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Quality wines don’t have to cost a lot

In the past several months UnCorked readers have frequently asked, “Can I find quality wines for less than $15?” You may remember last summer an UnCorked column touching on the topic — wines fitting your palate as well as your wallet. The answer now, as it was then, is absolutely — tasty wines with exceptional quality are readily available for $15 or less.

But before declaring any wine the next superb bottle for $10, $8 or even $5, keep in mind a few criteria.

In this price range, straightforward and simple are the best places to start in assessing the quality of a wine. No matter what price, a wine should always be balanced. For a white wine, consider taste and acidity. For reds, you want to think about tannins — too much leaves your mouth dry and exhausted while too little is much like drinking a sweet children’s drink.

For the zealous shopper there are many bargains to be found. The best place to start is at your local wine shop. Get to know the sales people — many fine wine retailers, just as any purveyor, are looking for ways to keep their customers loyal and happy. So, many bargains found are substantial buys or specials from the distributors, brought in just for you, the customer.

I recently explored central Arkansas wine shops in a search of quality wines under $15.

THE VALUES ($15 or less)

  • 2006 Marietta Cellars Old Vine Red, California (about $15 retail)
  • 2007 Mark West Winery Pinot Noir, California (about $10 retail)
  • 2007 Blackstone Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $9 retail)
  • 2005 Greg Norman Estates Pinot Noir, California (about $15 retail)
  • 2007 Anne Amie Vineyards Cuvee A Amrita, Willamette Valley, Oregon (about $15 retail)
  • 2006 D’Arenburg Stump Jump Red, Australia (about $12 retail)
  • 2007 Stevenot Winery Pinot Grigio, California (about $11 retail)
  • 2002 Aqua Pumpkin Merlot, Paso Robles, California (about $15 retail)
  • 2006 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Chardonnay, California (about $12 retail)
  • 2007 Oyster Bay Wines Sauvignon, New Zealand (about $13 retail)
  • 2007 Four Bears Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $15 retail)
  • 2006 Beringer Founder’s Estate Merlot, California (about $10 retail)
  • 2007 Bonterra Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $14 retail)
  • 2007 Francis Coppola Rosso, California (about $10 retail)
  • 2006 Hogue Cellars Genesis Riesling, California (about $13 retail)
  • 2006 Gnarly Head Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel, California (about $11 retail)
  • 2007 Twisted River Late Harvest Riesling, Germany (about $12 retail)
  • 2006 Liberty School Winery Chardonnay, California (about $15 retail)

Wine must abet chocolate’s sweet spot

Chocolate, like wine, is exciting to explore, and it can be heavenly when paired with the right partner.

As a general rule, when pairing wine and chocolate, the wine should be at least as sweet – if not sweeter – than the chocolate. If the two are not compatible, many times a slight sour note will develop on the palate.

A combination of chocolate with over-oaked red wine or one that is extremely dry, such as Spanish Riojas, will likely rob the chocolate of sweetness and the wine of fruitiness, resulting in an unpleasant, dry, dustlike flavor.

Light-bodied wines matchup best with mild-flavored chocolate, and full-bodied wines are best served with darker and more robust chocolate. For example, a delicate Moscato d’Asti matches perfectly with the mellow butter flavors in many white chocolates.

Cabernet sauvignon is a great all-around match for chocolate because it has hints of aromatic dark berry, spice and even of chocolate itself.

Other “safe bets” for almost any type of chocolate include any port or dessert wine. For standout pairings with most any chocolate, consider a robust, full-bodied California zinfandel or an Australian shiraz.

Framboise, with its raspberry flavor, works beautifully with white or milk chocolates.

White chocolate: Framboise or moscato


  • 2007 Mar tin Weyrich Moscato Allegro, California (about $12 retail)


  • 2007 Marco Negri Moscato d’ Asti, Italy (about $22 retail)

Light-bodied milk chocolate: Framboise, pinot noir, or cabernet sauvignon


  • 2007 Beringer Founder’s Estate Pinot Noir Provincia de Pavia, Italy (about $11 retail)


  • 2006 Wild Earth Pinot Noir, California (about $29 retail)

Medium bodied milk or semisweet chocolate : cabernet sauvignon, port, merlot or syrah


  • 2006 Bogle Vineyards Merlot, California (about $11 retail)


  • 2006 Verge Syrah, Dry Creek Valley, California (about $40 retail)

Full-bodied bittersweet or dark chocolate: cabernet sauvignon or port


  • 2006 Cellar No. 8 Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $12 retail)


  • 2004 Spann Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, California (about $32 retail)

Top off the tomato pie with a nice Chianti

Man has been eating pizza in one form or another for hundreds of years, but the first pizzeria in the United States didn’t open until the turn of the 20th century.

Gennaro Lombardi started selling pizza in his New York grocery store on Spring Street in the late 1890s. Lombardi’s paper-wrapped tomato pies quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and in 1905 he was granted a mercantile license to operate a pizzeria.

What began as a humble bread and tomato dish has become a vast canvas for the culinary world. Today, pizza is available fresh at a multitude of pizza eateries and can be bought frozen and in create-your-own kits at the supermarket. Television chefs and cookbook authors like Wolfgang Puck, Jamie Oliver and Mario Batali have devoted shows and cookbooks to the art of pizza baking. Gourmet stores offer pre-made pizzas in seemingly limitless – and indulgent – combinations with toppings such as caviar, truffles, goat cheese, salmon and even foie gras.

Beer has long been the traditional partner for pizza, possibly because it has been a staple offering in pizzerias. But if you consider the broad flavors of wine and the endless possibilities of pizza toppings, it’s easy to see the two are an ideal match.

For meat lovers:

  • Canadian bacon: a Chilean or California cabernet sauvignon, Italian barbera
  • Sausage or beef: Cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or Southern Rhone syrahs, Australian shiraz or California/Oregon pinot noir


  • 2006 Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone, France (about $13 retail)
  • 2006 Terra Andina Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Chile (about $12 retail)
  • 2007 Cline Vineyards Zinfandel, California (about $11 retail)


  • 2006 Seghesio Rockpile Zinfandel, California (about $38 retail)
  • 2003 Travaglini Gattinara, Italy (about $45 retail)

For fish and seafood lovers:

  • Sardines, anchovies or mussels: New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Gewurztraminer or unoaked chardonnay
  • Shrimp or lobster: Oaked chardonnay, Italian barbera


  • 2007 Yalumba Unoaked Chardonnay, Australia (about $12 retail)
  • 2007 Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $14 retail)
  • 2006 Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $16 retail)


  • 2007 Mud House Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $20 retail)
  • 2005 Chablis Premier Cru Montmain, France (about $40 retail)

For vegetable lovers:

  • Mushrooms or truffles: Barolo, barbera or cabernet sauvignon, Chianti, pinot noir
  • Mixed vegetables: Pinot grigio, chardonnay, Chianti, pinot noir and merlot


  • 2007 Candoni Pinot Grigio, Italy (about $14 retail)
  • 2005 Luna di Luna Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, Italy (about $10 retail)
  • 2006 Santa Christina Sangiovese, Italy (about $14 retail)


  • 2006 David Bruce Pinot Noir, California (about $45 retail)
  • 2007 La Crema Winery Chardonnay, California (about $24 retail)

Mondavi name synonymous with wine

Michael Mondavi says of growing up in California’s now famous Napa Valley, that “the [wine] cellar was my jungle gym and the cellar master my baby sitter.”

Recently, I spent time with Mondavi as he shared a refreshing look at Napa Valley.

He recalls that in those early days, the beginning of the school year was delayed not for the grape harvest, but for the picking of plums. Back then, for every grapevine, there was a plum tree.

In 1943, Mondavi’s family bought the venerable Charles Krug Winery — later one of the first “tasting rooms” in Napa Valley. Then, the most popular grape for tasting was not today’s trendy cabernet, merlot or chardonnay varieties but chenin blanc.

Napa Valley experienced transformation and growth through the late 1960s. It was about that time, Mondavi recalls, that his grandmother gave him some life-changing advice. He had offered her a glass of wine and asked what she thought of it.

“Make a wine that tastes good … not just one glass … but when they go home, they will want more than just one glass,” she remarked. Her counsel was straightforward:

“Don’t just make wines for the rich … make it a staple of the table, not just liquid food.”

Mondavi held to his grandmother’s advice by bringing home samples from the winery for his family to taste, always searching for a wine to be enjoyed glass after glass.

With the creation of the Woodbridge winery in Lodi, the Mondavi empire would adhere to producing quality wine at a reasonable price. But that story does not offer as much nostalgia as does his grandmother’s advice.

“The late ’60s and early ’70s were tough times, and the Woodbridge label was created to pay the bills,” he says.

Today, Mondavi is still creating world-class wines through his company, Folio Fine Wine Partners, which offers bottles from premier and emerging wine regions around the world.


  • 2006 Danzante Pinot Grigio, Italy (about $15 retail)


  • 2005 Hangtime Cellar Pinot Noir, France (about $19 retail)

Wine books help, but tasting does the trick

The best way to learn about wine is to taste it. Poring over magazines and books will get you started, but until you actually pull the cork and pour the wine, the learning experience is lacking.

Wine was a less complicated subject when most imported bottles came from France, Italy and Spain. But today, in even the most modest liquor stores, many bottles from a variety of locations line the shelves.

Many are labeled with names of mysterious-sounding grapes and growing regions. Who would have thought, for instance, that vineyards in Chile and Argentina would produce the latest must-try wines, or that sumptuous wine would be made in Sicily.

With so many options to explore, it’s clear why many wine drinkers get confused – and frustration and overload set in – and a quick magazine read seems an easy answer. But a better place to improve your tasting experience is with the pull of the cork. Below are two quick lessons to improve your tasting term knowledge.


When it comes to learning about acidity in wine, a good example is the crisp in-your-face freshness sauvignon blanc offers. To understand the taste of acidity on your palate, simply bite into a Granny Smith apple to experience the sourness that causes a quick burst of saliva down the inside of your gums. Acidity is what keeps a wine fresh, much like the carbonation in a soda.

New Zealand’s Marlborough region on the South Island is celebrated for its distinct green apple, vibrant, high-acid style of wine made from this grape. California and Australia also produce this grape, but not with the keen, searing acidity and grassy style of New Zealand. Sauvignon blanc grapes grown in California and Australia get more sunshine, so grapes are riper when harvested, producing a smoother, less acidic wine. Sometimes other grapes, such as semillon, are added to give these wines much less punch than the grape’s typical green crisp style.


  • 2007 Rosemount Diamond Label Sauvignon Blanc, Australia (about $14, retail)


  • 2007 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand (about $24, retail)


Just as acidity gives a wine its youthful freshness, tannin acts as a preservative to allow great wines to age. It creates a drying sensation on the inside of the gums, much like cold tea. Tannin is developed from the grape skins, stems or pips (bitter seeds of the grape) or by aging in wood. The thicker the skin of the grape, such as the thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon, syrah or nebbiolo, the higher the tannin content in a wine. The key to proper tannin levels is the skill of the winemaker to balance it for wines that are meant to be consumed soon after bottling and those that will be cellared for many years.


  • 2007 Yali Winemaker’s Selection Cabernet, Carmenere, Chile (about $12, retail)


  • 2006 Honig Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $49, retail)

Revisiting Spain’s fine sherry, rich Rioja

Spain is one of the most exciting countries for wine enthusiasts to explore. In a quarter of a century, Spanish winemakers have progressed from mostly low-tech production for local markets to promising and innovative exporters. High-quality wines are emerging to satisfy the world’s undeniable thirst for new and exciting styles.

Many think of sherry as the classic Spanish wine. But in the past 10 years, the image of this abiding drink has suffered a setback. It’s sometimes viewed as that oxidized bottle sitting on a bar shelf or part of a restaurant wine list’s cheap and sweet offerings. This is changing as producers market sherry as the “new” drink and attract younger wine consumers. Fino sherry, a bone-dry style served fresh and chilled as an aperitif, is one example.

Apart from sherry, Spain’s most recognized wine is Rioja, named for a northern province. This region has seen tremendous growth in recent years, thanks mostly to the production of good quality wines at reasonable prices. Gone are the dried-out, bland red wines of the past.

Today’s Riojas, made mostly from the tempranillo grape, can be young, fresh and fruity, or robust, complex and age-worthy.

Rias Baixas, located in Spain’s northwest corner, is another exciting wine region. Its cool climate is ideal for growing the Albarino grape, which produces a crisp, fresh and fragrant wine. It is best described as having the peachy aroma of a Viognier and the flowery spice of a Riesling.

The future seems bright for Spain’s wine industry. If you’re looking for more diversity in your wine buying without spending a lot, consider exploring these Spanish wines.


  • 2005 Campo Viejo Crianza Rioja (about $15 retail)
  • 2007 Laxas Albarino Rias Baixas (about $17 retail)


  • 2003 El Coto Crianza Rioja (about $24 retail)
  • 2007 Vionta Albarino Rias Baixas (about $23 retail)
  • 2004 Marques de Riscal Rioja (about $27 retail)