Off-brand whites

Please, try something besides chardonnay. In 2006, almost one out of every four wine dollars was spent on chardonnay. That not only makes it the top-selling varietal in the U.S., according to The Nielsen Company, with almost twice the sales of cabernet sauvignon, but puts chardonnay so far ahead of every other white wine that it’s kind of spooky.

In the Nielsen report, consumers bought three times as much chardonnay as pinot grigio and pinot gris, and six times as much chardonnay as saugvinon blanc. Riesling was barely mentioned, and viognier and gewurtztraminer weren’t even counted. Now, the Wine Curmudgeon loves chardonnay as much as the next oenophile, but enough is enough. There is more white wine than chardonnay.

How has this happened? Some of it, certainly, has to do with pronunciation. Chardonnay is easier to say, which means it gets ordered more often in restaurants. Some of it is style. Not only is most chardonnay fruit-forward and easy to drink (with less citrusy flavors), but it’s consistent There are differences between producers and regions, but chardonnay is pretty much chardonnay regardless of who makes it and where it’s from. That isn’t true for pinot grigio and gris, for example, where it’s sometimes difficult to believe the Italians and Alsatians use the same grape.

But that doesn’t mean you need to drink chardonnay all the time. The next time you reach for the usual, think about one of these:

Gainey Riesling 2006 ($10). I was pleasantly surprised by this California label, which is just a touch sweet (or, as it’s called in the trade, off-dry). It has riesling’s characteristic floral aromas, with a bit of peach-like flavor. Serve this chilled with spicy Chinese or Thai food, and it should even work with roasted turkey.

White Knight Viognier 2006 ($13). Viognier, a Rhone grape often used for blending, has had fair success as a varietal in the U.S. This California wine is dry, but very soft without any harsh tannins or oak. Look for the orange-ish bouquet and a peach pit kind of finish. Serve chilled with chicken braised in white wine, using this for the wine.

Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc 2006 ($17). This dry white from South Africa, which is fruitier (think tropical flavors) than its French counterpart and doesn’t have the earthy funkiness that plagues so many South African wines. Serve it chilled with roast pork loin and apples.

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Texas wine surprises

ImagesMost of us who drink wine in Texas know about Ste. Genevieve, the state ?s largest producer, a company whose bottles are everywhere from convenience stores to high-end wine shops. Some of us know about the most popular wines from some of the most popular wineries, like Messina Hof and Fall Creek. And some of us even know about several excellent smaller wineries, despite the fact that their products aren ?t widely distributed.

But not enough of us know enough about the rest of the wine that ?s available in the state. That ?s because we stick to cabernet, merlot and chardonnay, which are three varietals, frankly, that aren ?t especially representative of the best wine in Texas. For whatever reasons ? timidity, ignorance, and yes, even snobbery ? we won ?t venture far from that cabernet-merlot-chardonnay path.

Which is a shame, because there is a lot of interesting, intriguing and fascinating Texas wine to drink that has nothing to do with those three grapes. Quality in Texas has never been better, and that ?s because more and more wine makers have learned that they can make terrific wine with Italian, Spanish and Mediterranean varietals, with hybrids, and even with fruit like muscadines.

Does this wine taste like it came from California (which, unfortunately, has apparently been one of the goals of Texas industry for far too long)? Nope. And there is nothing wrong with that, since wine made here should not taste like California wine. If it does, what ?s the point of drinking it?

If you know that, then you ?re ready for 10 Texas wines that will surprise you:

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The eight-step program to enjoying wine

Img7_2 1. The best wine is wine that you like. If you don’t like it, don’t drink it. Or, as the legendary Josh Wesson says, "Would you eat chocolate ice cream just becaue I told you to, even though you like vanilla better?"

2. Don’t be afraid to try something different.

3. Price is not always an indication of quality. Inexpensive wine can be well-made, just like expensive wine.

4. Wine is supposed to be fun.

5. Wine snobs are not fun.

6. Wine speak is for wine snobs.

7. Wine is not rocket science. Anyone can learn about wine, as long as they’re willing to drink it.

8. Wine and food pairings, no matter how good, are just suggestions. The wine police will not come and arrest you if you drink white wine with beef or red wine with chicken. In fact, red wine and roast chicken are good together.

$10 Wine Hall of Fame (2007)

$10 Wine Hall of Fame (2007) There is very little good news in the fifth annual Cheap Wine extravaganza, and the prospects for 2008 ?s lineup in January seem quite gloomy. Two wines dropped out this year, not able to maintain quality with their sub-$10 price. In addition, it was not a good year for new inexpensive wine, a development that doesn ?t bode well for the next 12 months.

Increasingly, wineries, producers and marketers seem to be spending their money on packaging and advertising instead of what ?s in the bottle. And as consolidation increases ? the legendary Bonny Doon was sold in 2006, and who knows what will happen to the quality of the wine? ? that ?s a trend that will only continue.

Still, there is some outstanding wine available, worthy of being included in the Cheap Wine Hall of Fame. Wine that qualifies costs $10 or less per bottle, is available in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (which means no Two-buck Chuck or other regional brands), and passes a rigorous tasting process which includes my nagging people until they tell me what they think of it.

The 2007 results:

? New this year: the Jewel Collection, a fancy name for some really smart wine guys, who have figured out how to combine price and quality. Most of their 10 California wines are wonderful values, and the petite sirah is especially good.

? Dropping out: Zenato Pinot Grigio and Texas ?s Ste. Genevieve Chardonnay. The former, which used to offer a lively character, now tastes like too many inexpensive Italian pinot grigios. The latter had a 20 percent price increase in 2006, and doesn ?t provide anywhere near the same value.

? On watch for next year: Bonny Doon ?s Big House Red, White, Pink and Pacific Rim Riesling. Bonny Doon owner Randall Grahm sold these brands as part of a reported $50 million deal. It ?s hard to fault his business acumen, but will the new owners have the same wine skills or interest in quality?

? The Hall of Fame: Old dependables are the $10 members of California ?s Bogle Vineyards line; Osborne Solaz, a Spanish red blend; Benziger Fume Blanc, the California winery ?s version of sauvignon blanc, and Cristalino, the Spanish sparkling wine. Carryovers from last year are Chateau Ducla, a white Bordeaux blend, Domaine Pichot Vouvray, a French chenin blanc; and the red, white and rose from the Italian producer Falesco Vitiano.

? Wine that could be included in 2008: Altano Douro, a $7 Portuguese red blend. A couple of tasters said to stop waffling and include it, but let ?s wait for this year ?s release first . Also, Beaulieu Vineyard Beauzeaux, a red blend that I expected to dislike on name alone, but which turned out to be quite nice; and Little Penguin merlot, which keeps surprising me with its quality.

? The honorable mention wines, or if they didn ?t cost $15, they ?d be in: The rose, brut and extra dry sparklers from New Mexico ?s Gruet Winery. Also, the $15 zinfandels and the Chateau La Paws red and white blends from California ?s Rosenblum Cellars.

? Inexpensive wines that a lot of people enjoy but that aren ?t in. Australia ?s Yellow Tail, which I have really tried to like; California ?s Rex Goliath, which seems too inconsistent to include; and Barefoot Wine, which falls into much the same category as Rex Goliath.