Category:$10 wine

Getting an updated look at South African wine

South Africa, I’m told by people who should know these things, has the right climate and the right soils to make quality wine. It’s supposed to be one of the next great regions for sauvignon blanc.

But its wines still do not have the best reputation. One reason is that the country’s national grape, pinotage, is an acquired taste. Another is that its modern industry dates only to the end of apartheid, and it’s difficult to accomplish much in the wine business in just a couple of decades.

But I made my way through a dozen or so South African wines yesterday, and was impressed with the improvement. The high-end wines were still uneven, but on the lower end — $15 and down, and especially at $10 and less — there were quite a few winners:

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Tuesday tidbits

? Beard award nominations: The James Beard awards, the food world’s equivalent of the Oscars, has announced its 2008 nominations.  What is most noticeable are the categories that didn’t include any Dallas-area restaurants, especially outstanding wine service. Many people here think this is one of the best restaurant cities in the country, but this does not seem to be the view elsewhere. Personally, I’m not surprised about the wine snub. Save for a couple of places like Pappas Bros. and Cafe on the Green, this is a lousy wine restaurant town. Prices are way too high and wine lists are predictable and unimaginative. They’re also sadly lacking in Texas wine, which is unacceptable in a town that prides itself on regional cuisine.

Bottle Image ? A $3 wine winner: Oak Leaf Vineyards, run by the negociant firm The Wine Group, has won a bunch of medals, including a gold for its chardonnay, at several recent wine competitions. It’s available only at Wal-Marts that sell wine for $1.97 in California and $2.97 elsewhere.  I have not tasted this brand, but will do so and report back. The Wine Group is best known for buying the Big House labels from Randall Grahm a couple of years ago.

? Italian wine class: Alfonso Cevola, who is extremely tolerant of the Wine Curmudgeon’s personality, knows more about Italian wine than almost anyone. So it’s a big deal that he is going to hold a three-part Italian wine class in Dallas, starting at the end of this month. It will cover northern Italy, central Italy, and the South and the islands. The sessions are a warm-up for more in-depth classes later this year for Intermediate and  advanced Italian wine lovers. You can register on line or contact (214-794-0978) for information.

Tuesday tidbits

? Cheap Chilean wine: Spend any time with Chilean winemakers, and you notice two things. First, how young everyone in the business is, and second, that the inexpensive wines are so well made. Case in point: Calina, some very nice $8 wine from a company affiliated with Kendall-Jackson, made by winemaker Marcela Chandia. I didn’t ask (politeness, of course), but she graduated from college in 1999, which means she probably isn’t 30 yet. I was especially impressed by the chardonnay, with more fruit than oak, and the carmenere.

? Rosenblum update: Top zinfandel producer Kent Rosenblum reports that he will stay with his winery for three years after it was bought by massive Diageo. Rosenblum told the San Francisco Chronicle that Diageo was clear that it wouldn’t make big changes. “They want to keep the culture,” he said.

image ? Paul Newman wines: Yes, that Paul Newman. His Newman’s Own food company has released a California cabernet and chardonnay, about $16 each. The project is a joint venture with Rebel Wine, which is affiliated with Three Thieves, best known for the quality wine it sells in jugs and juice boxes.

What about $6 wine?

image One of the things that I always tell my students (or anyone else, for that matter) is never to judge wine before you’ve tasted it. There might be many reasons to be skeptical — price, alcohol content, the grapes it’s made with, producer — but none of that matters until you take the first sip.

So what did I do when I received samples of BV’s Century Cellars line? Stuck it in the back of the wine closet, figuring it couldn’t be any good because it only cost $6 a bottle.

Shows how much I know.

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Wine of the week: Ajello Bianca 2006

image Those of us who love cheap wine love to share cheap wine finds, which means I’ve been getting whispers about Sicilian wine for a couple of years.

The quality of Sicilian wine has improved dramatically in the past decade, while prices have stayed pretty much the same. That’s because Sicily gets very little respect from the wine snobs. In addition, most Sicilian wine is made with grapes only a master sommelier has ever heard of, which makes it more difficult to sell

The Ajello is a perfect example of all of that. It’s cheap (list price is $12, so it’s probably available for around $10 at some places) and it tastes great. Really, really great. It’s a white wine, but without any of the off-putting turpentine flavors in similarly priced pinot grigio. Instead, it’s clean, clear, and crisp, with a mineral-like finish. Don’t expect much fruit — just a bit of lemon (and you have to look for that). This wine is ideal for shellfish or grilled scallops, any kind of grilled chicken or even just drinking on a slow afternoon.

If the price holds up against the weak dollar, this is definitely a candidate for the 2009 $10 Wine Hall of Fame.

The 2008 $10 Wine Hall of Fame

Take a peek at the upper left hand corner, and you’ll find the new Hall of Fame.

What makes a Hall of Fame wine? There ?s not necessarily a precise explanation. It ?s better than it should be, and it ?s consistent from year to year, just like more expensive wines with better reputations. That ?s one reason wines have been dropped from the Hall of Fame, and several were this year.

Several other notes:

? These wines are generally available in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so I don’t have to get involved in the Two Buck Chuck debate. There are no Trader Joe’s in this part of the country.

? I am not enamored of Yellow Tail, which doesn’t rise above the level of grocery store wine. They may represent good value, but they aren’t Hall of Fame wines.

? I ?m still searching for that terrific $10 Argentine malbec. Most of the malbec I ?ve tasted in this country is $15 or so; good wines, certainly, but not eligible for the Hall of Fame.

? And there is no pinot noir in the U.S. for less than $10 that is Hall worthy. The French labels like Red Bicyclette and Lulu B are easy to drink, but not especially pinot like. And most of the $10 U.S. I have tasted has some varietal character, but almost nothing else.