Wines from the Western Cape

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

Some of South Africa's Best

Some of South Africa’s Best

South Africa’s Western Cape serves as the Rainbow Nation’s cradle of vineyards as well as its celebrated wine-producing hub. Most notable is the Stellenbosch area near Cape Town, where vacationers will stumble across endless rows of vines. The Mulderbosch vineyards, located in the hill country along Stellenbosch, has carved out a big presence on the South African wine scene in a very short period of time.

Founded less than a quarter century ago, Mulderbosch Vineyards started flexing its muscle almost immediately with rave reviews from big name wine critics. The winery’s success started with well received bottlings of popular white varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc and has more recently evolved into stellar production of fabulous rosé. They’ve managed to do what only a handful of major South African wine exports have, namely move beyond misconceptions about South African wines and the pigeon-holed Pinotage variety that many Americans equate with the South African wine scene.

Likewise, Mulderbosch bottles waste no time in separating themselves from international wine label conformity, instead opting to use a bottom to top ribbon label that is both eye catching and textural. After trying them, you’ll see why these wines are definitely worthy of their beauty pageant sash.

I recently had the pleasure of trying a handful of Mulderbosch wines that included both their big hitting whites and their newly released 2012 Rosé. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012 Mulderbosch Rosé is a fuller bodied rosé with a deep color that you’ll notice immediately. If this isn’t the most vibrant and brilliant colored rosé that I’ve seen this season, then it was beaten out by the whiskers of a horse’s nose.

With a bejeweled pink grapefruit color, the rosé has wonderful watermelon flavors and that “gotta have more” red berry presence. An excellent and prolonged finish with a perfectly refreshing mouth feel separates the Mulderbosch Rosé from the field. Enjoy after some summertime gardening or as a Sunday brunch showstopper.

If the moniker weren’t already snatched up, Mulderbosch might market this next wine (with it’s golden hues) as their mellow yellow. The 2011 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc reveals entertaining scents of Asian pear and bubble gum. Often referred to as Steen in South Africa, Chenin Blanc wine like the Mulderbosch also walks that Johnny Cash line of not being too sweet or too dry. A profile of simple, honeydew melon and pear persists from start to finish, allowing the wine to be approachable to most wine drinkers.

And when it comes to the 2011 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc, I asked winemaker Adam Mason what made this wine so special. “Being about 5 miles from False Bay we are blessed by cooling afternoon winds that make a big difference to freshness and aromatic intensity. The wine sits in a really lovely place for Sauvignon Blanc, not too green and herbal like you would find in a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but with some riper citrus, melon and gooseberry notes that give a slightly softer element.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Garnacha gaining ground in Spain and beyond

Here’s the unedited copy of my column on Spanish Garnacha that appeared in today’s Knoxville News Sentinel. It’s not quite as riddled with grammatical errors.

The Spanish refer to it as Garnacha; the French call it Grenache or Grenache Noir. However, to most of the world it’s quickly becoming known as one of the most planted red grape varietals. Garnacha’s foothold in the Iberian Peninsula has established it as Spain’s go-to wine making grape.

Although Tempranillo is Spain’s current red grape production leader, Garnacha is increasingly being used in more blends and lands it at a respectable second. In fact, according to the California based RhoneRangers.org Garnacha or Grenache might be the world’s most planted red grape varietal, perhaps eclipsed only by the king of red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Recently, I revisited one of my favorite Spanish Garnachas as well as a newer found love that both confirmed the distinction and dynamic potential of this wine. If this level of quality can continue and these wines work on marketing some of their attractive swagger, there’s no reason why Garnacha can’t continue to gain ground in the international wine market.

For the past few years, the Altovinum Evodia Old Vines Garnacha has been my hands down choice for accessible and affordable Spanish Garnacha. And the 2010 vintage is no exception! Alluring scents of white chocolate persist long after the bottle is opened, allowing the Evodia to tempt most any consumer back for a second glass.

Yet, the one thing I think Evodia most has going for it is its ability to effortlessly play the roll of the prototypical all-weather red wine. Its successful run of back to back to back vintages is remarkable in and of itself, but throw in the fact that the bottle price is holding steady at around $10 and the success is even more staggering. You’ll love Evodia’s plum and blackberry essence, just bear in mind that it totes a huge 15% alcohol by volume.

My newfound love, in the world of Spanish Garnacha, is the 2010 El Chaparral by Vega Sindoa. This old vines Garnacha flaunts the most fragrant and lovely aromatic display of any Garnacha I’ve tried. With an introduction of Indian cloves, El Chaparral’s busy bouquet develops into an olfactory feast of eucalyptus and wintergreen mint. Its refined tannins offer a sleek and polished frame that won’t go unnoticed, especially with a finish that is plump with gobs of very berry and cherry flavors.

Just like the Evodia, El Chaparral Old Vines Garnacha is a little punchier than many comparable red wines with an ABV of 14%. This is due in large part to the late harvesting that is required for the Garnacha grape to fully ripen. That late ripening may equate to more alcohol, but the varietal does an exceptional job during the wine making process of not becoming overshadowed by the higher alcohol content. One sip of either of these wines is all it takes to taste just why Garnacha is gaining ground.

And if you’d like to read the one that makes me sound like someone else wrote it, then click here to go to knoxnews.com

My interview with Fran Kysela

Recently, I had a question-and-answer session with wine importer Fran Kysela, of Kysela Pere et Fils, Ltd.

Kysela was a finalist last year for Wine Enthusiast’s Importer of the Year Award. The nomination was the beginning of what would be a watershed year for his business. In addition to opening his 73,000-square-foot warehouse in Winchester, Va., Kysela also reached a significant sales benchmark by the end of 2011. After only 17 years in business, Kysela Pere et Fils had booked more than a quarter of a billion dollars in sales. And he foresees a positive trend for U.S. imports in the near future.

What wine trends do you see for the rest of 2012 and into the next year or two?

Kysela: Trends: value red wines globally. California will be producing more and more blends to keep prices from rising and to fill their distribution pipelines. Regardless, imports are projected to increase their market share by 3 % in the next 18 months.

What are you drinking tonight? What would you pair it with?

Kysela: The 2009 Aticus, Rioja with some grilled chicken and vegetables……delicious!

What is your favorite wine country to travel to and explore?

Kysela: Lately South Africa for the wine values and Cape Malay’s food and scenery.

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* The photo is of Fran Kyslea with Guido Accordini feasting after a big day at Vinitaly.

Hard Cider is ‘sessionably’ on the rise

The adult beverage market in the U.S. has a new player on the block, and it might not be what you would expect. In fact if you had posed the same question just a few years ago, most beverage marketing firms, and in particular beer enthusiasts, probably wouldn’t have predicted that hard cider would have become the upstart that it has.

This year alone, the domestic cider market is on track to eclipse $50 million in sales. Now that’s a lot of apples. Luckily for Knoxville, that spike in popularity was seen well in advance by Chris Morton, owner of Bearden Beer Market. Morton started introducing new ciders to the market shortly after opening BBM in 2010. His sales signal a near double digit growth for hard cider in 2012 and notes that the percentage growth for cider nationally is catching up to that of craft beer.

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Zinfandel and Primitivo, two clones of one great grape

It has been said that the Greeks brought wine to Italy, and in turn the Italians gave wine to the world. The old ruins and wine presses of the ancient Roman Empire in Germany and France as well as much of Western Europe are the initial proof of this global manifestation. But it wasn’t until Italians immigrated in-masse to the United States, and more specifically California, that this old saying began to take root (in the form of new vineyards) and to establish a sense of street cred in the wine world.

One indication of that new world wine influence can be found in the bulk plantings of America’s beloved Zinfandel grape. Originally traced back as a virtual clone of the Italian varietal known as Primitivo, the Zinfandel grape is believed to have been brought to the United States sometime in the 19th century.

After surviving both the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800’s and American prohibition in the 20th century, Zinfandel was replanted extensively and thrived throughout much of California’s wine country. And the families of Italian immigrants like Sonoma County’s Seghesio family carried on that tradition of giving wine to the world.

Seghesio makes over half a dozen Zins including their flagship Sonoma County Zinfandel that comes capped in a bright blue foil. Melodically fluid with loads of red fruit flavors like cherries, strawberries and raspberries, the 2010 Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel is the gateway to Zinfandel heaven. If you’re a huge fan of Zinfandel then be sure to save up for one of their specialty Zins like the Rockpile, Old Vines, Pagani, Home Ranch or Monte Rosso. You won’t be disappointed!

Interestingly enough, the history of the Italian version – the Primitivo clone, led researchers to track both it and the Zinfandel clone even further back. Although most Primitivo can be found grown and vinified on the “heel” of the Italian boot, its indigenous roots (like that of Zinfandels) have been studied and ultimately linked back to plantings of a Croatian clone just across the Adriatic Sea.

In contrast, Italian Primitivo tends to have a noticeably different flavor profile than its American Zinfandel counterpart. Since it is less fruity, with more of a rustic note, Primitivo is very food friendly especially when it comes to traditional Italian recipes. Producers like Monaci, Cantele and Apollonio are affordable and accurate representations of Italian Primitivo. But, of the Primitivos that I’ve sampled, it is the 2010 Layer Cake that seems to have the closet resemblance to California Zinfandel. The proof is in its fruit-forward style and approachable demeanor.

Finally, if you classify yourself as a Zin-fanatic of Zin-head, then it’s a must for you to check out California’s ZAP Festival. ZAP or Zinfandel Advocates & Producers holds an annual festival in San Francisco at the first of every year that is considered to be one of the best wine events in all of California.

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Sassy Sauvignon Blanc is all about the grapefruit

Napa Valley’s most notorious cult winery, Screaming Eagle, just released its whopping 600-bottle production of Sauvignon Blanc through its preferred customer list. Normally this wouldn’t be news, except for the fact that the release price was a staggering $250 per bottle. What makes this story more ridiculous is that some of those customers were able to re-sell the same bottle for upwards of ten times the original asking price.

And if that weren’t enough to get a circus magnate screaming “sucker,” then the fact that the wine is a Sauvignon Blanc (an abundant white grape that’s easy to vinify and not the most noble of keepsakes) should be. Regardless of the inclination of some consumers to overpay for certain wines, Sauvignon Blanc shouldn’t be one of those.

Sauvignon Blanc-based wines have universally become associated with the essence and flavor of grapefruit. Although it is planted and made into crisp, refreshing wines from California to France to New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc holds true to this expressive citrus character despite its globetrotting presence.

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All about Albariño

Sometimes proper names can be confusing. Take, for example, the grape varietal Albarino. It may sound like a can of tuna off the supermarket shelf or perhaps even the next great soccer striker to break out of World Cup 2014 in Brazil. Yet, through all the potential for a muddy mix-up, the Albarino grape has kept a relatively low profile and stayed true to its Spanish roots.

Originally grown exclusively in the Spanish region of Galicia, Albarino has taken some baby steps with international plantings in Australia and here at home, as seen through the noteworthy bottling of California’s Dream Albariño from the Clements Hills. And although this venture and others are meaningful, Albarino’s successful productions are mostly still exports from the Iberian Peninsula.

Inside of the Spanish region of Galicia is a specific wine-growing area known as Rias Baixas. Yeah, don’t try to pronounce it. Suffice it to say, it is from here that the creme de la creme of Albariño hails.

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Portuguese pride starts with Vinho Verde

The pride of Portuguese winemaking may gravitate around world-renowned vintage ports but for simple, everyday consumption that pride really starts with Vinho Verde. Translated as “green wine” Vinho Verde is just that, young in age, green in maturation and quite often not even vintage dated. Historically one of the cheaper whites wines that can be found from Europe, Vinho Verde has often been narrowly perceived as tart-like wine with little fruit. There are definitely reasons why labels like this one have survived. However, judging from the recent crop of Vinho Verdes that are coming our way, there is sufficient evidence to prove that that stereotype is just too simple-minded.

n Casal Garcia Vinho Verde by Aveleda ($8.55): Casal Garcia does for Vinho Verde what the “High Life” does for beer. Specifically, it’s a crisp, un-muddled white that is slightly effervescent. If Miller High Life is the “Champagne of Beers,” then Casal Garcia is the thirst-quenching version of Vinho Verdes. The light, bubbly feeling of Casal Garcia bounces on the tongue, stays true to its straightforward, focused nature and finishes with soft green apple notes.

Casal Garcia by Aveleda is so clean, clear and refreshing that it’s void of some typical mineral notes. A low alcohol of only 10 percent makes this white Portuguese wine an easy pushover, and its beautiful light blue bottle is a perfect centerpiece for an outdoor summer dinner under your favorite apple tree.

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Best red values for the first half of 2010

The first part of this year has proven that the influx of new wines and the growth of wine consumption have no end in sight. Likewise, as more Americans are making the switch from distilled beverages to vino, national wine conglomerates are establishing new strategies to both saturate markets and to make sure that no bottle is left uncorked. With all these neo-bottlings and lascivious labels, consumers are sometimes hesitant to make multiple leaps of faith. As we’ve all learned at one time or another, just because the back of the label sounds like a sweet Keats’ poem doesn’t make it so. The following list represents the best values by wine category that the East Tennessee market has seen for the first half of 2010.

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Best wines for the first half of 2009

The midway point of 2009 presents us with the ideal moment to take a look at some of the great values we’ve seen this year. Some wines blazed onto the scene like the 2007 Brazin Zinfandel, while other stalwarts like the Citra Montepulciano flexed its Italian muscle. New imported whites like Torrontes and Vinho Verde kept some California white wines at bay, while the market saw a deluge of competitive and unique Rose’ wines. So without further adieu, here are the best values at the halfway mark for an already great year in wine.

n Sauvignon Blanc Super Value of 2009

My dad, like a lot of Southern gentlemen, loved to watch “The Andy Griffith Show.” I can still hear old Gomer with his high-pitched voice proclaiming, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise.” That’s the first thing I thought after tasting Beringer’s latest line extension, the 2008 Beringer California Collection Sauvignon Blanc. Usually when a name brand juggernaut rolls out a line extension, you put it on the shelf and see if it sticks.

However, after sampling this little $5.99 nugget, I knew the gold standard for super value Sauvignon Blanc had a challenger. With surprising white peach and tropical flavors, the Beringer California Collection Sauvignon Blanc goes beyond the typical grass-strewn or grapefruit-heavy Sauvignon Blancs we’ve been steered toward. Plus, with that $6 price tag, the only thing that could make that a better deal is to roll it out in a 15-pack case.

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Late summer offers fresh wines

September is one of those transition months where the fresh fruits and vegetables of summer give way to the heartier offerings of fall. Some may think the same is true for wines.

However, one exception is the emergence of interesting and enjoyable white wines. Every year, late into the summer, customers are greeted with new arrivals that typically are reserved for the early warm weather months. Because most of these wines are fresh, they maintain the supply line of summer’s juicy and citrusy fruits while transitioning into the early autumn offerings of apples and pears.

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Important tips for buying wine

Shopping for wine should be fun. Customers frequently comment about how they enjoy perusing the aisles and taking their time in selecting wines. It’s oft said that the enjoyment of wine browsing is second only to the pleasure of wine drinking. There are, however, some red flags and some myths that should be taken into account when selecting wine. These insights offer an extra perspective that might help in choosing or not choosing certain wines during your next stroll down wine lover’s lane.

First and foremost

If you find yourself trying and enjoying new wines more and more, then one of the best investments you can make is to purchase a pocket size notebook to record the names of those wines. Nowadays, our cell phones and Blackberries and iPhones offer us the ability to record such info. Or, as my friend Don Lou points out, some customers use their cell phone to take a picture of the wine labels. If this isn’t your style, then a pocket-size notepad can be picked up at your favorite bookstore. Also, keep in mind that most receipts of your wine purchase list the names, vintages and price of the bottles you just purchased and can easily be taped into your new “wine playbook.”

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Easy-drinking reds perfect for cookouts

Warm weather usually means the proverbial switch to white wine. However, all those spring and summertime cookouts with lots of burgers and barbecue usually correlate to serving some easy-drinking reds. These four red wine selections are relatively new editions that are affordable, tasty and good all-around pairings.

n 2007 Coppola Celestial Blue Malbec ($14.99): The Godfather has done it again. Writer and director Francis Ford Coppola has once again extended his famous Diamond Collection of wines to include the very hot Malbec grape. Embellished with aromas of clove, pepper and allspice, the 2007 Coppola Malbec offers up black cherry flavors, a hint of cinnamon and a dash of oak influenced black fruit. Leave it to the movie maestro to work his magic on yet another wine. This one is classic Malbec with more fruit-forward enjoyment than the deluge of South American juice flooding the market.

n 2008 Darby & Joan Cabernet ($9.55): The latest roll out by one of Australia’s premier wine groups, the Grateful Palate Imports is the 2008 Darby & Joan Cabernet, an un-oaked red with loads of luscious fruit. Its bouquet opens up with a combination of plum berries and green bell pepper. Although it’s a huge 15 percent in alcohol, Darby & Joan doesn’t hog the glass like it was lugging around a lot of heat. A very gracious dose of watermelon Jolly Rancher does fade toward the end, but for under $10, this one shouldn’t disappoint.

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New Zealand wines offer citrus, grapefruit flavors

Surprisingly, when you sample similar wines from the same area, they often taste quite different and at times can be worlds apart. However, after tasting some of the 2006 New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, I discovered that just the opposite was true of them: They almost all tasted identical.

These six white wines hail from the Marlborough region in the South Island of New Zealand and are from the 2006 vintage. They range in price from $13.99 to $25.99, and all reveal typical flavors of citrus.

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Italian dessert wines go beyond Vin Santo

Vin Santo, the flagship dessert wine of Tuscany, is loosely interpreted as holy or saintly wine. As hastily as we are to think of Sauternes when someone mentions French dessert wines or Ice Wines when it comes to Canadian, wine enthusiasts often fall back on Vin Santo when seeking out Italian dessert wines. However, what separates Italian dessert wines from others is not only the diversity from region to region but also the existence of a wide range of these dessert wines or, as they are affectionately called, “sweeties.”

Sweeties are often saved for special occasions or as exclamation points at the end of an outstanding dinner party. These dessert wines typically require greater care and maintenance to produce and sometimes a longer time frame from harvest to bottling. This extra time, love and care translates to an increase in cost. But just like the old adage goes, “you get what you pay for.”

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Loire Valley offers light and lively whites

American exploration of the French wine world is often limited by the internationally touted giants of Bordeaux, Burgundy and, increasingly, the Rhone Valley. Considering the historical achievement of their vineyards, there is little astonishment that other areas of France have not been able to break through in producing equally appreciated still-wines. That premise has been challenged as of late by the ever-increasing attraction and lure of white wines from France’s Loire Valley.

The Loire River, France’s longest, may not measure up in length to the African Nile, but it quite possibly holds the cradle of white wine sophistication within its shallow valleys. From coastal growing districts like Muscadet to the inland villages of Vouvray and Sancerre, the Loire River Valley produces some of the best whites in all of France, if not that of the entire Western European seaboard.

If one were to begin a wine journey from the Atlantic port city of Nantes and follow the Loire River eastward into France, the likelihood of first encountering a wine called Melon de Bourgogne would be high. Melon de Bourgogne is the signature grape of Muscadet and what the locals drink for white wines. Naturally paired with the offerings of the great sea, a Muscadet, by many standards, is a simpleton compared to a bossy California Chardonnay. However, what it lacks in pretention is easily made up for by its amiable way of complimenting both the local sea-fare and the easy-breezy, cultural and climatic environment of its residents. If you are looking for the best that Muscadet has to offer, then look for those from S<0x00E8>vre et Maine. Three of my favorite Muscadet’s are the Domaine de la Quilla, the Harmonie by Michel Delhommeau and the Sauvion.

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Quartet of unoaked Chardonnays worth sleuthing out

California Chardonnay and oak barreling go together like beans and corn bread. In fact, it can be a real chore to find a California Chardonnay that doesn’t see at least a brief stint in oak. With that in mind, I looked to the Southern Hemisphere wine-producing stalwarts of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to find some great values in unwooded Chardonnays before returning to one of California’s great exceptions and a personal favorite.

n 2005 Westerland Unwooded Chardonnay (South Africa), $9.99. Westerland labels come packaged with that same cheesy decor that was so popular in the late ’90s. You know, the zebra-African antelope-giraffe motif that captivated a certain part of the population, just like Coca-Cola clothes did in the ’80s. If you can move beyond this bottle’s package, you’ll discover a solid attempt at an affordable unoaked Chardonnay.

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The Great Sauvignon Blanc Debate

One of the best buys in white wine has to be Sauvignon Blanc. There are few categories of wine in which you can still find a slew of choices for less than nine bucks. With high gas prices and oil profiteers sucking up our greenbacks quicker than the mint can print them, I picked out three cheap Sauvignon Blancs from California and three from Chile. These wines accurately represent the dry, cleaner style of the grape, while at the same time filling the niche for white wine drinkers who are seeking out that refreshing summertime drink.

n 2007 Terra Andina Sauvignon Blanc (Chile) $6.75

With all the hoopla being spewed out in regards to Argentinian wines, many consumers have forgotten about the super savers from neighboring Chile. When it comes to Sauvignon Blanc and cheap whites, Chilean wines have the low price tag that buyers are looking for and the respectable quality to boot. Sharp lemon notes and thirst-satisfying grapefruit flavors are exactly what the doctor ordered with a bottle of Terra Andina Sauvignon Blanc. With a case discount, you can walk out the door with a bottle of wine for less than $6. Seriously, for $6 this is a winner.

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White Italian wines wrap summertime in cool mood

When I first started writing this column about a year ago, I began by talking about one of my favorite categories of wine, Italian whites. It’s true that things come full circle in life because summer rolled around and I found myself enjoying some new white wines from Italy.

Like good Italian food, which can sometimes be hard to find, good Italian wines are meant to be shared with family and friends.

Amano Fiano ($10.99): The 2006 Amano Fiano is a dry Italian white with a solid structure and approachable acidity. Aromas of melon and grapefruit carry over nicely to the palate. My friend, the Great Scot, had me over for dinner recently. The Amano Fiano was a noble match to his wife’s coconut-crusted tilapia and a medley of sauteed zucchini, peppers and shallots. Lively and fresh, the 2006 Amano is summertime sunshine in a bottle. If you like it and want to try another, then I highly recommend the 2006 Terredora Fiano from Campania.

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Beach Wines

Travel, like wine, has the fortunate task of being fuel for the muse. While venturing down to the Gulf for a first-time visit to Florida’s Forgotten Coast, I had the opportunity to discover some interesting new wines and, likewise, get reacquainted with some old favorites. Atmosphere often makes everything a little better, so it was good to hit up my travelling companions for a little feedback and delve out some subtle pandering for anything savory to match with the wine.

Our initial discovery was perhaps the best, so why draw out the suspense? We called it Lemonecco. It’s half Simply Lemonade brand lemonade (from your local Kroger) and half Prosecco (Italy’s version of dry sparkling wine). And it beats mimosas like that drummer from Christabel and the Jons. Some of my all-time favorite Proseccos for flying solo or mixing up are the Bisol Jeio Prosecco, Canella Prosecco and Rebulli Prosecco. Lemonecco is a great way to start a morning at the beach, especially with some of bean counter Kristi’s breakfast casserole. Mmm, pass the bacon.

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Great Whites for the Dog Days of Summer

My border collie, Layla, reminded me the other day that the dog days of summer are here. She laid out back under her favorite shade tree for about 30 minutes. Then politely, Layla camped just outside the back door in anticipation of re-entering the air-conditioned Mecca that is her house. I don’t blame her. With these hot, summer days, I’m also always looking for something cool and refreshing. Luck has it for me; there are plenty of faithful old white wines to do the trick and a few new whippersnappers as well.

n 2007 Kung Fu Girl Riesling ($11.55)

After visiting quite a few local restaurants with some hot and spicy food on the menu, I discovered there was a new wine in town that all the restaurants were promoting and that “everyone was Kung Fu Fighting” over. The 2007 Kung Fu Girl Riesling is a new creation from Washington State. It’s a semi-sweet Riesling with a honeysuckle bouquet, a touch of viscosity and a host of apple and pear flavors. Kung Fu Girl matches well with spicy Pan-Asian fare and an array of other hot-tongued dishes. The label may be “a little bit frightening,” but the truth is it’s so good that you’ll guzzle down this little bottle as “fast as lightening.”

n 2007 Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul ($9.55)

One of my go-to, old faithful companions is the Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul. From the Languedoc, this French value is soft and simple with sleek mineral notes. It’s been a tried-and-true value in the market for some years now and consistently impresses consumers both in price point and quality. Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils, the 2007 Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul is a spot on match for a bowlful of fresh shellfish and a sky full of hot sunshine. Just ask for picpoul.

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There is life after Chardonnay

Walking past the aisles and aisles of wine at the store can be very informative. Over the years, you notice that many consumers are not only brand-loyal but are often loyal to a single varietal of wine. Knowing what you are getting can be very comforting and safe. Likewise, knowing what you’ve taken home means no big surprises when it comes to bottle-opening time at that next dinner party.

That being said, wine is like most things in life. By venturing out and trying new things, you can grow to have a greater understanding of things that are very different from what you’re used to, as well as growing to have a greater appreciation of what you’ve always known and enjoyed. So, even if you’re comfortable where you are, it’s still good to reach out and try something new, something off the beaten path. You may not fall in love with all the new wines you taste, but you won’t be disappointed in experimenting with something new or unique.

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Pinot Gris wines thrive in Northwestern U.S.

The Northwestern part of the U.S. has long been a viniculture rival of California’s wine country. Known for their successful production of Pinot Gris, both Washington and Oregon are currently creating some of the best wines in the country.

Pinot Gris, or Pinot Grigio as the Italians refer to it, is a white grape with a gray-skinned color. It is lighter than Chardonnay and usually not as dry as a Sauvignon Blanc. Typically, Pinot Gris will seldom see any oak barrel influence and is a great choice for receptions and dinner parties because of its middle-of-the-road reputation. All of the Pinot Gris wines reviewed in this column are from the Northwest and show off the best values that Oregon and Washington have to offer.

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Chase late summer blues with obscure white wines

With football season around the corner and Labor Day fast approaching, the homestretch of the summer season is before us. Bidding adieu to the hot weather and all the great Rose’s from this past spring as well as the refreshing Sauvignon Blancs, the Pinot Gris, the lake, the beach, the pool can often cause one to be a little down.

This seasonal transformation presents itself as an ideal opportunity to mix things up and enjoy a little last-minute experimenting with some lesser known wine varietals and newer labels. These whites are great, late summer offerings that will close out the season in style and provide some insight into next year’s trends.

n 2009 El Perro Verde

Spain, like Italy, is a wonderful place to begin a search for obscure grape varietals. Mostly known for producing exceptional Albarino, Spain grows extensive amounts of other white varietals like Macebeo, Viura and Verdejo. The 2009 El Perro Verde is comprised of one of these Spanish varietals. In fact, it’s made up of 100% Verdejo grapes. Similar in style and flavor profile to Sauvignon Blanc, this “Green Dog” has a nice grapefruit pedigree without that often overpowering bite found in many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Think soft Sorrento lemons without any lip puckering acidity. My muse partnered it with some flounder-wrapped crab cake and grilled asparagus.

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Try something new this summer

One certainty in the modern era of wine-making is that there is always something new to try. With that spirit of innovation abounding this summer, I put together a collection of six wines that are relatively new to the market. From a summertime rose to an interesting red cuvee, there’s something new for everyone and something to fit most occasions.

One of America’s favorite foods is pizza. My beer-drinking buddy believes there’s a good reason for this. As he and many other Americans see it, even bad pizza is good, because after all, it is still pizza.

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Aromatic Viognier a hot-weather refresher

One of France’s more obscure grapes has found a new home and small niche in the California wine scene. Viognier, pronounced (vee-ohn-yay), is a white grape that originated from the Northern Rhone Valley in France. Typically identified in France as a Condrieu wine because of the town that produced it, Viognier is often considered to have flavors of honeysuckle, peaches or melons. Its bouquet is exotically aromatic, and the wine tends to match nicely with fruit-filled salads and lighter fare. There’s not a massive amount of this lovely white wine in the market, but there is enough to make for an entertaining summertime sampler.

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Three countries wage battle for the best rosé

There’s a battle royale brewing this year over who’s been putting out the best rose’ wines. Historically, French rosé from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley have been the unchallenged heavyweight champions of the world. But recently, the Americans and even the Italians have done some serious training, beefed up their outputs and thrown their hats in the ring. As a result, this year’s rosé releases have been interesting enough to warrant a three-way brawl as to who’s bottling the best.

Italian rosé wines are, in a word, different. The recurring theme to keep in mind with Italian rosé is that it’s not as fruit driven. Indeed, they’re scruffy little wines that are typically bone dry and beckon for a food partner to truly maximize their potential. Both the 2006 Regaleali Le Rosé and the 2005 Valle Reale Cerasuolo Rosé shared these common traits, as well as having aromas that emanate scents of a funky old-world cheese.

The Valle Reale Rosé from Abruzzo showed a better one-two punch ability as both a food wine and a solo sipper. It found its stride late in the match.

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Fresh whites for mid-summer dreaming

As summer approaches the halfway mark, a mass influx of wines – in particular white wines – continue to saturate the wine world. Most are just fine, but if you really want to cut through the fog of all the new labels, there are some that rise above the riffraff. From hot new varietals like the alternative Torrontes to California Sauvignon Blanc success stories, these whites will have you toasting the magical beauty of the season and dreaming for Indian summer.

n 2008 Norton Torrontes from Argentina ($9.55)

I’ve never tasted a Torrontes that I didn’t enjoy. The newly released 2008 Norton Torrontes is status quo for this South American varietal. Extremely fragrant and perfumy, the Norton Torrontes stretches the glass with a fresh and distinct bouquet of orange blossoms and tones of bright lime. Never dissipating or meandering, it stays centered and delivers an astounding flavor profile of softened limes and true citrus juiciness. Unlike many Johnny-come-lately trends, Torrontes wines have maintained modest price points that linger around $10-15.

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