The wine of the week alternates between red and white, with an occasional rose and sparkling. Ideally, where the wine comes from should rotate in the same way, with each part of the world getting its share.
Which, unfortunately, is not how the wine of the week works. There just isn’t enough quality cheap wine from California for it to take its turn, and France is getting closer to California in terms of price and value than I thought possible. Chile and Argentina are becoming increasingly one note and over-priced, so the wine of the week is becoming more Spain and Italy than ever before.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, given that our goal here is to search for price and value and those countries do it better than almost anywhere else. Case in point is the Casteggio Barbera ($9, purchased, 12.5%), another reason why you don’t have to pay lots of money for quality wine.
Barbera is an Italian grape best known for what it does in the Piedmont region, where it’s the second varietal to the more famous nebbiolo, but produces great wines in its own right. The Casteggio Barbera from Lombardi shows why it’s so popular – simple and rustic, with tart fruit (raspberries, cherries?), and light tannins. There is lots of acidity (something barbera is famous for), so this is a food wine and not necessarily something to gulp down when you get home from work. Pair it with sausages and pot roast with a tomato-style gravy.
Maybe the Angels & Cowboys rose isn’t the greatest rose in the history of the world, and maybe the Wine Curmudgeon’s enthusiasm for it is a bit overblown.
And then again, maybe not.
The Angels & Cowboys rose ($15, sample, 12.8%) won a platinum medal at this year’s Critics Challenge. I tasted it blind with San Francisco wine critic Leslie Sbrocco, who almost went more gaga than I did. We looked at each after we tasted it, shook our heads in disbelief, and started with the superlatives. Later, I tasted it with a friend who loves rose as much as I do, and he said it was so good he could give up red and white wine and drink only rose from then on.
So expect to taste complexity that is not only rare in a rose, but rare in most wines at this price. Look for wonderful crispness, a Provencal-like minerality, and tart fruit (cranberry?), and then some soft fruit (cherry?) in the back. The wine almost smells like a flowery spring day, and if that’s corny and not something that I usually write, then so be it.
Highly recommended, either on its own or with almost anything you can think of to eat with it, including a massive piece of red meat from the grill. This is the kind of wine that liberates my soul from the grocery store junk that I have to drink too much of to do my job, and is the perfect rose to lead into this week’s ninth annul Memorial Day and rose wine extravaganza.
The biggest mistake I made with this wine was not buying a case after I tasted the first bottle. But I only bought two bottles the next time, and the Les Maurins was gone the third time I went back to the store.
Which is the catch for the Les Maurins ($7, purchased, 12%) – otherwise a $10 Hall of Fame wine. It’s an Aldi product in the U.S. (though apparently widely available in Europe), which means availability is always going to be a problem.
Which is incredibly frustrating, because this is a great cheap wine – not quite as well done as the $10 Chateau Bonnet Blanc, but very well done and so much better than most of the wine that costs $7 that I have to taste. For one thing, it’s a white wine from the Bordeaux region of France that tastes like white Bordeaux, with lemon-lime fruit, chalky minerality, and a very clean finish. It’s not too citrusy or too fruity, two common problems with cheap white Bordeaux (much of which isn’t all that cheap at $12 to $15).
So those of us in the 33 states with Aldi stores should watch for the Les Maurins. There is also a $7 Les Maurins red Bordeaux, which is apparently as equally as well made as the white and is a big hit in Australia. Hopefully, that will show up here sooner rather than later.
The embarrassment of riches that is cheap Spanish wine would intimidate a lesser writer than the Wine Curmudgeon. But I will continue to write about great cheap Spanish wine like the Ontanon Rioja until the rest of the wine world – yes, that means you, California – gets the message.
The Ontanon Rioja ($13, purchased, 13%) is a modern style of Rioja, the red wine made with tempranillo from the Spanish region of Rioja. That means very fresh and with a touch more vanilla and oak than I like. But who am I to quibble about a little more more oak in a wine that is otherwise delightful?
All the parts are there for a well-made and enjoyable Rioja — bright tart cherry fruit, the hint of orange peel, and the earthiness that so many other wines leave out because they don’t want to offend the so-called U.S. palate. Note to wine marketers: If I wanted Dr Pepper, I’d drink Dr Pepper.
Highly recommended, and an ideal wine for spring and summer cookouts, whether burgers or chicken. My only regret? That it’s not a couple of dollars cheaper, so I could put it in the 2017 $10 Hall of Fame.
Does Mom like white wine? Do you want to spend more than $10 since it’s wine for Mother’s Day? Then enjoy the Pio Cesare Arneis ($15, purchased, 13%). If all $15 wine tasted like this, the Wine Curmudgeon would drink more $15 wine.
Arneis is a rare Piedmontese white grape usually used for blending in expensive red wine, or to make flabby, simple stuff that we rarely see much in this country. The Pio Cesare Arneis, on the other hand, gives this grape a respect it has rarely had. I first tasted it four years ago, where it was almost an afterthought during a lunch that included most of the great red wines from Pio Cesare, one of Italy’s top producers.
This vintage (which was about one-quarter less expensive than the first Arneis, and no, I don’t know why) was even more enjoyable. Look for white pepper, some subtle white fruit that stays just out of recognition, and that is still amazingly fresh even though it’s a three-year-old white wine in this era of drink it or toss it. It’s also rounder and fuller than most $15 white wines, without the acidic edges that even some chardonnays at that price have.
Highly recommended, especially if you want to try something other than chardonnay and more green apple fruit and fake vanilla. Drink it on its own to toast Mom, or with any sort of Mother’s Day brunch.
Want to find out what real verdejo tastes like? Want to strike a blow for quality, terroir and value? Then buy the Arrumaco Verdejo. Its importer, Handpicked Selections, is one of those well-run but too small companies that are being squeezed by consolidation and premiumization.
The Arrumaco Verdejo ($9, purchased, 12%) is a $10 Hall of Fame wine from a Spanish producer that also does a Hall of Fame quality rose. As such, it’s completely different from the grocery store plonk that we’re expected to drink; it has interest and character and exists to do more than to be smooth.
Look for white fruit flavors and aromas (apricot?), plus a certain rich feel in the mouth that I didn’t expect and the touch of almond and lemon peel that top-notch verdejo is supposed to have. I couldn’t believe how well done this wine was after the first bottle, and went back and bought a couple more just to be sure.
Highly recommended. Drink this chilled on its own or with grilled fish, and it would also match a summer salad with lots of fresh herbs.
Columbia Winery’s Sean Hails is refreshingly honest, given that many winemakers aren’t always happy to answer the questions I like to ask: Why this oak level, why this alcohol level, and what was the thought behind putting this wine together?
Hails, though, had no qualms about any of that. He said he makes this non-vintage red blend from Washington state for one of E&J Gallo’s recent acquisitions within the framework that Gallo sets, but also with an eye to what he thinks the wine should be.
And the two are not contradictory. The Columbia Winery Composition ($14, sample, 13.8%) includes the softness that is a Gallo hallmark, but it also tastes like it came from Washington state. The blend is mostly merlot and syrah, with sweet cherry and blackberry fruit, a little pepper and spice, and surprising structural acidity. The softness is mostly in the tannins, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Pair the Composition with grilled meat and chicken — a Sunday spring afternoon on the back porch, perhaps?