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Cheap winter thrills

Dining and DrinkingConsumersCookingMarketingViniculture

It's January. It's dark and cold and icy and icky. Holiday bills are coming due. The kids have the flu.

Comfort yourself, a little, with a good bottle of cheap wine.Truly, there's nothing more delicious than a bargain.

Consumers feeling the pinch are already taking steps, going out less and cutting back on higher-priced wines when they do, according to The Nielson Co., a market research firm. Yet, Nielsen notes consumers are reluctant to cut back on wine and other alcoholic beverages at home, viewing them as an "affordable indulgence."

Statistics tell the story.

The strongest sales, both in terms of dollars spent and volume purchased, are for wines priced between $3 and $6, Nielsen's figures show. Hit hardest? Wines priced $15 and above.

Binny's Beverage Depot stores "are seeing an increase in the number of bottles sold, and a small decrease in the price per bottle," said Bill Newton, the company's wine and special events director.

Over at Treasure Island Foods, customers are zeroing in on wine priced from $9 to $13, according to Kathy Kingston, director of wines and spirits.

"It is fun to sell like that, to be honest, because the market is full of goodies," she said. What's not going up, however, are jug sales. Those figures are holding steady.

What to look for in a bargain wine?

"Good color, grapes you may not recognize, a decent label, a wine salesperson or a good sign and a score. All count for something," said Keith Janosik, regional wine manager for Whole Foods Market. "Boring does not count. Bad wine at 5 bucks is still bad wine."

"Value is a big focus, it just has to be interesting on some level," he added. "I steer clear of those overly acidic inexpensive ones."

Madrigal suggests consumers move away from familiar wine labels.

"These well-worn brands always sell, so you're not going to get bargain pricing," he said. "Ask your merchant for hot deals and, more importantly, get on e-mail lists. There are some incredible values we sell via e-mail and they often sell so quickly they don't even make it to the sales floor."

Meanwhile, Nielsen reports a tilt in the United States wine market toward American wine. A year ago consumers were fueling a double-digit growth rate for both domestic wines and imports. But the bad exchange rate made imports pricier, so now domestic wine growth is outpacing imports.

Yet a number of Chicago wine pros still look overseas for value.

Janosik thinks frugal wine buyers should explore wines from South America, Spain and California's Paso Robles region.

Newton also zeroes in on Chile and Spain.

"Chile remains a strong value-oriented wine growing region with good sauvignon blancs that are significantly less than their French, California and New Zealand counterparts," he said. "For reds, I love the value Spanish wines made from garnacha. These wines tend to be medium-bodied, bright and juicy."

Newton also singles out French Cotes du Rhone from the 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages as "excellent bargains."

Michael Scharber of Kafka Wine Co. said to keep an eye on the price-quality ratio.

"Ask your salesperson to show you a wine that tastes more expensive that it costs, or got a best value rating," he said.

Living large for $10 or less

Here are four wines priced at $10 or less that won three-corkscrew (very good) ratings from the Good Eating wine tasting panel during 2008. These wines may or may not be in stock at your local store; inquire first.

2007 Cusumano Nero d'Avola: This dry Sicilian red offered flavors of berries, black pepper and cinnamon. This wine was paired with thin crust pizza, which mellowed the wine's tannins, while the pizza perked up the fruit flavors. $10

2007 Salneval Albarino: Plenty of green apple flavor in this golden Spanish white, which was served with a Louisiana gumbo. Refreshingly crisp, the wine held its own against the gumbo's spicy heat. $9

2006 Torres Sangre de Toro: This Spanish garnacha blend had notes of spice and raspberry on the nose. The rich fruit flavor was overlaid with spice, wood and black pepper. $8

2007 Bodegas Borsao Rose: Colored a deep strawberry, this rose from Spain's Campo de Borja region had a light honeysuckle aroma. Smooth on the palate, this wine from garnacha grapes offered notes of melon, lime and just a trace of apricot. $7

Top picks from the Beverage Testing Institute

Each year the Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago offers up a listing of its World Value Wine Challenge winners. Shopping from the list can be a great way to keep your wine budget in line in this recession. Here are the top 10 whites and reds, plus a sparkling and a few roses. All are less than $20, with several of them $10 or less. Prices are suggested retail. For a complete list, visit tastings.com.

Whites
2007 Yellow Hawk Muscat Canelli, Columbia Valley, Wash. $12

2006 Hubertushof Trittenheimer AltSrchen, Riesling Spatlese, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. $19

2007 Glenora Riesling, Finger Lakes, N.Y. $18

2007 Helfrich Gewurztraminer, Alsace, France. $13

2006 Kotare Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand. $14

2007 Rosenthal-The Malibu Estate Surfrider Chardonnay, Edna Valley, Calif. $20

NV Cedar Creek Pinot Grigio, Wis. $10

NV Wollersheim White Riesling, Wis. $9

2007 A Mano Moscato, Puglia, Italy. $12

2007 Tinhorn Creek Gewurztraminer, Okanagan Valley, Canada. $16.50

Sparkling
Barefoot Bubbly Pinot Grigio Champagne, Calif. $10

Red
2006 Lockwood Cabernet Sauvignon, Monterey, Calif. $15

2005 Clos du Bois Sonoma Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Calif. $20

2005 Rotta Winery Merlot, Paso Robles, Calif. $16

2005 Rotta Winery Heritage Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Calif. $18

2005 Jessie's Grove Ancient Vine Carignane, Lodi, Calif. $19

2006 Wine By Joe Pinot Noir, Ore. $19

2006 Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Merlot, Calif. $10

2005 Cosentino Chiaretto Sangiovese, Calif. $18

2006 Crystal Valley Cellars Franc, cabernet franc, Calif. $18

NV Roza Ridge Vineyards Roadside Market Red, Wash. $15

Rose
2007 Wollersheim Prairie Blush, Wis. $9

2007 Vina Robles Roseum, Rose, Paso Robles, Calif. $13

NV Barefoot White Zinfandel, California. $6

2007 La Chapelle de Pitray Bordeaux Rose, France. $10 Cuvee 20 Brut: A Russian River Valley bubbly with a toasty nose and an oaky, creamy tone on the palate. Starts dry, ends a bit sweet. Serve with gougeres, smoked salmon, shrimp scampi. ✭✭✭ $22

2002 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee Brut: A Carneros wine commemorating the 1987 visit of the king and queen of Spain to California. Colored a pale yellow, the wine has a fleshy mushroomy nose that is supported by flavor notes of yeast, bread and stone. Serve with caviar-topped blini, broiled scallops in butter, fried chicken. ✭✭ $35

Crane Lake Brut: Yes, it's cheaply priced, but this wine has personality. Look for lots of bubbles and a refreshingly tart flavor that ends with a burst of lemon. Serve with shrimp cocktail, smoked salmon, pork loin roast. ✭✭ $8

Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee: This bargain-priced sparkler had a simple, refreshingly tart flavor and a lemony nose. Serve with scrambled eggs and bacon, bruschetta, fried fish. ✭✭ $8

Chandon Blanc de Noirs: A wine with a definite point of view. The nose is of hay and mushrooms, there are plenty of bubbles, and the grapefruit-like taste has a sharp, lemony edge that gives it spark. Serve with lobster Newburg, Dungeness crab, curried shrimp. ✭✭ $22

2006 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut: Yeasty, with a grapefruit-like tang softened by just a touch of sweetness. Serve this North Coast bubbly with duck liver pate, salmon mousse, scalloped potatoes. ✭✭ $36

2002 Schramsberg Reserve: This sparkler has a yeasty if somewhat smoky nose and a complex flavor offering layers of lemon, honeydew, peaches and violets. Serve this pinot noir-based wine with foie gras, fettuccine Alfredo, lobster-stuffed ravioli in cream sauce. ✭✭ $100

Chandon Brut Classic: Look for a yeasty nose and creamy texture. The flavor is light, dry, with a touch of lime and black pepper. Serve with macaroni and cheese, cheese straws, shrimp cocktail. ✭✭ $22

Barefoot Bubbly Extra Dry: This wine has just the slightest touch of sweetness, giving it a Jolly Rancher-like flavor. Pair with cheese nachos, chili con carne, cheese tart. ✭✭ $8

Domaine Laurier Brut: The wine had a sweetly floral nose and a lemony zip. Serve with chicken in a beurre blanc sauce, choucroute. ✭✭ $8

2006 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs Brut: This North Coast sparkler was arguably the most French in style, with a tart, toasty flavor profile. But the nose! The smell was so pungent, almost meaty, that a few tasters visibly recoiled on first sniff. Serve with macaroni and blue cheese casserole, bratwurst or a cheese tray. ✭ $38

Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut: Most tasters found this Sonoma-Napa sparkler too sour and funky, with a haylike nose and a yeasty flavor accented with a touch of sweet oak. Serve with lobster Thermidor, sourdough crostini. ✭ $40

You want that wine. But, your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price.

Navigating a sparkling wine label

Blanc de blancs: white wine from white grapes; solely chardonnay.

Blanc de noirs: White wine from red grapes; usually pinot noir. The wine is white because the color-bearing skins are removed from the grapes before fermentation.

Brut: A dry sparkling wine. The tangy profile is what most people associate with sparkling wine these days. Extra brut is even drier.

Charmat method: Sparkling wine is fermented in a large tank instead of being fermented in the bottle. A cheaper process, but the result can be simpler wines of lesser quality.

Extra dry: A sparkling wine slightly sweeter than a brut bubbly.

Nonvintage: No date on the bottle? Means the wine is a blend of two or more harvests.

Sec and demi-sec: "Sec" means dry, except when it comes to sparkling wine. Then the term means a sweet bubbly; "demi-sec" or "half-dry" is even sweeter. Go figure.

Traditional method: Sometimes called methode champenoise or methode classique, this is the process of letting the sparkling wine ferment in the bottle. It's expensive and can be labor intensive, but the resulting wines are generally higher quality than tank-fermented bubbly.

Vintage: See a date on the bottle? It means the wine is made from a single year's harvest.

Source: "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course"; "The New Wine Lover's Companion"

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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