find any Bush Leaguers around this diamond, and with a skipper like John Hunt, you can bet a big bag of peanuts that these players will be swinging for the fences.

Check out this new lineup:

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French Rosé, not just pretty in pink

After decades of domestic misperception, the importation and consumption of French rosé wines is finally taking hold in the United States. This misunderstanding evolved almost exclusively around the American consumer’s hesitancy to embrace a color, the sometimes-maligned color pink.

Dogged by not-so-fond memories of our youthful drinking days, consumers in the U.S. struggled to separate the tutti-frutti wines of long ago college days from the often-similar colored rosé wines of France and other parts of Europe, that were actually much drier. Those cheap blush wines of years past, in easy accessible screw tops, took a toll on our psyches as well as our stomachs.

Fortunately for all parties involved, winemakers kept increasing production, importers kept introducing new rosé wines and we as consumers slowly took off the blinders, put a bottle in our basket and took one home, where we would soon be pleasantly surprised.

Continue reading at knoxnews.com

Cool white wines to quench that Spring fever

* The hot weather has arrived early again this year and after spending the last forty days without a cold beer, I was motivated to explore some white wines.  After trying lots of uninspired whites, I settled on a couple of Sauvignon Blancs and two whites from Austria known as Gruner Veltliner.  As we inch closer to the Lake and find ourselves more and more in the great outdoors, these wines make for great thirst quenchers.

Hofer 2005 Gruner Veltliner ($9.99)

The king of Austrian grapes, Gruner Veltliner (GROO-ner VELT-lee-ner), is slowly growing in popularity around the world.  If you’re curious to try something new this spring, then the 2005 Hofer is an affordable way to scratch that itch.  Fresh and aromatic with citrus highlights, Hofer has balanced acidity and soft apple notes that offer a simple crispness.

Adding to the value of this $10 wine is the fact that it comes in a full liter size bottle. So, although it may look like a forty-ounce malt liquor, that extra glass of wine will come in handy when that pesky neighbor floats on down for a visit. Complete with a pop-top, Hofer would even have Jimmy Buffet singing about an Austrian beauty, hopefully without the lederhosen.

2004 Oriel Ortolan Gruner Veltliner ($16.99)

Once you’ve gotten a taste for Gruner Veltliner, you’ll be anxious to explore this Austrian treat at greater depth.  The 2004 Oriel Ortolan is the next step up from the Hofer and worth the extra cash. Complex and floral, the Oriel Ortolan offers up a successful juggling act of lemon, lime, and mineral notes with a nice lingering spice to the finish that even some ragin’ Cajuns would love.

Great as an aperitif, this Gruner Veltliner demonstrates a promising future for the Oriel label.  Representing dozens of regions in nine different countries, Oriel is receiving kudos as world famous winemakers producing niche wines.  Be on the lookout as more and more of these wines enter the market. You won’t be disappointed.

2006 Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc ($13.99)

Early spring is the time of year when all the new releases of wines start to arrive in the market.  One of the first 2006 vintages I’ve noticed is the Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc.  One of my all-favorite Sauvignon Blancs, Ferrari-Carano is a reliable white wine year in and year out.  So after trying the last of my 2005 vintages, I was glad to see the fresh juice arrive.

If you’re looking for a dry white wine with no acidic “bite”, then I highly recommend you go for a bottle of the Ferrari-Carano.  It’s softened by minimal aging in oak barrels and has a roundness to it that many of those bone-dry California Sauvignon Blancs lack.  Over time, the 2006 vintage should develop to reveal some fantastic apple characters.  If you ever get a chance to go to Sonoma, be sure to check out this winery’s stately gardens and facilities. It’s no wonder the wine is so good.

2006 Fumaio Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay ($7.77)

Fumaio is a new wine from Banfi Vintners of Italy.  Although it’s a blend of two different grapes, it’s the Sauvignon Blanc that shines through.  Much drier than the others in the tasting, Fumaio has grassy aromas that are complimented by flavors of grapefruit, lemon and kiwi.  Clean and balanced, Fumaio is moderately herbal and as clear as H2O.  So head to the water and cast that anchor in your favorite secret slew. With a screw top in hand all you need now are a few glasses and some good friends.

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

You say Syrah, I say Shiraz

*Shiraz is popular. It’s been that way for some time and the popularity is due in no small part to the mass influx of the Australian version of Shiraz. At a recent tasting, I was reminded of the power of kangaroo wine, both from a value and flavor standpoint.

Shiraz and Syrah are one in the same grape. Think tomato or tomatoe, quail or Quayle.   Not only are the spellings and pronunciations different, but the flavor profile can also vary greatly from the Pacific Coast of America to the kangaroo fields of southeastern Australia.

BlackBilly Shiraz 2004 ($19)

A wise man once suggested to me that many wine lovers often flock to the same importer over and over gain because they have a certain degree of trust in the style of wines they represent. I took his advice to heart and discovered that it’s true in most cases.  One of my favorite importers from Down Under is Australian Premium Wines (APW).  From their Wishing Tree Shiraz to Elderton Tantalus, their Shirazes have always offered a polished style and and a friendly character.

The same can be said for their release of the 2004 BlackBilly Shiraz.  Grown in McClaren Vale, BlackBilly may have a nose reminiscent of  a barnyard but its fresh flavors of blackberry and dark chocolate offer up a rich and delicious profile and an elevated level of complexity.  So take a wise man’s advice: when you find an imported wine you like, check out the back label and remember the name of the importer. It could lead to a long, happy relationship.

Marquis Philips Shiraz 2005 ($15)

If you like that over-the-top fruit in your red wines, then you’re going to love the 2005 Marquis Philips Shiraz.  Its intense fruit flavors are so diverse and all over the place, that something in there is bound to give you deja vu.  Originally a joint venture between winemakers Sara and Sparky Marquis and import owner Dan Philips, the wine is currently under the guiding hands of Chris Ringland and Lisa Wetherell. This simply means that for the sixth straight year, the Marquis Philips Shiraz is an incredible wine.

Its lush, velvety texture is a great match with “steak au poivre” from the Northshore Brasserie.   And although it’s a whopping 15.9% alchohol, the spices and slender pepper notes weave together perfectly with the dense extracted fruit palate. This wine is never a bad date.

Blackwing Step Rd Shiraz 2005 ($11)

One thing you might notice about the color of these Aussie reds is that they’re much darker if not blacker than their American counterparts.  In fact, their names signify the difference as well. Not surprisingly, the 2005 Blackwing Shiraz lives up to its billing as well. With deeper hues and flavors of plums and black fruit, this little bird sings a sweet song.  Slight aromas of peppermint on the nose provide an interetesting debut, and the heat on the finish of this Shiraz will make barbecue lovers “grin like a butcher’s dog.”

From renowned importer, Fran Kysela, the screwtop Blackwing Shiraz is perfect for those times when you don’t know a wine tool or might have already broken off one cork in the bottle neck. It happens to the best of us.  But with a case of Blackwing on hand you won’t have to stray down to the local tavern for a round of redemption.

Neyers Napa Valley Syrah 2002 ($32)

Allright, I have to confess. I had to taste a lot of California Syrah to find one that I liked.  If I could use the word dreadful to describe affordable California Syrah then I would. Anybody can be a critic, but some of these winemakers might consider going back to school. I’m not one to throw a rock at a glass house, but with descripters like funky, mushroom, old boots and overly oaked it’s no wonder I had to go a up a few price points to find a winner like Neyers Napa Valley Syrah. But I’m glad I did.

Recently poured at the L’amour du Vin fundraiser for the Knoxville Museum of Art, Neyers will make you think kaboom, this wine is the bomb!  With provencial herbs and a distinctly Rhone style, Neyers has a touch of brickish color and requires some polite patience while it opens up and is ready for Friday night dinner.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Shiraz 2002 ($10)

If California falls short in producing quaffable Syrah, Washington state more than makes up for it.  Columbia Crest has been around for years and my friend, Katy, from Chicago refers to it as grocery store wine: it can be found everywhere. I first heard about some great accolades of the 2002 Columbia Crest from a national periodical that dubbed it the number one value of the year for under $25. So I had to pop one.

The bottom line is that here’s the epitome of excellent American Syrah, and it’s a super value for ten bucks. With dark fruit, closer to the Aussie style, and a ready-to-go gulpability, the 2002 Columbia Crest Grand Estate Shiraz is a sheer knockout.

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

Wine and beer pair with whatever you’re grilling

The first holiday of the grilling season is upon us, and if you master anything this weekend let it be that salty, savory grilled meats and tasty beverage treats go hand in hand. Whether you’re a burger traditionalist, a health-conscious outdoorsy type that’s refined the art of preparing your favorite saltwater catch or a beef-mastering, brisket-loving devotee, there is a beverage to pair with your barbecue of choice.

I’ve teamed up with the beer king of Knoxville, Chris Morton of Bearden Beer Market, to present appropriate parings of both beer and wine.

With all the innovative ingredients we Americans put on our hamburgers these days, it might seem tricky to find the right wine to match. The simple key to a good selection is versatility. Two red blends have recently arrived in local stores that will have your burger screaming for a little more wine and a little less of anything that takes away from the true flavors of the beef.

Red wine blends make interesting mixtures

Winemakers have been blending together grapes for millenniums. Sometimes out of a dearth of knowledge, sometimes out of experimentation, sometimes out of methodology, this blending has produced some interesting flavors as well as some crazy concoctions.

The following red wine blends from around the world all offer something distinctive in taste but at a reasonable price. So, while you’re enjoying these blends, try and think of who, where or what these mixtures remind you of as well as what they bring to the table. You never know what you’ll get when it comes to wine alchemy.

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Stock your bar with reliable ‘house reds’

Wine is one of those communal dynamics that bring people together. Most wine drinkers I know like to share good food and wine with friends over a little lively banter. They are entertainers and instinctively know that having quality wines around the house (for those last-minute get-togethers) is just as important as having a well-stocked fridge or liquor bar.

When it comes to selecting a dependable house wine, simplicity is the best path to pursue. You probably don’t want to get caught with something that’s either excessively dry or cloyingly sweet. Likewise, you’ll want to avoid the trap of choosing an obnoxiously heavy wine or one that’s forgettable, mild and meek. Not knowing what any individual guest may enjoy from one moment to the next can be a daunting task, so it’s important to follow a three-step approach.

First, try and find something down the middle. If it’s an all-purpose “house red” that you seek, you may want to avoid big, bold Bordeaux or a watered-down California Pinot Noir. History can be a great guide for finding that middle-of-the-road compromise. Take, for example, the piedmont region in northern Italy. Piedmont makes great high-euro Barolos; however, what you’ll find on the everyday dinner table is typically a Barbera.

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Wine blends to watch for

With Americans consuming more than three-quarters of a billion gallons in 2009, wine has increasingly found its way into the American home and claimed its spot at the American dinner table. Considering that our consumption has more than doubled since celebrating our bicentennial, wineries have sprung up on every hillside across our land as vintners try to stay above the grape press.

Not surprisingly, all this extra juice equates to unique opportunities for winemakers looking to create something special. 2011 should see an increase in approachable and delicious wine blends that have something to offer every wine enthusiast. The following two wines blends represent what some producers are doing in these modern times and what some are continuing to improve upon. And as far as red and white blends go, they are two of the better offerings that American winemakers are crafting.

n 2009 Bell Big Guy White

The Big Guy is back in town, or more specifically, Bell Vineyards’ beloved “Big Guy” wine. This time, there’s a twist on one of Knoxville’s favorite blends: Bell Vineyards has rolled out an innovative white blend from California. Comprised of an exotic blend of their famous Chardonnay, a floral touch of Viognier and a rounder, supple element of Chenin Blanc, the 2009 Bell Vineyards Big Guy White has all the trappings of a gracious Napa Valley white wine.

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Spanish reds will have you singing for more

When it comes to Spanish red wines, there are two major grape varietals to keep in mind. Tempranillo and Garnacha are planted throughout most of the Iberian peninsula and are some of the best values in Spanish wines, if not internationally.

They are so affordable that the consumer can get out the door with a case of wine for around $100. That being said, it definitely doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing taste or quality.

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Italy and Spain offer great alternatives to traditional Rose

Ricardo Cotarella is without a doubt one of Italy’s best winemakers and consultants. From $10 red blends to $100-plus Super-Italian stallions, his wines receive knockout reviews and awards. His consulting and project with the Falesco winery in Umbria has turned into one workhorse of a wine brand known as Vitiano.

Until recently, Vitiano was known primarily for its red blend of Cabernet, Sangiovese and Merlot. And after a few vintages of a less than inspiring attempt at a Rose, Cotarella and Falesco seem to have quickly mastered the blush version of the Vitiano line extension. The 2008 Falesco Vitiano Rosato is a fresh springtime sweetheart that is “pretty in pink” with soft strawberry notes and a bright raspberry finish. I recommend it with a spinach salad, complete with pine nuts, your favorite cheese and some local strawberries.

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Argentina Tangos with Torrontes

South America’s best kept wine secret is no more. The Torrontes grape, grown principally in Argentina, is picking up steam with consumers looking for a great white wine. Most have become familiar with Argentina’s great red grape, Malbec, and are now looking for something comparable in quality but better fitted for the fast approaching warm weather months. For many, Torrontes is the answer. Floral, citrusy and at times tropical, Torrontes is no longer just for the Argentines. It’s a step up for you all Pinot Grigio drinkers and another path in exploring the many different wines of the world.

n 2006 Trapiche Torrontes ($8.55)

Trapiche wines, imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, always put forward quality quaffers for under 10 bucks. With the 2006 Trapiche Torrontes, you have a continuation of that credibility in an affordable white wine. The Trapiche shows strong notes of kaffir lime and some pleasant tropical overtones. Best served extra chilled, this thirst quencher is great for those hot, sultry afternoons over a game of bocce, horseshoes or Billy Jack’s favorite game of washers. This is a safe bulk buy for your dry white wine lovers. You should be able to get a case for under $100.

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Dream of spring with this sampler of wines

Brrr! It’s been a long, cold winter. Cabin fever is spreading like cream cheese on a hot bagel, and no one seems immune to the symptoms of missing sunshine. I could tell you the obvious: that if you keep a close hand on big, bold red wines all your woes will pass, or at least fade into a finer shade of warmth. But that would be the easy way.

Instead, I’m going to push you to play a little make-believe. The only thing that will make spring arrive sooner is some good old-fashioned daydreaming. This is an early spring sampler of four Sauvignon Blancs that may not raise the temperatures outside but will hopefully lower that dastardly cabin fever in each of us.

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The lure of wine at Lake Garda

A visit to Lake Garda in northeast Italy will quickly have any traveler falling in love with the food, the scenery, and especially the wine. Nestled between Brescia and Verona in the Italian province known as the Veneto, Lake Garda is mistakenly a second choice for many to the very touristy Lake District of Lombardy that entails several more famous lakes, including Como and Lugano.

Accessing Lake Garda from Verona will bring wine lovers past road signs that bear familiar names like Valpolicella, Bardolino and Peschiera. Known historically (and across American wine shelves) for producing approachable red wines, these areas also make some very distinct and delightful white wines.

Most notable of these are those made from the Trebbiano grape. Today’s winemakers are turning Trebbiano into an elegant dinner wine without the lofty price tag that comes from other European white wine regions. Case in point is the wine that first gave me notice of Trebbiano’s potential, the Ottella Le Creete.

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As weather heats up, time to grab a frosty cold one

This past weekend was amazing. With cloudless skies, cool breezes, perfect temps and loads of sunshine, anybody with a day off was probably in the great outdoors or headed that way. As Uncle Jim over in Greenock, Scotland, would say if he were here, “The weather is mint.”

In East Tennessee, we’re fortunate to have many waterways to add to our outdoor enjoyment these coming months. And as my dog, Layla, was trying to swim across one of them (namely the Tennessee River) to catch a blue heron, I got to thinking about some refreshing beverages for summertime by the lake. Today we’ll put wine aside and talk about beers.

The Mendocino Brewing Co. out of New York puts out some great six-packs of beer, like Blue Heron Pale Ale, Red Tail Ale, White Hawk IPA and the company’s own Summer Ale. However, about five years ago, while in Chicago for a Cubs game, I had a beer that would become my favorite summertime beer. Formerly brewed in Memphis under the direction of Coors Brewing Co., Blue Moon Belgian White was love at first sip. Or should I say gulp?

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New whites both eclectic and exciting

An extravagant white blend like the newly arrived Seven Daughters might pose a bit of a conundrum when trying to guess what it will taste like. After reading through the litany of white grapes (that include French Columbard, Chardonnay, Riesling, Orange Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and something called Symphony), you might accurately surmise that this new white blend has something for everyone. And it does!

Seven Daughters has the body of a light, unoaked Chardonnay with the steely zing of a nice Gewurztraminer. At times it rings true with notes of orange peel and coriander while at others revealing a bit of a spritzer quality without the fizz. This new California creation is sure to span the aesthetic judgment of a multi-dimensional crowd and leave first-time tasters with a streak of cat-like curiosity.

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Chardonnay: What’s old is new again

If the latest trend in consumption of Chardonnay wines is any indication, America’s taste buds are changing. That doesn’t mean we’re drinking less of the mother of all white grapes; we’re just drinking more of the steel-fermented style. Traditionally, we’ve championed the California style of heavy, oak-influenced Chardonnays that rolled over the tongue like a butter wheel. All that oak barreling and oak aging meant immediate gratification to the wine consumer, with creamy textures, toasty spice and the occasional scoop of butterscotch.

Perhaps though, the American palate is evolving, like a child’s who doesn’t quite go goober over a piece of Werther’s Original candy anymore. Maturation has led us to pursue something a little less obvious, more discerning in style and simpler. That maturation, at least for the Chardonnay grape, is causing more wine to be fermented in steel tanks and consequently, less in oak barrels. With the rise in demand for such wines, vintners have been busy over the past few years in generating and presenting the type of wines that will fill that supply line.

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The right wines to pair with spicy foods

Unlike pairing wines with the everyday grub of pizza or burgers, only a few varietals match up well with spicy ethnic dishes. So whether your next take-out dinner or creative domestic adventure is Malaysian, Thai or Indian-influenced, you can find some relief from the heat with these cooler than cool wines.

n 2009 Pacific Rim Columbia Riesling

One of my favorite, local take-out dishes is the Drunken Noodles from Little Bangkok. A pseudo-Thai inspired restaurant, Little Bangkok makes a handful of over-the-top spicy noodle plates that include not only the aforementioned Drunken Noodles but also a classic Thai rice noodle recipe called Tai Mee Siam. These feisty Asian belly-fillers call for a quick and easy thirst reliever, and any number of Washington State Rieslings will do the trick.

When I know that I’m going to be asking for that extra heat in my take-out order, I’m quite comfortable in pairing it up with Pacific Rim’s Columbia Valley Riesling. This wine label puts out two other Rieslings that are simply named Dry or Sweet. Instead, look for the regular Columbia Riesling that is accordingly labeled so and falls more along the lines of a middle of the road or off-sweet wine. The Pacific Rim offers a perky and flavorful mix of juicy navel oranges and deep central Georgia peaches. After that chili paste heat, your tongue will thank you for choosing a fresh, fruit-driven wine.

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Oregon’s 2009 vintage of Pinot Gris scores well

If you do a little perusing in the domestic Pinot Gris/ Pinot Grigio aisle of the store, you notice a pattern: the 2009 vintage of Oregon Pinot Gris is receiving commendable reviews from the glossy wine mags. Like many wine writers, I am always on the lookout for a fresh theme, and here was one waving me down like a New York City taxi.

I tasted and reviewed five Oregon Pinot Gris. The results didn’t prove the wines varied greatly, but did reveal nuances worth mentioning.

The lineup included the 2009 Acobat Pinot Gris, the 2009 King Estate Pinot Gris, the 2009 Benton Lane Pinot Gris, the 2009 Solena Pinot Gris, and the 2009 Elk Cove Pinot Gris. Although the Acrobat and the King Estate are made by the same winery, they are worlds apart, and purposely so.

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Spring brings the fab five of French Rose

Every spring is ushered in with seasonal indicators. In nature we notice the Wordsworth-inspiring daffodils, the golden forsythia and the pink quince bushes. Similarly, in the wine world, spring is distinguished by the arrival of Rose wines. These wines are often the first arrivals from the most recent grape crop.

This year’s first wave of Rose wines hails from France, specifically from the Costieres de Nimes in Southern Rhone. The two best Roses to enter the Knoxville market last year were the Chateau Guiot and the Grande Cassagne, both from that same region.

After checking last year’s notes, it became evident that two trends had emerged. First, both of these wines demonstrate the traditional French Rose style of strawberry nuances, completed by a dry finish. And second, both of these bottlings are really-really good Roses that won’t disappoint lovers of this style of wine.

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