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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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.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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