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?
The Falesco Est! Est!! Est!!! is legendary cheap wine, and the only reason that I don’t review it more often is because the only store in Dallas that carries it always sells out. (That no one else carries it speaks to how most retailers feel about cheap wine in Dallas).
What do you need to know about the Falesco Est ($8, sample, 12%)? That it’s made by the Cotarella family, which gives us Vitiano and so much other quality cheap and moderately-priced wine. That it’s a white blend made with trebbiano, the Italian version of my beloved ugni blanc and a grape that gets as much respect from wine geeks as I would at a Wine Spectator editorial meeting. That it’s tart and lemony with a little white fruit and quite refreshing, but not very complex and also not very demanding on the drinker.
In this, it’s exactly what cheap wine should be — well-made, affordable, and something you can drink without having to consult scores, pairing charts, or wine websites. Consider it the Italian equivalent of the Rene Barbier white — not quite Hall of Fame material, but dependable and enjoyable. Isn’t that what cheap wine should be?
Grocery store wine, and especially grocery store wine from the biggest companies, takes a lot of abuse on the blog (and deservedly so). So when Big Wine does grocery store wine right, it’s worth noting, and that’s why you’re reading about the Banfi CollePino.
Banfi is among the top 20 biggest producers in the U.S. which makes the Banfi CollePino ($9, sample, 13%) all that much more interesting. That’s because it shows what Big Wine can do when it aims for more then technical correctness — that is, boring wine made without any flaws. In this, the CollePino is varietally correct, so that it’s made with sangiovese and tastes like sangiovese, with the telltale tart cherry fruit, a certain freshness, and soft tannins. It’s also worth noting that these wines need some oak to temper the, bu that it it has almost no oak and yet what little oak there is has done its job. This is a testament to Big Wine’s technical ability.
But that may not be the CollePino’s greatest asset. It’s made with a bit of merlot, which softens the sangiovese and produces a wine that’s soft enough so that it won’t scare off the grocery store smooth wine drinkers who are, I assume, its target audience. But those of us who want more than smooth should also be happy, and especially if we drink it with anything with red sauce. Highly recommended, and candidate for the 2017 $10 Hall of Fame.
A Kermit Lynch red wine for $15? Do I even need to write a review for the Domaine d’Aupilhac Lou Maset?
Kermit Lynch, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is the legendary importer whose name on a label means quality wine at a more than fair price. One can buy Kermit Lynch wines without a second thought, and the Domaine d’Aupilhac Lou Maset ($15, purchased, 13%) is no exception. That it is less than $20 is a double bonus.
This is a red Rhone blend (mostly grenache and cinsault) from the Languedoc in southern France, and combines a modern, fruity style with solid, traditional French winemaking. That means it has the earthiness I love, but more red fruit from the grenache than I expected. The cinsualt, meanwhile, adds spiciness, and the whole combines for a surprisingly sophisticated wine with a longish finish and soft tannins that puts most $15 California grocery store plonk to shame.
It’s heavy enough to need food (roast chicken, roast lamb, or even hamburgers), but not in an old-fashioned, unpleasant way. Highly recommended; I bought the Lou Maset to see if it was worth reviewing and enjoyed it so much I bought another bottle a couple of days later. That I buy a second bottle of a $15 wine that quickly happens about as often as I find $15 California grocery store plonk to write about.
How impressive is the Cristalino Brut Rose? It has remained one of the best buys in the wine world despite corporate upset and a lawsuit that forced it to change its name; the arrival of more hip and expensive cavas, the Spanish sparkling wine; and the usual changing of wine tastes.
Somehow, though, the Cristalino Brut Rose ($10, purchased, 11.5%) is still the kind of wine you can buy without a second thought, knowing you’ll get value for money and that it will be fun to drink. I’m convinced that the secret, other than Cristalino’s commitment, is using the trepat grape, which tempers the wine’s fruitiness and adds a layer of Spanishness.
This is a clean and crisp wine with tight bubbles, some cranberry and cherry fruit, and even a little toastiness, which one usually doesn’t get in a $10 bubbly. Drink this chilled on its own, or with almost any kind of meal that isn’t beefy red meat. It’s terrific with takeout Chinese, fried chicken, or hamburgers. Highly recommended, and assured of its place in the $10 Hall of Fame for another year.
When I started doing this, Alsatian wine was one of the world’s great values and the Hugel Gentil was $10 Hall of Fame quality wine. Then the euro gained in value against the dollar, the Alsatians didn’t try told the line on price, and that was that. There were still nice wines, but didn’t offer the value they once had.
Fast forward to 2016, when wine value is going to hell in a handbasket. The Hugel Gentil ($13, purchased, 12.5%) is about the same price it was five or six years ago, but given how much junk is out there at $13, it has become a value once again. Which pleased the Wine Curmudgeon, not only because I like the wine but because it once helped someone who didn’t drink much wine impress several business colleagues when she picked it off a confusing wine list.
In this, the Hugel Gentil is an old standby that remains all that it should be — a soft, enjoyable, riesiing-ish blend that is made with riesling as well as most of the white grapes grown in the Alsace region of France. It’s not sweet, but it is comfortable and easy, with ripe white fruit and and a flowery aroma. It’s the kind of wine that fits nicely between all the sweet riesling with cute labels that give riesling a bad name and those gorgeous German rieslings that we can’t afford to buy.
Drink this chilled on its own, or pair with with almost any grilled or sauteed fish.
During last week’s judging at the Texsom International Wine Awards, another judge and I were commiserating about how difficult it had to become to find value in California, and just not at my price range. Fortunately, the judge told me, there is always Spain and Italy.
Which is about the best way possible to introduce the Farnese Fantini sangiovese ($10, purchased, 12%), an Italian red wine from Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast west of Rome. Cheap wine doesn’t get much better than this; it’s as if the last couple of years of premiumization and dumbing down wine never happened. The Fantini (Farnese is the producer) is surprisingly layered and rich for a $10 sangiovese, with almost sour cherry fruit, black pepper, and what the tasting notes call a wood flavor, an intriguing way to describe how sort of oaky it is.
The other thing I liked? That it tasted like sangiovese, but didn’t taste like the $10 sangioveses from Umbria, about two hours north or Abruzzo, or those from Tuscany, another couple of hours north. In this, we get a chance to taste terroir for our $10, and how often does that happen with cheap wine?
Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2017 $10 Hall of Fame. Pair the Fantini with red sauce, of course, but don’t be afraid to try it with grilled meats and beef stews.