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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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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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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Bring home the bubbly and celebrate

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

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

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

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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.

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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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Frugal finds for the New Year

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

Sparkling Wine: Codorniu Cava ($8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

French: 2004 Le Paradou Rouge ($10)

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

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

Merlot: 2004 Capolan Sonoma Merlot ($12)

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

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

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

French wines that are winners

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

ALSACE:  2004 Hugel Gewurztraminer ($17)

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

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

LOIRE VALLEY: 2004 La Craie Vouvray ($12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2004 Beaumes de Venise ($14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.

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.

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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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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Winter dinners and wine to fight the chill

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

Sausage, red beans and rice with a Barbera

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

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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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Organic wine category grows naturally

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

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

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

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Picking a bubbly for toast not so hard with these tips

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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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Holiday wines to be thankful for

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

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

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

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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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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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All that sparkles on New Year’s Eve

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

n Scharffenberger Brut Non-Vintage ($17.99)

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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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Simple everyday Tawny Port

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

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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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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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Dinner parties made with great wines, good friends

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

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

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

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

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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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Barbera wines little known outside Italy, but spreading

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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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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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Ring in the New Year with new bubbly

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

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

- Hansen Lauer Brut Riesling 2007 (Germany)

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

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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Three wines worth drinking this year

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

- Lamarca Prosecco Brut NV

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

- 2009 Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut

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

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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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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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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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Fabulous finds for under $15

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

n 2005 Cesari Mara Ripasso ($14.99)

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

n 2005 Alamos Malbec Seleccion ($13.50)

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

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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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