It’s damn hard finding a Pinot Noir worth drinking under $20. Really, really hard. Some might even say under $30 is challenging, but I’m not that hard core. But forget under $15… it’s normally sweetened grape juice with a touch of earthiness likely added in with wood chips. But occasionally, if you look and wish hard enough, you can find a wine treasure that you can enjoy everyday without feeling the pinch too much. I tried the Mark West 2013 Pinot Noir in a blind tasting lineup and pretty much everyone (from wine novices to wine pros) thought it was solid. Especially for the low, low price of $12.
Read more: Wine review: Mark West 2013 Pinot Noir California
The Rhone Rangers, a group of wine producers who have a passion for Rhône grape varietals, spreads the gospel of grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne… all descendants of France’s Rhône Valley that grow quite happily in areas around California. Especially Paso Robles in the south-central area of the state where the intense heat coaxes these grapes into a ripening groove. Rhone Rangers holds regular tasting events across the country to introduce wine lovers to the beauty of these often overlooked yet sublime varietals. If you see one in your town, run to get tickets.
Read more: Wine reviews: Four Rhone style wines rocking my world
I possess a Daredevil-like sense of smell. I notice aromas floating in the air that few people do, from potpourri, blooming flowers the next block over, sauteed onions from outside the front door and — my least favorite thing on the planet — incense burning in a nearby apartment. Inherited from the chef-side of my family, this intense sense is both a blessing and curse, since there are also plenty of not-so-fabulous aromas floating in the air too. As you likely know, taste is heavily dependent on smell (think about when you have a cold) so my taste factor is also influenced by this, ahem, blurse. But that’s where tasting wine becomes really cool. I smell and taste a lot of things in a wine. Like green pepper(aka pyrazine vegetal-ness) in many Chilean Carmenere wines. I whiff it first, then it bursts into my mouth. Generally experienced in grapes that haven’t ripened enough, the green pepper experience in Carmenere is part of its DNA. I never warmed up to this flavor and still don’t care for it. So when I get a sample bottle of Carmenere, I’m rarely psyched. However, the Anderra 2013 Carmenere surprised me. It helps that the wine is is the Chilean project by Baron Phillipe de Rothschild. Yep, that Rothschild.
Read more: Wine Review: Anderra 2013 Carmenere and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
Chile has been a happening place for several years now. With a Mediterranean climate much like northern California, the grapes bask in sunshine and enjoy rain during the winter mostly. Even the landscape, with mountain valleys and slopes, resembles California. And, like California, the resultant wines are consistently high quality. But there’s one big difference: Price. Wines from Chile astound with a price to quality ratio that most wine regions would love. I dare say few wine regions can top the number of excellent wines under $20 that Chile does.
Read more: Wine review: Montes Alpha 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
Every so often, I come up with a fabulous kitchen sink recipe that wows my family. And sometimes even me. I throw a bunch of ingredients together in a pot or sauté pan , taste, season and then taste again until it’s palatable. The “wow” thing happens much less frequently than the “meh” but, hey, ya gotta eat. And be creative. When I read the tech sheets for this wine sample (sent from Markham), the list of grapes reminded me of my kitchen sink creations. A red wine made from six grapes, the winemakers at Markham likely meticulously (not carelessly) blended this wine, tasting and re-tasting to make sure it’s right. This time, they landed on a “wow”.
Read more: Wine review: 2012 Markham Vineyards Cellar 1879
I visited J Lohr ages ago, wide-eyed and somewhat new to California wine (I studied wine in Europe first then learned domestic grogs). The tour was lengthy, the hospitality warm and the wine impressive. I don’t remember a Rhône program there but that’s because it wasn’t until a few years later that they started down that road. A nice journey it has been. I lean more towards their Rhône whites — Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier — than their reds. The Syrahs are over-oaked for my palate but some people love that.
Read more: Wine review: J Lohr Gesture RVG Paso Robles
From the north-central region of Spain famously called Rioja comes an exceptional example from a wine area finding its own again. Welcome back earthy, robust Rioja. You took a trip to a few famous wine writers’ palates and thankfully, you came back to your authentic home where you belong. By Spanish law, a Rioja Riserva must be aged in barrel for two years then held in bottle for another two before release, so thus the 2008 vintage. It’s one of the only wine regions that sells its wines when they’re ready to drink. A blend of 80% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha (Grenache) and 5% Mazuelo grapes, the Rioja Bordón Riserva has characteristic Spanish dustiness tinged with black cherry aromatics. It’s best enjoyed after being decanted for 10-15 minutes, to bring out its inner beauty. Rioja Bordón sports a personality of a warrior who secretly likes rom-coms — some flavors of strong brewed tea, smoky oak and a touch of silky tannin, balanced with the soft fruitiness of black cherry, plum and blackberry. Food friendly and enough acidity to stand up to a long list of fatty foods — from grilled ribeye slathered in a spicy rub to aged cheeses like Parmesan Reggiano. A fantastic effort for an obscenely low price.
Read more: Wine review: Franco-Espanolas “Rioja Bordón” 2008 Riserva
One of the funny, ironic tidbits about Kim Crawford wines is that they aren’t produced by or owned by a female like many believe. The winery was founded by a super cool guy named Kim but he sold his eponymous wine brand over ten years ago (read about the history here). Quality suffered for a few years, especially after Winemaker Jules Taylor left in 2008, but current winemaker Anthony Walkenhorst appears firmly back on track with this 2013 Pinot Gris from the cool, green grassy lands of New Zealand.
Read more: Wine review: Kim Crawford 2013 Pinot Gris Malborough (New Zealand)
Up the road from where I live in California is a winery that continues to impress, vintage after vintage: Dry Creek Vineyard. I did a search on my website and I’ve written about them seven times in the past eight years. That’s a lot, considering the number of wineries on this earth I could be writing about. But I keep going back to them simply because their value remains outstanding. Family-owned and -operated, Dry Creek Vineyard was founded in 1972. Founder David Stare bravely hung his hat on California Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc — a not-so-glamorous grape originally from the Loire Valley (more about Chenin Blanc) — early on and embraced both grape varieties with a burly bear hug. At the time, other wineries in the area looked at him kinda funny but he soldiered on. David, a graduate of MIT, worked for railroads before he founded the winery in Dry Creek — where the winery stand today was nothing but plum (or “prunes”) orchards. Forty-two years later, the family owns 185 acres of grapevines and his daughter, Kim, heads up the company as President.
Read more: Two affordable wines: Dry Creek Vineyard 2013 Sauvignon Blanc & 2013 Dry Chenin Blanc
Discovered during a blind tasting, I mistook this stellar red Burgundy for a Chambolle Musigny, a Côtes de Nuits wine region up the road which can be twice the price. This Bruno Clair hails from Marsannay, a newer, French village-level appellation (established in 1987) which is no slouch Burgundy wine region. The Pinot Noir grapes, from which this gorgeous wine is made, are aptly worshiped in this area of the world. It shows.
Read more: French wine review: Domaine Bruno Clair 2010 Marsannay “Les Vaudenelles”