Wine column no. 23: Our best local buys of 2011

As the bills slowly pile up from this past holiday season, there might be some of us who keep asking ourselves: Was it all worthwhile?
Of course, we're not talking about those special gifts you gave to loved ones or the dinners you worked extra hard to prepare for the people you care about.
We're talking about liking what you bought, meaning determining if you got a good value for your dollar. And in the wine world, where temperature, storage and more can either enhance or downgrade your experience, that's always a gamble.
So here are our choices for the best wine values, by price range, that we had in 2011.
$5-$9.99 category
Two 2008 vintages won out this year.
The first is a Spaniard named Don Ramon from the Campo de Borja denomination, a blend of 75 percent Garnacha and 25 percent Tempranillo. These two grapes are well known in Spain but not so much here in the United States. Garnacha (also known as Grenache in France and California) is a high-yielding variety whose full-bodied red wines are a useful component in blends, according to The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine. Tempranillo ripens earlier than most Spanish red grapes and is also considered one of the country's "noble" grape varieties. Don't worry, there's nothing hoity toity about that designation, as it simply means Tempranillo is widely planted and generally well liked. And we certainly enjoyed this blend, which was smooth, a bit black peppery and fun to drink. These grapes came from the foothills of the Iberian Mountain Range, in the northern part of the province of Zaragoza in Spain. We may never get there, so we're happy Winetree can bring it to us. 12.5 percent alcohol.
The other good value wine in this price range is the 2008 Patch Block Merlot. This is actually a French wine comprised of 100 percent Merlot grapes produced by Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, a company with vineyards in Burgandy and the South of France. The Patch Block title refers to a select patch of land within a vineyard called a "block." That's where the grapes exude distinct characteristics and quality resulting from exceptional soil conditions, according to a press release off the Reuters news wire. That's Georges Duboeuf's official story. But in our own experience, this soft red was fruity, smooth and definitely easy to drink -- and it's only $6.99. Winetree, again. 13 percent alcohol. Wine Spectator gave this a rating of 85 out of 100.
$10-$19.99 category
Throw some chicken breasts on the grill and get ready to smile, because the 2010 14 Hands Hot to Trot White Blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Viognier is definitely a good buy. This is a Washington State creation, with grapes sourced from vineyards like Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley. Greg and I both got light flavors of melon and pear, but they weren't heavy. This 13 percent alcohol bottle was crisp, with a minimal sweetness, and it was just over $10 at Winetree.
As for our next pick, it's no secret that we like red Zinfandel. We think a good value wine is the 2006 Renwood Old Vine Zinfandel from Amador County, Calif., which adds more spice than sweetness to the realm of flavors in your glass. We had it with smoked pork ribs that were covered with carmelized barbecue sauce, and if that's not mouth-watering enough, then just try this Winetree bottle, which we
got for about $14. There seem to be numerous red Zinfandel out there that teem with blackberries. But this wine does you the favor of rexamining the varietal. 15 percent alcohol.
$20-$29.99 category
Here's another Renwood that was so quietly impressive that we hesitate to recommend it lest it disappear completely from the shelves. The 2004 Grandpere Zinfandel had a caramel and chocolate nose, and it went very well with grilled racks of lamb marinated in garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and fresh thyme. Varsity Liquors had this high-octane speciman, which came in at 15.5 percent alcohol, for about $28. Wine Spectator gave this a rating of 82 out of 100.
And if you happen to be at Varsity Liquors getting a (hopefully not the last) bottle of the Grandpere, then also consider the 2002 Ceago Vinegarden Merlot. This aromatic wine comprised of 100 percent estate grown Camp Masut grapes from the headwaters west of the Russian River in Redwood Valley, Calif., gave me cinnamon and clove flavors as well as a touch of blackberry. Greg, meanwhile, was impressed by how subtle and gentle it was. The bottle we had contained quite a bit of sediment, so watch out for that last pour into your glass. This wine, incidentally, was grown with organic and biodynamic grapes, according to the label. It's easily a good value purchase at $21. 14.5 percent alcohol.

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