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2011 $10 Wine Hall of Fame

This should have been a grand and glorious $10 Wine Hall of Fame. The recession forced consumers to drink down, and we’re buying more cheap wine than ever before — and, hopefully, learning that we don’t have to pay too much money or attention to scores to find quality wine. In fact, I added six wines to the fifth annual Hall this year, because there was that much great $10 wine to find.

But I also tasted way too much flabby and dull $10 wine in 2010, and especially from California. Producers, apparently, were throwing anything in a bottle that they could sell for $10 or less, regardless of quality, in order to attract customers. The result was wine that tasted as if it had been made to a formula, and a cynical one at that. Call it the white zinfandel style — lots of sweet fruit and not much else. So it should be no coincidence that no California wines made the Hall this year.

That’s why the 2011 Hall of Fame a mixed bag. Yes, six wines were added, but four dropped out: La Ferme de Gicon, a red blend from the Rhone, which was lacking this year; vini merlot from Bulgaria and the Lockwood sauvignon blanc, which apparently aren ?t available in the Dallas area any more; and Meridian ?s chardonnay, which tasted nothing like last year ?s vintage. In this, the Meridian seemed to demonstrate what was wrong with California’s approach to wine last year — dumb it down, spend less on it, and figure no one will notice.

One other 2011 note: I’m establishing a special place in the Hall — call it the Asterisk Wing — for the Vitiano red, white and rose made by the great Riccardo Cotarella. These Italian wines are sometimes $10 and sometimes $11, and it’s kind of silly to keep moving them in and out of the Hall because the dollar fluctuates against the euro or because retailers are playing with margin.

The new members are:

? Chateau Barat, a French rose and an incredible wine. It started with lots of strawberry fruit and then morphed into something with a long, minerally finish — and does it with only 12 percent alcohol.

? Casamatta Toscana, perhaps the best cheap sangiovese I’ve ever had. Price note: This wine, like the Vitianos, is apparently $10 in places other than Dallas.

? Chateau Boisson, a white French wine that is “about as close as I have come to finding older-style white Bordeauxs that don’t taste like New Zealand sauvignon blanc.”

? Ch teau Parench re Bordeaux Blanc Sec, a white Bordeaux that is pleasantly floral and fruity (lime and melon?), but with a firm backbone.

? Marqu s de C ceres Rioja Rosado, a grocery store Spanish rose that “is full of strawberry fruit, is bone dry, offers great value, and is barbecue friendly on a 100-degree Texas afternoon.”

? Anne Aimee Muller-Thurgau Cuvee A, an Oregon white wine that is “somewhere between an off-dry German riesling and an old-style gewurtztraminer — sweetish but also spicy.” A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Jennifer Uygur, who sold me this wine and then gave up retail in 2010 to open a restaurant with her husband. Good luck, Jennifer and David.

The holdover wines are:

? The chenin blanc, CNW, and a chenin blanc-viognier blend, Chenin Vio, from Vinum Cellars in California. One caveat: These wines are not $10 everywhere, and the CNW seems to be in short supply.

? Notorius, a white wine from Sicily. This was just one of almost a dozen Sicilian wines that cost $10 or less and offer spectacular value, almost all of which are worthy of inclusion.

? The $10 wines from California ?s Bogle Vineyards, and especially the petite sirah.

? Cristalino, the Spanish sparkling wine, which comes in brut (dry), extra dry (sweeter than brut) and rose.

? California ?s Toad Hollow pinot noir rose.

? The Yellow+Blue box wines, and especially the malbec, about $12 for a 1-liter box.

? Domaine Tariquet, a white blend from Gascony, which is the representative for several other Gascon wines made with obscure grapes that deserve to be better known.

Previous $10 Wine Hall of Fames:
? 2010
? 2009
? 2008
? 2007

2011 $10 Wine Hall of Fame preview

The work is mostly done for the fifth annual $10 Wine Hall of Fame, which will appear on the blog on Jan. 3. I'm still doing some fine tuning, but most of the decisions about which wines will drop out and which wines will be added have been made.

We're even going to do a special Internet radio kickoff for the 2011 $10 Hall — 8 p.m. central on Jan. 2 on Olivia Wilder's Art of Living program on Blog Talk Radio. Olivia and I will talk about the wines, take questions from listeners, and field queries from the show's chat room.

The good news is that there were many great $10 wines in 2010, and I'll probably add a half dozen or so to the Hall. The recession focused consumer attention on cheap wine, and wine drinkers discovered that they didn't have to pay $15 or $20 or more for quality wine.

The bad news is that I tasted way too many flabby and dull $10 wines over the past year, and especially $10 wines from California. Lots of producers were apparently throwing anything in a bottle that they could find to sell for $10 or less, regardless of quality, in order to lure all those customers who had discovered cheap wine during the recession. Or, sadly, they were downgrading the quality of the wine to keep their margins up, figuring their customers were too stupid to know the difference.

The results, too often, were not pleasant. So call the 2011 edition a mixed case — some fine wines, but lots of disappointment.

Wine review: Bolla Valpolicella 2009

This is the first wine I ever drank. It is, in fact, the first wine I have any memory of. In the 1970s, if you were a “serious” wine drinker in the United States, you drank French Beaujolais, California burgundy or chablis (which were not necessarily pinot noir or chardonnay), German liebfraumilch, Lancers and Mateus rose, or the Italian Bolla. My father, an Italophile, drank the Bolla.

Which meant I did, too. I brought it with me with when I went to someone’s house for dinner. I bought it to impress girls (one of my first big dates, actually). I had no idea whether the wine was any good. I knew very little about wine 30 years ago; the Bolla was wine, and that was good enough.

Bolla, as a brand, mostly disappeared in the 1990s. It was bought and sold several times, and I had not seen it in years. And then, at the grocery store this week, there it was. I checked with my Italian wine expert, who told me, yes, the current owners dusted the brand off, changed the label, and are bringing it back.

Memory is part of wine, as much as the grapes or the soil. This is one of Alfonso Cevola’s favorite themes, that it’s not just what the wine tastes like now, but what we remember of the tasting — who we were with, where we were, what we were doing when we tasted it. So when I opened the Bolla ($6, purchased), I was thinking about my dad and Chicago in the 1970s and the girls I bought it for. The Wine Curmudgeon was sipping and analyzing, but Jeff Siegel was remembering.

So maybe this is memory talking. Maybe the Bolla isn’t what I tasted the other day — young and disjointed, yes, but fresh and clean, with a funky Italian nose and lots of sour cherry fruit. It’s an incredible value at this price, a wine for winter stews and red meat and tomato sauce. And, of course, for memory.

Holiday gift guide 2010

A few thoughts for the wine drinkers on your list. Keep in mind our wine gift-giving guidelines ("Don't buy someone wine that you think they should like; buy them what they will like") and Champagne and sparkling wine glossary.

? $10 wine: Volteo, five Spanish wines that combine quality, value and approachability. I especially liked the tempranillo and a white blend made with viura, viognier and sauvignon blanc (which I haven't reviewed yet, and might be better than the tempranillo). These wines will likely end up in the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame.

? Regional wine: Have someone on your list who likes wine, but can be difficult to buy for? Then think regional. There is New York riesling, Texas viognier, Virginia red blends, Missouri norton, New Mexican sparkling, and Pennsylvania chambourcin — to name just a few.

? A top-flight corkscrew: The best corkscrews are double-hinged — the part of the corkscrew that rests against the top of the bottle has two parts, which makes pulling the cork that much easier. Best yet, they cost as little as $10.

? Wine books: Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course and The Wine Trials 2011. Yes, I recommend the Zraly book all the time, but that's because it's that good. I even give it as a gift. This is the new version of the Wine Trials, which rates wines that cost $15 and less, and is up to its usual standards.

? Expensive wine: My standby is Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, a $50 wine that offers depth and  complexity. It's white Burgundy, which means chardonnay, but not like chardonnay that most of us have ever had. My red wine choice is HDV's Belle Cousine, a $60 merlot blend from Napa made by Burgundy native Stephane Vivier.

More about holiday wine gifts:
? Holiday book gift guide 2009
? Holiday wines 2009
? Expensive wine 21: Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
? Holiday wine in a hurry

Wine of the week: Eco Balance Carm n re 2009

The Wine Curmudgeon, once a huge fan of Chilean wine, has become mostly ambivalent over the past several years. Too many Chilean wine have gone from being cheap and well done to just cheap. Labels that had once I counted on, like the Veramonte sauvignon blanc, have morphed into just another grocery store wine. Blame the weak dollar for much of this, but the Chileans have been turning out a lot of ordinary wine as well.

That's why the Eco Balance ($10, sample) was so welcome. Carmenere is a tricky grape to work with, and the Chileans are still trying to figure out what to do with it, especially for cheaper wines. I didn't expect much with this, and at first sip there wasn't much there. But let it open a bit, and you'll find lots of cherry fruit, something that tastes like fake oak but that isn't cheesy, and healthy tannins. The tannins were a nice touch; most wines at this price either have no tannins at all or tannins that are so harsh they grate your tongue. It's a beef wine, probably best suited for burgers and meat loaf.

And yes, it is eco-friendly. Emiliana, the producer, does three green wines — biodynamic, organic, and the Eco, which is produced using environmentally protective farming practices.

Consumer Reports’ top wines

One would think that it would be incredibly difficult to rate wine as if it was a refrigerator. There are objective measurements for refrigerators — how well does it maintain temperature? — and hardly any for wine.

Nevertheless, Consumer Reports, which has been rating products for some 80 years, does wine. I don't know that I agree with all of the choices in the December issue (a famous critter wine made it), but I can't argue with their methodology. This is about as objective as wine tasting gets.

"We're very specific about what we're looking for," says Maxine Siegel (no relation), who oversees the wine project for the magazine. "There are acceptable standards that we're looking for. And it does have to be a tasty wine."

More, after the jump:

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