Sagrantino is a magical gift

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

Sageful Sagrantino!

Sageful Sagrantino!

The magic of the Italian wine peninsula is its ability to produce an abundance of the world’s most unique and often indigenous grapes. Wines like Vernaccia, Dolcetto and Aglianico are seldom if ever grown anywhere else, helping to establish this relatively small “land of wine” as the world’s second leading producer. For wine buffs that means more wines to put on the bucket, err bottle list, and for the family and friends of these enthusiasts it means more creative and eclectic gift ideas. Not all the wines may be for everyone, but if you’re looking to truly amaze the big red wine drinker on your list this holiday, then surprise him or her with an ancient wine that is slowly re-emerging, still somewhat obscure and absolutely fabulous. Give them Sagrantino!

Regions like Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy may be the gastronomic and fashion capitals of Italy, respectively, but the pulse of the country is tucked away in the landlocked, Central Italian region of Umbria. It is in Umbria where Sagrantino is exclusively grown and where the appellation known as Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG produces the most exquisite representatives of the wine. Drinkable after about five years from their vintage, Sagrantino from Montefalco is also ideal for putting away for years of aging.

An old friend of mine first introduced me to Sagrantino about six or seven years ago and I’ve recommended it several times to fans of Bordeaux, Brunello and big domestic Cabernets. It has that kind of varying appeal and pedigree potential. In fact the 2007 vintage of the Tenuta Castelbuono Montefalco Sagrantino offers some of what’s appealing in all of the aforementioned wines.

Your favorite red wine drinker will notice a distinctive oak spice aroma to the Castelbuono Sagrantino that is also evident in many Sonoma County Cabernets, along with a woodsy, cigar box manifestation that is familiar to red Bordeaux. Hints of licorice and cherry, hallmarks of Brunello, are similarly present in the wine’s flavor profile and that complex, dry finish of both Napa Cabernet and quality Bordeaux unmistakably shows up at the end. This is, perhaps, one red varietal that personifies the best of all that is out there. National retail for the Tenuta Castelbuono Montefalco Sagrantino stands at $37 and statewide distribution by Palm Bay Imports means it is accessible in most reputable wine shops.

A second choice for Sagrantino gift-giving and personal favorite comes from the vineyards of the Arnaldo Caprai Winery. It’s bottling of the 2007 Collepiano Montefalco di Sagrantino displays a masculine bouquet of tobacco and leather. Hints of anise and gobs of dark berry and blackcherry flavors meld into that distinctively dry but intriguing finish. The Collepiano is a tongue coater, complete with a rich mouthfeel and some not so subtle beckoning for a savory roasted beef entrée. Represented by Folio Wine Imports, the Arnaldo Caprai Collepiano retails for around $60.

Remember, the key to exceptional Sagrantino is the “Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG” designation. Enjoy and happy holidays!

Italian wine influence extends to Argentina

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

The modern Italian impact on the world of wine can be felt from the peninsula’s contemporary iconic families like Gaja, Frescobaldi, Antinori, and date all the way back to the Italian diaspora of the late 19th century, which would give the New World a sense of its own vintner legacy. North America and more specially California would see the influence of that fine Italian hand through the likes of families with now legendary names; Gallo, Mondavi, Sebastiani, Martini, Seghesio and dozens more.

Pesce del giorno at Nashville's Sardinia Enoteca!

Pesce del giorno at Nashville’s Sardinia Enoteca!

Perhaps not as dramatic or as forceful as it’s northern neighbors, South America and particularly Argentina would make way for the rise of it’s own celebrated equivalent in another Italian immigrant family, the house of Catena. With several quality-demanding vineyards that make up their Catena Zapata line and span some 56 acres, the Catena family has established their wines, their name and indeed their legacy as Argentina’s vintner kings.

A day trip to Nashville for a seminar on Catena’s collectible and celebrated wines presented the opportunity to taste just how amazing their wines have become. Over a remarkable lunch at Nashville’s new Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante, we were welcomed with two well-structured South American Chardonnays, the 2009 Catena White Stones and 2008 Catena White Bones.

Both of these Chardonnays are extremely allocated (with a price to reflect it) but offer a rare combination of California approachability with Burgundian style, nuance, and sophistication. The integration of the wine’s wood-influence teeters on perfection without being club-like, while the fruit of the wine is flawlessly consistent and enjoyable. Think Paul Hobbs meets Olivier Leflaive.

Catena’s ambassador, Jorge Liloy, also presented us with half a dozen of the winery’s marque Malbecs including multiple vintages of their flagship wine, the Nicolas Catena Zapata. And although you can’t find a bad one among their Adrianna, Nicolas and Argentino bottlings of Malbec, it was the very beautiful 2009 Nicasia Vineyard Malbec that stole the show.

The Nicasia is what Malbec should always be, approachable and alluring, with a sleek tannic structure, a violet bouquet and gorgeous rolling layers of decadent dark berry fruit. Forget about all those wannabe kitschy Malbecs with their hands in the air, begging to be picked. In the end they are almost always the same, brashly single minded, and over the top.

Perhaps it’s the style of that fine Italian hand, now generations removed that still distinguishes the wines of Catena. Or maybe it’s about something as simple as getting what you pay for. Regardless, the Catena collection will be available here this fall and it’s a must for wine fanatics to seek out, to share, and to enjoy.

California Cabernets Keep Coming

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

Killer California Cabernets haven’t lost any steam over the years. And getting to try them each season and share the scoop on some of these winners makes writing this annual fall column on Cabs all the more easier. This year I wanted to seek out selections that represented both different price ranges as well as styles. Lucky for us, this year’s group has something for everyone.

Value-oriented Cabernets act as that multi-purpose wine with the reputation of being a crowd pleasing, wallet conscious, almost too good to be true bottle of wine. And with the season of entertaining approaching, you’ll want to have plenty of good but affordable wine on hand. This year’s safe case buy is the 2011 Carnivor Cabernet. For around $12 per bottle, the Carnivor will surprise you with its threshold reading on the gulp-ability meter. A little splash of Petite Sirah makes this wine both fruity and approachable as well as one heckuva an inky, tooth-stainer.

Finding that mid-tier Cabernet, which will make for some immaculate consumption, is often the most daunting quest from year to year. These Cabs are usually in the $20 range and should be able to prove their mettle and worth as an up-sell. A few years ago the Nashville-based BNA Wine Group and its winemaker, Tony Leonardini shipped one of their Napa Valley Cabernets, the Volunteer, to town. A much beloved moniker for a local fan base of volunteers, the wine actually gets its name from Leonardini’s days as a volunteer firefighter in St. Helena, California.

Shortly after that, the Volunteer was followed up by an even tastier and more affordable Cabernet. One taste of the 2010 Rule Cabernet from Napa Valley and the taste buds on the tongue will be skipping, ooh là là, like an old record. The Cab offers up luscious approachable blackberry fruit that adds an exclamation point to a plump filet, or better yet rosemary and garlic peppered lamb chops. You can’t go wrong with this Cabernet.

Finally, the connoisseur or collector in your circle will be impressed with your choice of the 2009 Alexander Valley Reserve Cabernet. Aromas of provincial herbs and dried tobacco are an enticing invitation from this $39 Healdsburg temptress. Cabernets like the ones from the Alexander Valley Winery have the backbone and structure that searchers of a food friendly Cabernet appreciate while gesturing a tip of the hat to wine purists who desire a less adulterated Cab. Enjoy!

Champagne, Cabernet and Barolo for the triumphs of Fall

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

This fall, there is any number of reasons why you may find yourself seeking out an exceptional bottle of wine or champagne. Besides the inevitable holiday gift giving, opportunities like a new job, an unexpected victory or a little romance may present themselves. And having these recommendations tucked away, for just such a situation, will serve you well in that moment of selecting the right bottle.

Ferrari Lineup, Perle in the pole position.

Ferrari Lineup, Perle in the pole poition.

Toasting to any of life’s victories is special; doing so in style requires little other than a nice bottle of bubbly. But keep in mind that successes don’t always come easily and enjoying them, without skimping on quality, makes that instant all the more memorable.

Two of the traditional French champagne houses that never seem to fail in delivering both enjoyment and quality are Bollinger and Pol Roger. They manage to convey complexity without being overly bready or yeasty. You’ll know you’re enjoying something distinctive while sharing toasts and congratulations over a fine, foaming flute of either of these French bubblies.

And if you can shakedown your favorite wine-smith for a bottle of Ferrari Perle sparkling wine from Trentino in Northern Italy, your wallet as much as your palate will be just as thankful. Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, this Italian version of French champagne may come in at half the price, but it does so while still delivering all the style and sophisticated deliciousness you would come to expect from its French colleague.

Similarly, romantic dinners or feast-like celebrations are accentuated with the mere presence of a prestigious, all-American wine. The 2010 Chateau Montelena is one of the best Cabernets that I’ve ever tasted from this award winning Napa Valley winery. It is remarkably accessible for being so young and has a flavorful fruit profile with heaps of currant and divine black cherry notes. If you’re the type that doesn’t want to have to wait for it to age, this is the one for you. Although with a little more patience, I can only imagine this baby growing up to be even more spectacular.

And if you’re looking this fall to give someone dear a little unexpected something, say for their most recent victory of a new job, new born, new union or new retirement, then offer them something that is both enjoyable on its own or with an extraordinary meal. For me that gift is a nice Barolo from the Italian region of Piedmont or more specifically, the Marziano Abbona Barolo Pressenda. Made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes, the Barolo is brickish in color and wonderfully aromatic with notes of wild flowers and flavors of dried cherries and polished pomegranate. A refined and reputable Barolo will blow them away!

The Best Wine Values of 2012

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

One of my favorite columns to write each year is a recap of the best wine values. 2012 had its fair share of remarkable values, due in large part to the influx of new and original domestic blends. Although there were quite a few leading the charge, one red blend really stood out. And as always, Europe continued to export extraordinary values geared more towards food lovers. Sit back and enjoy, for these are the best your dollar could buy in 2012.

Best French Value
The Grand Veneur Reserve Cote du Rhone by Alain Jaume is an amazingly rich wine with inky, crimson hues. Its bouquet shows off a dichotomy of rustic aromas and dried cherries, backed up by pomegranate tastes and a decadent finish. What a fabulous food wine!

Best Spanish Value
Ahhh, if only our market could get more Jorge Ordonez wines and get them regularly. It’s not just the wine that’s missing the boat ride over. This Spanish importer represents some of the best values that all of Europe has to offer. The 2010 El Chaparral by Vega Sindoa is Garnacha at its best, diverse and complex in aromas, easily enjoyable and inspiring in flavor. This wine is all about the fruit forward style. Runner up: 2009 Evohe Garnacha

Best Red Blend Value
What Ste. Michelle Wine Estates does for Washington in producing varietally correct, affordable wines, Bogle Vineyards does the same for California. And although Washington State led the charge years ago with early introductions of red blends, the release of the 2010 Bogle Essential Red proves that getting into the game a little later can make for a better game plan. Runner up: Concannon Crimson & Clover

Best Rosé Value
Any consumer would be fortunate to find this French Rosé still shelved at their favorite wine shop, let alone any of the fine Rosés from the 2011 vintage. The Hecht & Bannier Languedoc-Roussillon Rosé had a lot of stiff competition this year, including Oregon’s latest venture with the Acrobat Rosé. But its amazing blood orange color and raspberry/ strawberry fruit punched a whole lot of would be contenders down the rankings. Runner up: 2011 Michel Chapoutier Les Vigne Bila Haut Rosé

Best Zinfandel Value
Earlier in August, I blogged that the 2010 DeLoach Russian River Valley Zinfandel was the new “it” wine. There may not have been a ton to go around but this spicy tongue enticer was a summertime BBQ’s best friend. Runner-up: 2009 Brazin Lodi Zinfandel

Best Chilean & Best Sauvignon Blanc Value
With more grapefruit, lime and tropical expressions than a banana republic, it’s no wonder that the 2011 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc took home two “Best Of” awards. Sauvignon Blanc Runner-up: 2010 Vavasour from New Zealand

Best Italian Value
It’s done it again. This isn’t the first time that a southern Italian co-op topped the charts. The 2009 Colosi Rosso is easy drinking Nero d’Avola from Sicily. Runner-up: 2009 Masi Chianti Riserva

Best Cabernet Value – 2009 Milbrant Traditions Cabernet. Runner-up: 2009 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet

Best Austrian Value – 2011 Wimmer Gruner Veltliner

Best Merlot Value – 2008 Santa Ema Merlot

Best Malbec Value – 2009 Trapiche Broquel from Argentina

Best Chardonnay Value – 2010 Four Vines from Santa Barbara

Best Sparkling Value – Lamarca Prosecco Brut NV and Cupcake Prosecco NV

Sunday’s Cabernet Column in the KNS

2009 Napa Valley Cabernets to seek out while they last

Napa Valley extended its run of outstanding Cabernet vintages to six years in a row with the successful harvest of the 2009 crop, but some vintage trackers are showing a return to mediocrity with the 2010 release. With the possibility of a drop-off looming, now may be the last best chance to secure some quality and yet affordable 2009 Napa Cabernets for the year ahead. With that in mind, I set out to find what’s left of the best.

Back in October, I blogged that the 2009 Martin Ray Cabernet promised to be a viable choice with some classic and comforting cedar notes and an all-out black cherry sensation. Its quality, for an under $20 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet, may be surpassed by few, but one wine with the most likelihood of doing so is the 2009 Black Stallion.

A virtual newcomer to the Napa Valley wine scene, Black Stallion offers an alluring profile of sweet oak flavors, cinnamon stick aromas and an all-spice cadence that is akin to catching that captivating scent of a freshly unwrapped piece of Big Red. It has a certain something to it that’ll remind you of old-school Christmas charm. For under $20, Black Stallion Napa Valley Cabernet is the quintessential “go to” for cool weather drinking and heartier dinnertime fare.

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Italy’s forgotten wine regions

The forgotten fields of Italy’s central vineyards cover a swath of land from the Marche to Molise and include the not-to-be-overlooked regions of Umbria, Lazio and the Abruzzo. The grape varieties in these five central Italian regions are immense, albeit unusual. So much so, that it would be challenging to elaborate on all of them in one succinct review.

Nonetheless, with a vast collection of choices to draw from this quintuplet of regions, one doesn’t have to do any selective grape picking to find alluring winners. After shuffling through some Italian reds from the cellar, I noticed that the two wines that piqued my curiosity were both from the middle of Italy.

My initial inquiry involved a wine from Italy’s central-most region, Umbria. This tiny landlocked area produces well-known Trebbiano-based white wines from Orvieto, as well as original and inspiring red wines like Sagrantino and the more recognizable Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet and Merlot. All should make it onto the shopping list of wines to try out.

The 2009 Falesco Merlot, that triggered my interest, provided two talking points that encouraged me to do a little more research. First, the wine had received some remarkable reviews and acclaim (from other wine writers) for such an affordable bottle. And second, the world-renowned winemaker Riccardo Cotarella, who happens to be a personal favorite, made it.

Cotarella’s Falesco Merlot exudes an immediate sense of plush blueberry enjoyment. Its polished mouth feel is notably consistent and creates the sensation that this wine has a serious tendency to make itself disappear. The legendary status of Cotarella continues to grow just as the remarkable reviews of this wine hold much merit.

The second selection that showed promise is produced in the oft forgotten and seldom mentioned region of Molise. Considered by some to be more southern Italian, Molise makes red wines that consist of grapes like Montepuliciano, Aglianico and Sangiovese. It is perhaps Italy’s least known wine producing area.

But that doesn’t discourage it from boasting about its incredibly food-driven wines. Take, for example, the 2008 Di Majo Norante Ramitello.

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Italy produces some saintly wines

* Everyone I’ve ever met who enjoys wine, started off with one favorite.  For me it was cheap Chianti.  I’m not talking about basket Chianti cheap: I’m actually talking cheaper.   I don’t know where the cheapness came from but the Chianti attraction came from the influence of Italian grandparents who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the last century and accordingly from a love of all things Italian.  The cheapness went away but the enjoyment of these Italian wines has stuck like the influence of those Catholic nuns growing up.  Cheers to sisters Evelina and Janet. This one’s for you.

2005 Anselmi San Vincenzo ($12)

One of my favorite growing regions in Italy is the Veneto. Located in the northeast of the country, the Veneto is home to Roberto Anselmi, one of Italy’s premier white wine producers.  Anselmi’s flagship wine is the San Vincenzo. Although the wine is named after a town, San Vincenzo (or Saint Vincent) was also a third century Spanish deacon responsible for the church’s works of charity and mercy.  After catching the ire of the Roman authorities for a little too much preaching, he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed. In return, some years down the road of history, he was canonized and later given the very cool title of Patron Saint of Winemaking.

If ever there were the right name for a great bottle of wine, this is it. The 2005 Anselmi San Vincenzo is a well balanced, round wine with soft citrus fruit.  Comprised almost entirely of the noble Italian grape, Gargenega, the San Vincenzo is a great alternative for all those white wine drinkers who are tired of Chardonnay.  Clean and crisp with a smooth tropical finish, you really can’t beat this $12 value.

2002 Cantele Salice Salentino ($10)

Great wines can be found throughout Italy, and it’s always good advice to drink what the locals drink.  Remember the adage, when in Rome do as the Romans do. So if your travels take you to the heel of the Italian boot, you’ve got to try a Salice Salentino.  Although much of the Italian mainland saw an off year in 2002, there are exceptions.  Most notably, the 2002 Cantele Salice Salentino is the ultimate exception when it comes to value.

Made from Negroamaro grapes and aged for three years before release, you’d think that all that effort and time would produce an expensive bottle cost. However, for a wine that tastes like a $25 bottle, the Cantele Salice Salentino might more accurately be dubbed the “Ten Buck Chuck” of Italy.  Medium to full bodied with deep rich fruit, its nice tannin structure opens up to reveal notes of plums and cherries.

I asked my friend (who is a “recovering chef”) what foods would match up best with this wine.  And although he likes to talk a lot regardless if it’s about food or not, he couldn’t stop coming up with great matches.   He paired up this wine with everything from grilled pork loin stuffed with black walnuts and figs to a mushroom risotto to anything chocolate.

Chefs like winemakers have their patron saint, too.  Saint Lawrence was an archivist in the early days of the church and was martyred for refusing to talk about or reveal some very sought after affluent church members.  Unlike the “recovering chef” I know, who never stops talking, Saint Lawrence kept his lips sealed.  Unfortunately, in an attempt to make him squeal, Lawrence was paid in kind with a not so nice roasting.  The Romans were out of luck though. As legend goes, his last words were, “Turn me over. I am done on this side.”  Never a more fitting patron of chefs existed and never a more ideal all purpose red wine exist for multi food pairings.

2005 Terredora Greco di Tufo ($18)

Italy owes a lot of its success and variety in wine to the influence of the Greeks.  Their plantings were widespread and included varietals like Aglianico, Falanghina, Fiano and Greco di Tufo.  This last grape, the Greco di Tufo has become a mainstay of everyday life in the Italian region of Campania. Known for its beautiful gold color, lemon and lime notes and pleasant acidity, Greco di Tufo is one of those wines that make traveling in Italy all the more special.

But don’t fret if you’ve misplaced your passport and find yourself grounded because it’s not really called “settling for something” when you can get a great import like Terredora. The 2005 Terredora Greco di Tufo delivers the entire much ballyhooed flavor profile plus a nice touch of creaminess. Aged on the lees in stainless steel with no oak influence, the Terredora is a great seafood wine.

So, if work doesn’t find you strolling along the Amalfi Coast, then doctor up a nice grilled tuna steak with some mango and cilantro salsa to go along with this wine. And shout out a big toast to Saint Anthony of Padua who as patron saint of lost objects and travelers just might lead to finding that lost passport and subsequently to a little travel time in the Mediterranean.

2003 Produttori Barbaresco ($29)

In wine as in life there is many an unsung hero.  Barbaresco comes from the northwestern region of Piedmont and almost always takes a back seat to the regions other great red wine, Barolo.  Similarly, bartenders and wine merchants who often pick out just the right drink or wine for your evening are often overshadowed by the chosen one (chef) or as they hate to be called, the cook.

Ironically, these two worker bees have something else in common, the patronage of one Saint Amand. Besides using his mouth to preach alot, he also used it to sample a few products in various wine and beer making regions.  It’s a good thing he didn’t make it to Piedmont because his preaching and self-teaching might have ended with the tasting of just one out-of-this-world Barbaresco.

Like Barolo, Barbaresco is made from the same Nebbiolo grape. And at half the price of a $60 Barolo it is often referred to as the “poor mans” Barolo. Obviously that man isn’t too poor.   Barbaresco is also very different from Barolo in that one doesn’t have to wait a million years for the wine to be enjoyed.

Of course trying to find Barbaresco in Knoxville is akin to being lost like a golf ball in high weeds. But they are sometimes available and the 2003 Produttori Barbaresco is a nice example.  If you’ve been trying different wines for a while now and are ready to venture out, then this is a good bottle to take to your favorite Italian or French restaurant for dinner.

Although it’s light almost rustic in color, it is loaded with spices and has a long, kicking until the end kind of finish.  So don’t be deceived by looks because this ain’t no sipping wine. A buddy of mine compared this to a big breasted mugger hitting you from behind…you just didn’t see her coming.

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

Will Grenache be the next big “It” wine?

*The syndicate of the wine world is always trying to prognosticate about what the next big wine is going to be.  During the rise (and leveling off) of Merlot in America, they ventured that it would be Pinot Grigio, Syrah and others, before being caught off guard by the national swell of support for Pinot Noir in the aftermath of the cult hit “Sideways.”

Since then, the syndicate has been trying to dictate what the next big “it” wine will be, as seen by the many investors setting up shop in Argentina and proclaiming the virtues of Malbec. It’s no irony that big name importers and producers just happened to have traveled there in recent years. Sure Malbec is good, but might all the excitement really be about the Benjamins these guys are making off of cheap real estate and labor, smaller taxes and fewer regulations? How many $10 bottles of Argentine Malbec does one have to try before they realize that they all taste relatively the same?

Malbec’s been around for years and there’s nothing wrong with it, but just as the Market (with a little nudge from pop culture) dictated the demand for Pinot Noir, so too will the consumer’s taste buds pick the next big grape.  With that being said and with no dog in this race, I’m going to venture a guess that the next big “it” wine just might be one that’s made with the Grenache grape. It’s already planted extensively throughout the Greek/Roman/Anglo influenced world, and it’s an approachable red that the masses of America might take to.

So, before Grenache is passé here in the States, let me give you the skinny on it. First of all, Grenache is one of those tomato words: the French call it Grenache and the Spanish call it Garnacha. Second, when the grape is planted in the Rhone region of France it’s usually blended with Syrah, while the Spanish grow it on stucco and often blend it in sangria, among other things.

The AUSTRALIAN Version: 2005 Tir Na N’og Grenache ($25.99)

It may have a funny name, but it’s a serious wine. Tir Na N’og Grenache is an amazing wine made from hundred year old vines in McClaren Vale, Australia.  Gaelic for “Land of Youth,” Tir Na N’og is easier to taste than to pronounce. Phonetically, (tier – nah – nohg) it may not flow all that easily, but this luscious red Grenache, starts off with a chewy wallop of rich black cherry fruit and spice before smoothing out to offer fine tannins and a ripe ample mid-palate.

The WASHINGTON STATE Version: 2005 McCrae Grenache ($21.99)

Here’s a great example of how Washington State is ahead of the California juggernaut when it comes to setting wine trends. The 2005 McCrae Grenache from Washington State is awesome.  Raspberry fruit and sweet spices linger from start to finish and make this Grenache completely enjoyable.  The brilliant fruit flavors are indicative of that new world push for fruit-forward reds that are ready to drink and don’t require aging. The McCrae has universal appeal and is a great treat for a weekend dinner.

The FRENCH Version

The French love to blend their Rhone varietals together, so I chose two that have been in the market for awhile and are indicative of what you’ll get in regard to the French production of Grenache. The first is the 2005 Chateau de Segries Cote de Rhone which is half Grenache blended with a nice chunk of Syrah and a few other Rhone grapes. It makes for an outstanding food wine with flavors of crushed berries and plum . A great value for $9.99.

For a second choice try the Domaine Brusset Cote du Ventoux, from the southern Rhone. Made from 60% Grenache, the Brusset is a drier style version with earth and leather notes. It’s another food wine that calls for grilled meats and may not be for everyone due to its austere character. Look to pay $11.

The SPANISH Version

Spanish wines always seem to be excellent values and when it comes to Garnacha the trend continues. The 2005 Castillo de Amansa is a great case in point. For a mere $9, the Almansa has a deep garnet color with flavors of black cherries and plums and a slight touch of heat. It’s great for autumn time stews and heartier soups.

Other alternatives include the well-touted Las Rocas Garnacha and the 2005 Almira Los Dos.  Grapey with notes of candied cherry, the Los Dos is fairly simple and would be a solid pizza or burger wine.  For $8 you can’t really expect more. And although the Los Dos isn’t a number one wine, it is a safe second in this Spanish listing.

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

The right wine completes the Thanksgiving feast

I’ve enjoyed quite a few Thanksgiving feasts and completely appreciate that this is one holiday where tradition rings true. It’s easy to put on that “Thanksgiving Thirteen” over an extended four-day, gluttonous weekend of white turkey meat, brown turkey meat, gravy, sweet potato casserole, oyster stuffing, homemade buttery bread, tasty cranberry sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, pecan pie, chess pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie and, of course, the long string of leftovers and sandwiches.

The one trap in all of this tradition and “deadly sin” exercise is falling prey to the wine ideologues. These are the ones with the all-too-repetitive suggestion that one should drink boring French Beaujolais Nouveau for another Thanksgiving holiday just because Lafayette happened to show up at the American Revolution. Instead, do as Clark Griswold did in the movie “Christmas Vacation” when the squirrel attacked inside his home. After telling his son, Russ, to get a hammer, Clark’s wife questioned what the hammer was for. “I’m gonna catch it in the coat, and smack it with the hammer.” This year do the same with Nouveau – before it ruins another holiday.

Some may ask: Why not Nouveau? Simply put, there are a lot of flavors going on in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: the many fruits like cranberry and pumpkin; the sage in the stuffing; the savory and saltiness in the gravy. So, if a traditional Thanksgiving feast is on tap this Thursday, then don’t be fooled by the lure of a bright and colorful label of houses or flowers that looks more like an Easter appropriate watercolor than a fall harvest wine. Instead, go with something that can not only complement those flavors but also offer up some style. No one wants that turkey to split open and ruin the night like it did at the Griswold family Christmas dinner. And no one wants to smile and pretend that Nouveau tastes good with anything other than fruitcake.

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Don’t let these outstanding sleeper values pass you by

Every year the Knoxville market is flooded with several values in red wine. Separating the wheat from the chaff is the only true way to find the sleeper values. These selections were able to rise above the competition without rising in price. They may not be on everyone’s radar, but they offer some of the best values in red wine. Here’s an easy shopping list of the best values in red wine to come along this year.

- Best Chianti Value of the Year: Campobello Chianti

Sometimes Italian Chianti can be a tad bit too tart or unpleasantly acidic. The softening of these characteristics is what makes the 2005 Campobello the best Chianti value of the year. Campobello is not only quintessential Chianti but it’s also a food lover’s wine. With refined tannins and a supple cherry flavor-profile, the Campobello may have the loose translation of a “beautiful life,” but it’s also a beautiful wine and a molto bello Chianti value. Unlike most of the European imports that are slowly creeping up in price, the Campobello Chianti is available for only $7.99.

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Give the gift of vino for the holidays

There are a few things that go without saying this year. The holidays are busy and the stock market will make you dizzy. The mall is packed full. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that the definitive moments with family and friends are what make this time of year special. So, the quicker you can finish that holiday gift shopping and get home, then the quicker you can enjoy being around your favorite people.

Wine, like food, is terrific for bringing people together. So for all those hard-to-shop-for people on your holiday gift list, there’s a wine that can equal their style and preference.

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Don’t pass over an Italian Ripasso

One of the first mistakes I made when I began my exploration of wine many years ago was to think that Valpolicella wine was made from, well, Valpolicella. As I uncomfortably found out, Valpolicella is the name of a town in northern Italy, and the wine is actually made from three Italian grapes; Corvina, Rondinella and often Molinara.

Valpolicella was a first love, so I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t know my first love as well as I thought or professed. Time moved on and, like many imperfect romances, old Val and I went our separate ways. I had a few cheap dates with Merlot, a rendezvous or two in Rioja and a brush-in with Barbera.

A couple of years later, I’m in Italy on business when lady luck bumped into me. I turned to rediscover an old love, Valpolicella. She was the same; part Corvina and part Rondinella. Except this time, something was different. This time, Valpolicella was a Ripasso. She had matured, become more elegant and developed into an all-around richer and complex wine.

Valpolicella Ripasso is frequently referred to as a “baby Amarone.” Because the Valpolicella wine is passed back over (thus the term ripasso) and laid to rest in the remains of crushed fruit or Amarone lees, the resulting wine becomes deeper in color and richer in flavor.

Ironically, a good Ripasso can often get overlooked. With other Italian studs, like Brunello and Barolo, Valpolicella Ripasso is sometimes left out of the choice equation. Typically, consumer options are left to picking between producers like Tommasi and Bolla. However, there are a handful of other choices that should be enjoyed. A good Ripasso-style wine will cost about $20-25, and the following three are reason enough to pursue this remarkable wine.

Accordini Ripasso della Valpolicella

Accordini was the wine that reenergized my passion for Valpolicella. The 2005 Accordini Ripasso displays aromas of cigar box and plum while revealing flavors of raison and dried dark fruits. If you happen to notice something that is nostalgic of childhood, you’re not getting loopy. The fresh, bright fruit on this bouquet could have Toucan Sam swoop in for a drink.

Allegrini Palazzo della Torre

Although technically not labeled as Ripasso, the Allegrini Palazzo della Torre is a blend of Corvina and Rondinella with a small amount of Sangiovese added. The addition of dried grape juice to the blend helps to create the same effect of richness, complexity and color. The Palazzo della Torre offers notes of violets and cinnamon with a polished texture that shows off crushed cherry and coffee flavors. This is one palatial and towering wine.

Zenato Ripasso della Valpolicella

The Zenato Ripasso della Valpolicella maintains the same rich texture as the other two selections but differs in aroma. The prevalence of cedar drawer, mushroom and forest aromas is both unique and misleading. The unconventional funkiness on the nose doesn’t carry over to a flavor profile that tends to be more traditional, with a raisin-like essence and an espresso edge.

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Red wines & food pairings from Tuscany

When it comes to red wines from Italy’s Tuscan region, the essential thing to keep in mind is the Sangiovese grape. Most people either love it or hate it, but Sangiovese, or one of its numerous clones, constitutes the great majority of red wines from Tuscany.

Sangiovese is much different from a Merlot or a Cabernet, not only in how it tastes but also for the simple reason that it isn’t produced as successfully or as widely as it is in Italy. Maybe it’s no coincidence that other Italian works of perfection, like espresso, leather, hand-blown glass, opera, tailor-made suits, sleek cars, shoes and soccer, are as unique and masterful.

n 2004 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Rufina ($22.99)

Recently, at the advice of counsel, I looked into a midtier Italian red from the Frescobaldi family. I was a little apprehensive because of the price and the fact that my counsel had been off the mark since blowing four straight bocce matches. But with one sip of the 2004 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Rufina, I knew that he was back to form. The Nipozzano demonstrates a successful attempt at creating a more international wine that is identified by a fruit-forward style, sleeker tannins and an all-around likability. With notes of soft oak and vanilla as well as black fruit flavors, the Frescobaldi Nipozzano is a great teammate for an American prime rib or a bistecca Roma.

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Rieslings for a thirsty Thanksgiving

Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving? With all those savory side dishes, a great big turkey and a load of sweet desserts, there’s a whole lot to fall in love with. All that’s missing is the right wine to partner with that smorgasbord of flavors. Over the years, Riesling has become a tried-and-true pairing for Thanksgiving, and the following selections offer something for everyone’s Turkey Day table.

2008 Leitz Dragonstone Riesling ($16)

It’s been a few years since Leitz Rieslings have shown a presence in the market, but now their Dragonstone Riesling is puffing its proud pedigree. From the German Rheingau, Leitz Riesling doesn’t lean too strongly to either sweet or dry. It’s an excellent food wine that deliciously offers up light cider notes and a crisp apple finish.

2008 Leitz Eins Zwei Dry “3″ Riesling ($15)

Dry white wine lovers have no better friend than the Leitz Zwei Dry “3″ Riesling. And what better way to complement the salty goodness of those turkey legs than with a straight-laced, pointedly dry-style German wine. With aromas of citrus and sea salt, this rocking Riesling follows up with a fresh lemon zing that will have your taste buds dancing.

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Pinot Noir is still hot but affordable ones are not

Over the last few decades, wine makers from California and the American Northwest have made great strides in replicating and outdoing their European rivals, especially the French. The U.S. has been consistently successful in replicating Bordeaux gems like Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as producing Chardonnays that rival if not exceed the Burgundies of France.

However, when it comes to the cat-like Pinot Noir grape, it has taken the U.S. much longer to catch up.

Most of the delay dealt with issues of terroir and weather and finding the right place to grow Pinot Noir. If you’ve been fortunate enough to try a Miner, Beaux Freres, Siduri, Lucia or Merry Edwards Pinot Noir, then you know that when it comes to high-end Pinot, the U.S. has definitely arrived.

Consequently, where we’ve lagged behind is in producing quality Pinot Noir that is everyday affordable. Though I had to taste quite a few bottles of $10 (or, for that matter, $20) swill to find some respectable low-end Pinot Noirs, there are some notable ones coming out of California and Oregon.

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Top wine values for the second half of ’09

At the end of the each calendar year several, if not all, major wine and food periodicals publish one or more lists of their favorite wines for the year. The focus of these lists can be dedicated to wines with high ratings, to value or collector wines, or to wineries that purchase a lot of advertising in that periodical. Regardless of their intent, these lists act as guides for consumers who invest a sense of trust in their preferred source for wine information.

Because so much changes in the wine business from the first to second half of any year, I decided to split my yearly review into two parts. This summer I wrote a review of great values for the first half of 2009 including wines like Beringer’s California Collection Sauvignon Blanc, Citra Montepulciano and Brazin Zinfandel. The following list my recommendations for some great finds and super values for the second half of 2009.

- Best Pinot Noir Value: 2008 Redtree Pinot Noir

Anytime 50 cases of the same wine goes out the door in three days, a retailer takes notice. The 2008 Redtree hit the scene as the biggest Johnnie-come-lately wine in a long time. Packed with more cherry flavors than a Michigan orchard, the Redtree Pinot Noir offers one delicious sip after another. Buy this jewel by the case. Runner up: 2007 MacMurray Central Coast Pinot Noir

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Wine looks can be deceiving

There’s a reason why so many cliches are present in the English lexicon. For example, there’s the “Don’t judge a book by its cover” cliche, as well as the one I’m using in the headline, “Looks can be deceiving.”

Yet with all these warnings, we sometimes forget to give things (in this case, wine) that extra bit of scrutiny. Over the years, we as customers have grown familiar with certain wine labels and become subject to brand loyalty.

Many people will go their entire life and drink either Coke or Pepsi without ever making sure that it’s actually the same product they’ve always enjoyed. The same can be said for wine brands. With the ever-expanding arm of globalization, wines that might have been difficult to get in the States in years past have become much more accessible. This may be a good thing, but it has another, more precarious edge to it.

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Great time of year for Dessert Wines

This is a great time of year for dessert wines. Here’s a sweet sampling of what’s available:

n 2003 Chateau D’Arche Sauterne ($28.99)

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t your mama’s Taylor Sauterne from New York, and it isn’t meant for cooking. The 2003 Chateau D’Arche is a brilliant bottle of delectable sweetness from Bordeaux. Its aromatic offering of golden raisins and dried apricots is supported by a heavily concentrated palate of honey notes. It is a far-reaching dessert wine with toasty almond notes and is an admirable sidekick for dark and white chocolate mousse. Just pour on some raspberry coulis for good measure and enjoy the season of decadence.

n 2005 Ferrari Carano “Eldorado Noir” Black Muscat ($24.99)

With a complexion as inky as oil, the Eldorado Noir is as dark as Texas tea and might even make old Jed Clampett blush in anticipation. Subdued notes of plum fruit are overshadowed by flamboyant flavors of black cherries that are reminiscent of a big scoop of Cherry Garcia ice cream, sans the lactose.

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Two Merlots worth a try

Earlier this year, the search for an affordable Merlot that was also high in quality seemed a formidable challenge. At one tasting alone, a local panel of wine enthusiasts ran through 15 or more Merlots in a vain attempt to find something worth recommending. This void in Merlot magic got me thinking about the protagonist in the movie “Sideways.”

Played by actor Paul Giamatti, Miles makes it quite clear that, under no uncertain circumstances, is he ever going to drink “any ?!*# Merlot.” Some might say that old Miles and I have something in common. Although I’ll probably never be a serious Merlot drinker, recently I have been introduced to a handful of Merlots that I enjoy and recommend.

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Malbec becomes a popular choice

Malbec erupted onto the American wine scene about five years ago and, in that short time, has established itself as a Merlot substitute with a popularity on par with that of Pinot Noir. Although the Malbec grape traces its roots back to the European continent, in particularly to Bordeaux, its growth over the past half-decade has taken place in South America. There’s plenty of Malbec out there to choose from, but more and more, they seem to offer little variation. Nonetheless, whether you are a new red wine drinker, a rating’s follower or a cult wine seeker, Malbec offers a little something for everyone.

When customers are ready to make the leap from white wine to red, they are often steered toward a light California Pinot Noir. The softer tannins and low alcohol of domestic Pinot Noir make it a natural selection for breaking through to the other side. Likewise, there are a handful of inexpensive Argentine Malbecs that have a fruity profile and tamer acidity level. Some of the original leaders in that category were Alamos and Trapiche. Today, they act as ringleaders for introducing consumers to the Malbec circus and to newer brands like Cigar Box.

Cigar Box Malbec is probably the newest and hottest Malbec to come out this year. It may look like a knock-off brand, but what it lacks in original marketing it makes up for with a better price. Fruit driven and juicy, the Cigar Box covers all the flavor bases with plum, cherry and blackberry notes. It may be a little too punchy for every new red wine drinker, but it will be a good indicator as to whether those that are new to Malbec will want to stick with it. A great buy for under $10, Cigar Box is an ideal way to keep your wine selections fresh and trendy.

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Grab a Great California Cabernet

In a universe of unpredictability there is, in spite of everything, one facet of the wine world that has maintained consistency: California still makes great Cabernets. Whether it’s the everyday, dollar-friendly stalwarts like 337 Lodi Cabernet and Bogle Cabernet or the high-end leaders like Caymus and Silver Oak, California is producing excellent Cabernets that offer something delicious in every price range. So in that spirit, this column is devoted to introducing you to some terrific, mid-priced Cabernets that California is currently releasing.


It may be impossible not to think of Napa Valley when someone brings up California Cabernet, and there’s a good reason for that. Napa Valley has been the home to great winemaking for the better part of American wine history, and the Raymond family has been a part of that same experience for the past five generations. Located in St. Helena, the Raymond winery stays true to classic Napa Valley varietals including their 2007 Raymond Reserve Cabernet. Fresh and fantastic aromas of lavender and Provencal herbs underscore the uniqueness and luster of this wine. Its structure and body is parallel to a Bordeaux-style Cabernet but the layered fruit finish of black cherry and sweet oak is All-American. An archetypal Cabernet like this needs a fitting partner, so hike down to your favorite butcher and request a fresh serving of your go-to cut of beef. Grill, pour and enjoy!

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