Washington wine adviser Paul Gregutt offers three cases of wines that offer good taste and great value: a dozen pinot noirs, a dozen more rieslings and a box of bargains.
During a period of pervasive budget-tightening, small pleasures take on added importance. Mrs. G and I have some artist friends whose passion is thrift shopping; they attack Dollar Day at Value Village with military precision, and the rewards are tangible (I have the Hawaiian shirts to prove it). In return, I offer advice on cheap wine.
Finding excellent wines at bargain prices is far, far more difficult than finding good wines costing $30 and up. As a result, in an oddly satisfying way, a genuine wine deal seems to bring as much or more pleasure as downing a bottle that cost more than the week’s groceries.
For this year’s Case Studies, I want to steer you in three specific directions. First, a case of value wines from Washington state. Though I often hear consumers complain that Washington wines are overpriced, I do not find that to be true. Of course, some are. But even the most expensive bottles from Washington fall far short of the prices charged elsewhere for wines that receive the critics’ blessings.
In France, you can pay well over $1,000 for a single bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux. In California, up to $700 for current releases. Here in Washington, the very best wines rarely cost more than $50 or $60 a bottle. Fine bottles abound at the low end of the price scale, and I’ve selected a dozen of my favorites for Case No. 1.
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Case No. 2 features the darling of the red-wine world, pinot noir. Ever since the plucky grape was extolled in the cult hit movie “Sideways,” sales of pinot noir have climbed. Today more pinots are in the market than ever before, but quantity and quality, alas, do not go hand-in-hand. Most pinots that are bargain-priced are, to put it bluntly, thin swill. That is why, even for a case of value pinots, I had to raise the upper price limit to $20. That said, you’ll find some real winners.
In Case No. 3, I’ve lined up a dozen dry rieslings from the Pacific Northwest. I recommend dry rieslings because they’re going to work well with your holiday turkey or ham, where a sweeter wine may clash.
But dry rieslings are not always labeled as such, which presents a challenge. A quick test to give you a rough idea of a riesling’s sweetness: Check out the listed alcohol, usually in tiny type on the front label. If it’s 12.5 percent or higher, the wine will taste dry; at 11 to 12.5 percent it will begin to show hints of sweetness. When the alcohol is even lower than that (especially down around 8 or 9 percent) the wine will definitely be sweet.
Note, however, that even rieslings that are technically off-dry can taste and feel quite tart, because the natural acidity more than compensates for the residual sugar. This is one of the strengths of German rieslings, and it is also typical of those from the Northwest.
WASHINGTON’S BEST VALUE WINES
This case includes a range of grapes, styles and producers, but they are all flavorful, food-ready wines that offer more true-to-varietal character than their peers. All are priced at $15 or under; some are widely available in supermarkets and liquor stores; a few will be limited to specialty wine shops and winery tasting rooms:
Barnard Griffin 2007 Fumé Blanc; $9. An iconic wine for Barnard Griffin, this is sauvignon blanc blended with a bit of sémillon. Spicy and searingly tart, it shows flavors of beeswax and lemon oil, hints of honey and tea. It would make a particularly fine oyster wine.
Hyatt 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon; $10. This is a dark, tight, quite tannic cabernet with dense flavors of plum and black cherry. Though tannins are rough, the flavors of ground coffee and smoke work well with the dark fruit.
Six Prong 2006 Chardonnay; $10. A clean, fruit-driven chardonnay from the Horse Heaven Hills, with light tropical, banana, apple and pear flavors.
Hogue 2007 Chardonnay; $10. Note that this is the regular bottling, not the Genesis or the reserve. Apples, peaches and pears fill this fleshy chardonnay, with highlight flavors of toast and tobacco.
Castle Rock 2006 Merlot; $12. This lovely merlot is pure and true, with a luscious core of soft, sweet cherry-candy fruit. Medium weight, excellent balance, exceptional clarity and freshness for the price.
RiverAerie 2006 Spring Creek Redd; $12. From winemaker Ron Bunnell comes this flavorful blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah and mourvèdre. The wine has a core of sweet black cherry and blue plum fruit, firm acids and light tannins.
The Winemaker’s Loft 2007 Chardonnay-Pinot Gris; $13. A fresh, vibrant white from winemaker Michael Haddox, it’s a fine match of grapes, with bright flavors of cut pear and apple, a leesy, textural body and a lingering finish.
Chandler Reach NV 36 Red; $14. This nonvintage blend is mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot, with a splash of malbec filling in the final chunk. Soft and gently fruity, it’s an all-purpose red for any comfort food.
Kamiakin 2007 White Wine; $14. A sauvignon blanc/semillon blend from two outstanding Rattlesnake Hills vineyards. Spice and toasted-nut flavors complement the soft, broadly fruity core of melon and citrus.
Columbia Crest 2005 H3 Merlot; $15. Columbia Crest has a national reputation for quality merlots at all price points; this new entry is the best value of all. Balanced berry and cherry flavors are underscored with dusty notes of earth and cocoa, all fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills.
L’Ecole No 41 2007 “Walla Voila” Chenin Blanc; $15. Back in the day, chenin blanc was a popular, off-dry white wine, but has almost vanished from sight. Kudos to L’Ecole for keeping it front and center, with delicate aromas of honeysuckle, and flavors of lime, sweet lemon, orange and pineapple.
Rulo 2006 Combine White Wine; $15. Rulo’s exceptional white blend is 90 percent sauvignon blanc, with a little viognier and chardonnay. It’s a gorgeous mix of citrus, rock, fresh herb and pepper; very European in style, but with a clean, fruit-driven core.
DRINKING “SIDEWAYS”: WORLD’S BEST BUDGET PINOT NOIRS
I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of these wines, and also the diversity. I tasted pinots from Washington, Oregon, California, British Columbia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, France, Italy, Germany and South Africa in search of the best budget bottles. Here are the winners (where possible, I’ve listed the name of the distributor to help your wine seller order for you):
Turning Leaf 2006 Pinot Noir; $7. Don’t turn up your nose at Turning Leaf! This Gallo brand has brought in juice from Germany and made a very light but enjoyable wine at an unheard-of price for pinot. It’s even cheaper if you buy it in magnums ($11) or 3-liter packages ($17). (Odom)
Rosemount 2006/2007 Pinot Noir; $10. The diamond-label wines from Rosemount have won my admiration in recent vintages, and this is the finest inexpensive Australian pinot noir in the American market. No tricked-up vanilla flavors to mask unripe fruit, just pleasing berry flavors. Both vintages are good, but grab the ’06 if you can find it. (Young’s-Columbia)
Castle Rock 2006 Mendocino Pinot Noir; $12. Soft and fruity, this is very appealing, with a chocolatey undercoating. Be sure to get the Mendocino bottling, not the Willamette Valley. (Elliott Bay)
DeLoach 2007 Pinot Noir; $13. Now owned by a French company, DeLoach is making a fine lineup of pinots at all price points. This entry-level bottling shows an elegant mix of tart berry and tannins tasting of tea leaves. (Noble)
Louis Latour 2006 Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir; $15. This nicely-packaged wine from an obscure appellation — Vin de Pays de Coteaux du Verdon — brings a mix of Old World and New World strengths. Exceptional length and appealing, sweet fruit flavors of strawberry preserves and cherry candy. (Grape Expectations)
Cartlidge & Browne 2007 Pinot Noir; $15. Smooth and supple, with unusual silkiness and concentration in this price range. A dark and juicy, remarkably substantial effort. (Unique)
Bogle 2006 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir; $15. Bogle does its usual excellent work with this bold, chunky pinot. It’s well along the aging curve with soft fruit, mint and cinnamon highlights. (Noble)
Pascal Desroches 2005 Reuilly ‘La Sablière’; $15. Spicy, candied flavors of cherry and hints of earth mark this delicate pinot from the Loire Valley. (Millesime)
Dashwood 2006 Marlborough Pinot Noir; $16. Scented with resinous herb, this bright, high-acid New Zealand offering finishes with a sharp cinnamon note. (Unique)
Albert Bichot 2005 ‘Vieilles Vignes’; $16. Pungently aromatic, with a mix of raspberry, earth and wet clay. (St. Martin)
Hahn Estate 2005 Monterey Pinot Noir; $18. Along with plush blackberry fruit flavors come extras — sweet herb, cola and light toast — that fill out the middle and extend the finish. (Click)
Martin Ray 2006 Pinot Noir; $19. Santa Barbara County grapes bring higher alcohol (14.2 percent) and some heat along with sweet cherry fruit to this ripe style. (Vehrs)
DRY RIESLINGS FROM THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
Besides being a natural match for turkey, other roasted fowl, a variety of cheeses and appetizers such as smoked salmon, riesling is enjoying newfound popularity. In fact, the Nielsen company reports, riesling has been the fastest-growing (in terms of sales) white wine in America for three years running.
It is also the biggest-selling varietal in Washington, which makes sense when you realize that Washington is the biggest riesling producer in America. Bigger than California, where Kendall-Jackson and Fetzer are the largest riesling producers. Their combined production (around 200,000 cases) is a drop in the bucket compared with the roughly 1 million cases produced by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. We are living in riesling heaven, and here’s the proof:
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006/2007 Dry Riesling; $8. This special bottling is labeled dry and means it. The melon, peach and apple flavors are bright and tangy, bringing in mineral and citrus rind as they evolve in the mouth. Tasted side by side, I give a slight nod to the ’06.
Pacific Rim 2006 Dry Riesling; $10. Fruit-driven, tart and citrusy, with a ripe mid-palate of lemon/lime candy and highlights of pink grapefruit.
A to Z 2007 Riesling; $13. Crisp and lacy, a fine value from this Oregon producer. It sets up the palate for spicy fare with bracing acids and scents of citrus skins, then brings on crisp flavors of pear and stone.
Airfield Estates 2007 Riesling; $14. Fruity and ripe, with a dense mix of apple, citrus and sweet grapefruit flavors, this is a mouth-pleasing, tangy and refreshing Yakima Valley wine.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2007 Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling; $14. Old vines that once were part of the Eroica blend, they now stand alone in this single-vineyard bottling. Unusual concentration and purity pour out of the bottle, with orange, peach and apricot fruit, wet stone and juicy acids.
Mercer Estates 2007 Riesling; $15. Succulent and deliciously juicy, this impressive new winery has released a near-perfect expression of mainstream Washington riesling. A sappy, tangy, lip-smacking wine, loaded with flavors of ripe apples, Asian pear and hints of grapefruit, pineapple and citrus.
Couvillion 2007 Riesling; $16. Couvillion, next to Walla Walla’s Spring Valley Vineyards, is off to a great start. This young riesling is deliciously tart, with juicy green apple flavors and lots of snappy acid.
Viento 2006 Underwood Mountain Vineyard Dry Riesling; $18. At 1,200 feet, Underwood Mountain vineyard is one of the rising stars in the Columbia Gorge AVA. Nowhere else in Washington state does riesling achieve this sort of delicate power, with scents and flavors of blossom, citrus and stone fruits.
Pacific Rim 2007 Wallula Vineyard Riesling; $19. Biodynamically grown, this dry, leesy riesling is packed with lime and citrus flavors. Tart and juicy, the wine fills the mouth with peach and stone fruits.
Lemelson 2007 Dry Riesling; $20. Tart and Germanic, this lovely Oregon bottling is a bowlful of mixed fruits: green apple, white peach and yellow plum. More flavors follow: cucumber, chamomile and lemon verbena, with suggestions of beeswax.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2007 Eroica Riesling; $24. This may be the most acidic Eroica ever made, but it tastes juicy rather than sour, and has lush fruit flavors of ripe apple and Mandarin orange, with hints of sweet lime and wet stone.
Pacific Rim 2007 Wallula Vineyard “Biodynamic” Riesling; $32. Expensive, and worth every nickel! This vineyard has been farmed biodynamically, yielding ripe, full-flavored grapes. The wine has a wonderful intensity that mixes in stone, yeast, flower and a bowlful of citrus and apple fruits.
Paul Gregutt writes the Wine Adviser column in the Wednesday Seattle Times, and is the author of “Washington Wines & Wineries — The Essential Guide” (UC Press, $34.95).