The Grapevine

Wines that will surprise you — for $15 or less

Special to The TribuneMarch 18, 2014 

Syrah, such as the 2011 J. Lohr South Ridge Syrah, can offer a lot of flavor for a modest price.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Some wine consumers — and a lot of writers and sommeliers — are always on the lookout for the new and unusual. They talk enthusiastically about wines ranging from assyrtiko to zweigelt.

I love esoteric, surprising wines as much as anyone. But I, too, can be guilty of giving them disproportionate attention. After all, such wines aren’t even part of the vocabulary of most wine drinkers.

Chardonnay is by far the best-selling varietal wine in this country by dollar volume, followed by cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio/gris, according to wine sales data from Nielsen. The vast majority of sales are for bottles costing less than $15.

If you’re a regular consumer of such wines, you’ve probably come across some pretty ordinary ones. So let me offer some suggestions. And because I like to see wine drinkers expand their horizons, I’m also offering alternative wines that have flavor profiles similar to those of the usual suspects.

CHARDONNAY: A lot of inexpensive California chardonnay is simply too sweet, with very little varietal character. I often have better luck with imports. For example, the 2012 Laroche Chardonnay de la Chevaliere ($13), a wine from southern France produced by a vintner based in Chablis, offers bright lemon and green apple flavors with some fleshiness. The 2012 Hardy’s “Nottage Hill” Chardonnay ($14) from Australia is on the citrusy side.

ALTERNATIVES: A white Rhône-style blend can offer the weight of chardonnay, and some from France are quite affordable, like the 2012 La Vieille Ferme Luberon Blanc ($9), with its racy peach and citrus flavors. The Halter Ranch 2012 Côtes de Paso Blanc ($28), a Rhône-style white blend which is more than half grenache blanc, offers ample juicy white stone fruit flavors, a lemony note, some fleshiness and a racy core. A great chardonnay alternative.

CABERNET SAUVIGNON: Inexpensive cabernet is often more palatable than merlot, which can be terribly astringent. Two to consider are the 2012 Trinity Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon ($8), a savory wine with red fruit, cracked pepper and a hint of olive, and the 2011 Edna Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15), which displays lively black currant and plum and a hint of black olive.

ALTERNATIVES: Dare I suggest it? Syrah, which has fallen out of favor, can offer a lot of flavor for a modest price. For example, the 2011 J. Lohr “South Ridge” Syrah ($15) is lively and spicy, with a note of white pepper. The 2011 Altano ($9) is a red table wine from the Portuguese region that produces Port; it’s a great value, with lively blackberry fruit, a peppery note and firm tannins.

PINOT GRIS/GRIGIO: My chief complaints about cheap pinot gris/grigio are that it can be insipid and/or bitter. These two are a bit more expensive, but they’re worth it. From Italy, the 2012 DaVinci Pinot Grigio ($15) is racy and a little spritzy, with citrusy fruit, while its California counterpart, the 2012 J California Pinot Gris ($15), is fleshier and more tropical. ALTERNATIVES: Sauvignon blanc has a similar fresh, unoaked profile. For example, the 2012 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc ($10) from New Zealand is fresh and pungent, with pink grapefruit and some herbal notes, but it’s not overly grassy. Another choice would be chenin blanc, like the zippy, refreshing 2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc ($12).

Email Laurie Daniel at ladaniel@earthlink.net.

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