Wine That Stands Up to Pesto

It's officially summer. Unofficially, it's basil season. Right now, I am overwhelmed with the stuff. Pictured to the left is one of my behemoth basil plants. Having a lot of basil isn't exactly a problem, I admit. Who doesn't love basil? But for wine lovers, basil can make for difficult pairings. This is one assertive herb, and you need a wine that isn't going to clash with it, nor do you want your wine to disappear on the palate.















My usual go-to wine when strong green, herbal notes are part of a dish is Sauvignon Blanc. But New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are often quite citrusy, and US Sauvignon Blancs can be too melony and soft for basil. So I opened a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc--and it was perfect with my linguine tossed with homemade pesto and topped with some heirloom cherry tomatoes.


The 2011 Viña Carmen Sauvignon Blanc Gran Reserva (available for $13-$15 in the market) is made from grapes grown in the Leyda Valley. It has vibrant aromas of grass, gooseberry, and that uniquely weird smell of boxwood that I often smell in Sauvignon Blancs from the southern hemisphere. This wine was green and leafy rather than citrusy, with a backbone of acidity that was neutral in flavor but kept your mouth watering for more. The midpalate was herbal, making me think 'this is what Cabernet Franc would taste like if it were white and not red.' Cool and refreshing, this stood up to the basil. If you have the wine with something less resolutely green, you may find that its assertiveness is a problem but if you have basil, this is a good wine to go with it--and it represents very good QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Fish Eye Pinot Grigio: A Genuine Bargain in White Wine

I first enjoyed the Fish Eye Pinot Grigio in 2009 with my fellow wine bloggers at our annual conference (and wrote about that experience here). It was a humbling moment for many of us, who were a bit sniffy about the wine based on the cute label, its availability in large-format bottles and boxes, and because it was Pinot Grigio. There is a lot (and I do mean a lot) of terrible, cheap Pinot Grigio out there. So much of it, in fact, that I've stopped ordering it in restaurants.

So it is with great pleasure that I report that the 2011 Fish Eye Pinot Grigio still has a suggested retail price of $7 (though you can find it in the market for prices between $5 and $10), it is still delicious, it is still widely available throughout the country, and it is still excellent QPR. Expect zesty, pure lemon and lime aromas and to have those scents echo through the flavors. You might detect a nice peachy note as you sip, which takes off some of the bitterness that can be associated with Pinot Grigio.

This is a versatile, food-friendly wine that is light enough to pair with vegetables and salads at a weekend lunch, will be a great companion to asparagus and lemon pasta as you work your way into your spring recipes, and will be welcome at summer barbeques so if you see some on the shelf give it a try.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Miracles Happen: Three Worthy Pinot Noirs for $25 or Less

Pinot Noir is a budgetary nightmare for most of us. Pinot is a finicky grape, which makes it difficult to grow, which translates into expensive bottles on the shelves. And that was before the movie that put Pinot Noir in everybody's glass, displacing Merlot.

Recently, I had not one, not two, but THREE bottles of Pinot Noir that were impressive--and none cost more than $25, which is quite reasonable by Pinot Noir standards. If $25 is too much for you--or you like more traditional tasting wines--scroll down to the final recommendation. At $12, it's a steal.

2010 Davis Bynum Pinot Noir (suggested retail $25; available in the market for $20-24) This excellent QPR example of Russian River Valley Pinor Noir has full-bore raspberry aromas and flavors with a burnt sugar edge. The mouthfeel is silky, with lots of toast and spice. The finish is long, with cinnamon and clove notes.

2010 Echelon Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (suggested retail $24.99; use the winery's "where to buy" feature to find a bottle near you) For around the same price as the Davis Bynum, and from grapes grown in the same place, this very good QPR example has intense raspberry fruit with a slightly candied edge to the flavors. The aftertaste is spicy, but less complex and dominated by clove notes.

2010 Casa Silva Pinot Noir Reserva (suggested retail $12) You might not expect to find Pinot Noir in Chile, but think again. This wine was much lighter in style, which some prefer, with pure raspberry aromas and flavors. You can't beat it for the price, this is a simple and delicious expression of the grape. Excellent QPR for a wine that will appeal to fans of more traditional Pinot Noir.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Sauvignon Blanc…from Slovenia

Wine is an adventure. At least that's what I've always thought. So many grapes. So many styles. So many countries to visit--even if it's only through the liquid in your glass.

So when one of my favorite addictions--er, on-line retailers--Garagiste up in Seattle offered a three-pack of Slovenian whites to try, I jumped at the opportunity. The three-pack cost around $45, which meant there was a $15 investment per bottle for a Riesling, a Chardonnay, and a Sauvignon Blanc. Recently, I opened up the Sauvignon Blanc and was extremely pleased at my first foray into Slovenian wine.

You might not think "Slovenia" and "Sauvignon Blanc" in the same breath, but there's no reason why you shouldn't do so. Most parts of the globe have a history of wine-making, and that includes central Europe. I had some amazing Merlot when I visited Prague, and have enjoyed some wonderful Romanian wine here on the blog, and one of my all-time-favorite wines from Trader Joe's comes from Hungary. As for Slovenia, they have a venerable viticultural tradition that goes back to pre-Roman times (check this site for more information). So don't be afraid to try wine from regions you may be unfamiliar with, as they often represent very good value, as in this very good QPR example.

2008 Marof Sauvignon Blanc ( purchased in a three-pack from Garagiste; available in the market for around $11) This terrific Sauvignon Blanc had tart lemon pith, gooseberry, and lemongrass aromas and flavors. It was very clean and precise, without being overly herbaceous. A nice balance of fruit and acidity made it an ideal partner for food, and you can't complain about the price! It would be excellent with all kinds of dishes, from salads, to fish, to roasted chicken with lemon. We had it with a soup made with ancient grains and vegetables, and the lively acidity was a lovely counterpoint to the earthiness of the kamut and lentils, and picked out the bright tarragon herbal notes.

Classic Cabernets for $15 or Less

There are all kinds of Cabernet Sauvignon out there. Some are too fruity for me. Some are too green. Some are too expensive. Some are too huge, with big alcohol and palate-punishing tannins.

I like my Cabernets to have a classic profile: plum and currant in the fruit department, pepper for spice, and enough acidity that I know I'm not drinking watered-down jam.

Here are three bottles that fit my preferences--and none has a suggested retail of more than $15. If you like your Cabernets big and bold or fruity and sweet, these wines may not appeal to you. But if what you're looking for is a wine that shows the grape's varietal character and an appealing price point, give one of them a try.

2009 Lander Jenkins Cabernet Sauvignon Spirit Hawk (suggested retail $15; available in the market for $7-$15) Rich plum aromas characteristic of this grape variety lead into a plummy palate with notes of mocha and eucalyptus. Though the tannins are fine-grained, they have a nice grip that will be appealing to lovers of more brawny wine. Excellent QPR.

2010 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Private Selection (suggested retail $11; available for $8-$12 in the market) This wine has classic aromas and flavors of cassis, plum, herbs, and green pepper with smooth, well-integrated tannins. This will not necessarily appeal to fans of hugely fruity Cabernets, but if elegance is what you're after, you can't do better than this for $11. Excellent QPR.

2010 Echelon Cabernet Sauvignon (suggested retail $13.99; available for $7-$9 in the market) Another Cabernet built along classic lines, this bottle has some green pepper aromas and flavors among the cassis and cherry. There is good acidity, and tannins that area bit astringent in the mouth--which will make it a great partner for juicy beef dishes. Very good QPR (though if you find it for $7, consider this excellent QPR!)

Classic pairings for Cabernet Sauvignon include burgers, roast beef, grilled steak, and (a personal favorite from my childhood) Pepper Steak. If you're a vegetarian and want something to go with Cabernet, look for a recipe that uses rosemary like this white bean and rosemary soup recipe (sub veggie stock for the chicken stock). Rosemary and Cabernet are a match made in heaven!

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Aromatic Food Calls for Aromatic Wine

If you are fond of aromatic food--including Thai, Moroccan, or Indian dishes--you might find them difficult to pair with wine. All those spices can overwhelm an ordinary white or red, and very tannic or very acidic wines can clash with what's on your plate. Often, I recommend Gewurztraminer or Riesling when there are lots of spices in a recipe (and I mean spicy, not necessarily hot).

There is another good option, however: Viognier. The grape is well-known among Rhone wine lovers, but may not be something you've tasted. Intensely aromatic wines made with Viognier can be wonderful with their floral scents and full-bodied texture, but there are many examples (especially inexpensive bottles) that taste a bit too much like dish detergent and feel waxy in the mouth.

So I'm really pleased to have discovered this excellent QPR option for those of you who would like to try something different in the white wine department. Try it with something like this one-pot chicken and chickpea tagine with bulgur (also from Mark Bittman...I'm on a Bittman kick these days).

2010 Wild Horse Viognier (suggested retail $17; average online price also $17) This wine is an excellent example of what Viognier can be, with lemon pith and honeysuckle aromas and flavors. Its stony core keeps it from getting sweet and sappy, and there is a liveliness in the mouth. Expect a nice interplay between the fruit and flower elements. This bottle would pair well with spicy chicken dishes, anything that uses lemons, Moroccan food, and Indian food.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Warming up Winter with Syrah

I'm not sure why Syrah tastes like summer to me--but it does. And by 'tastes like summer' I don't mean it's the kind of wine you reach for in July: cool, fresh, and zingy. I'm talking, instead, about a wine that conjures up images of fruit ripening on the vine, dusty back roads, purple-and-red sunsets, and a garden full of herbs ready for picking.

Now that we're approaching midwinter, a touch of summer might be welcome. If so, why not warm up your evening with a beautiful, affordable bottle of Syrah, like this excellent QPR bottling?

The 2008 Andrew Murray Syrah Tous les Jours (suggested retail, $16; average retail price via online retailers, $17) is an exceptional bottle of wine for the price. There is a beautiful balance between the fruit, herb, and mineral notes in this rich Syrah. Black fruits dominate the aromas and flavors, and I detected black currants and blackberries. The wine has a smoky, spicy edge followed by a clean, crisp aftertaste. The wine's good acidity will make it pair with a wide variety of foods, including roasted and grilled dishes, Moroccan food, and even hamburgers.

To go with your Syrah, try this delicious pan-roasted eggplant and lamb pasta sauce from Mark Bittman's Food Matters Cookbook. If you are vegetarian, it would be easy to leave out the lamb and still be left with a rich, flavorful sauce. The acidity of the tomatoes will not clash with this wine, the eggplant's bitterness will be a nice foil for the fruit, and the oven roasting will bring out the smokiness of the wine.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Spicing Things Up With Zin

Whether you love them or hate them, the next eight weeks are widely regarded as something of a challenge. Holidays. Family. Bad weather. Trips to the mall. Schlepping kids all over creation. Lots of turkey and mashed potatoes.

To survive, you need to keep some spice in your life. Start with some nice Zinfandel, and throw a pot of chili or pasta on the stove. It will keep you going during the darkening days of winter.

Here are two highly affordable Zinfandels for you to consider:

2009 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Vine Vintners Blend (suggested retail $10; available in market for $7-$13) This very good QPR Zinfandel has smooth black cherry and blackberry aromas. You'll find the same fruits in the flavors, along with a smoky, spicy aftertaste. The wine has fine tannins, giving it an impression that is fruit-forward, but not too jammy.

2010 McManis Family Vineyards Zinfandel (suggested retail $11.99; available in market for $9-$14) Pure of taste and light on its feet, this is all about the blackberries in the aromas and flavors. There are nice spicy and pepper notes in the aftertaste, too. At 13.5% ABV, this is not a monster of a wine, but a lovely reminder of how Zinfandel can be elegant. Excellent QPR for around $12.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Exiting the Wine Superhighway with Malvasia Bianca

One of the great things about wine is that no matter how much of the stuff you taste, there is always a new adventure to be had on the shelves of your local store or at your local winery (and yes, most of us actually do have a winery somewhere within driving distance!)

Don't get me wrong: I love the taste of wine. But I also love discovering new tastes, and locating wines I like that are off the normal Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc-Cabernet-Pinot route. Today's wine pick is definitely out of the ordinary. Drinking it was a little bit like exiting the familiar wine freeway and taking a back road to your destination.

When I first opened up the 2010 Wild Horse Malvasia Bianca San Bernabe (suggested retail $20; available in the market for $20) from California's Monterey County AVA, I wondered if I had ever had the grape bottled on its own. It often turns up in blends, especially Italian blends. It turns out I have had straight-up Malvasia Bianca before, back in the spring of 2008 when I was looking for a wine to pair with asparagus, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Three and a half years later, I had the opportunity to taste my second example!

And what a nice change it was from the same-old same-old. First off: don't expect to smell lots of fruit when you open this wine. Instead, this delicious white had floral and spicy aromas with an underlying note of litchi. In the mouth, the impression was bone dry, and there was a spicy aftertaste that was unlike anything else I've had before. In some ways, it tasted like a Gewürztraminer without that grape's lush, fruit-forward profile. As the wine was exposed to air and warmed up a bit in the glass, I tasted lean, elegant traces of pear, litchi, and lemon pith. Very good QPR. The 2010 Wild Horse Malvasia Bianca would pair beautifully with delicate fish and shellfish dishes, as well as Pacific Rim cuisine including fish tacos and sushi.

This autumn, make it a point to go wine adventuring. If you're at a restaurant that has a wine-by-the-glass list, try a grape variety you've never had before. If you're at your local wine shop, tell them that you love Pinot Noir but you'd like to try something new. Chances are you'll walk out with a Gamay or a Blaufrankisch--and you may just find a new wine favorite. And kudos to Wild Horse for offering us some unusual varieties like Verdelho, Malvasia and, yes, even Blaufrankisch, to tempt our tastebuds and expand our horizons.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Much-Maligned Merlot

Once the darling of wine-by-the-glass programs around the country, and purchased by the gallon by people who didn't know what else to buy, Merlot has been relegated to the margins of wine culture. "You drink Merlot?" people have asked me with horrified expressions.

Yes. I drink Merlot. It's a great food wine--far easier to pair with most dishes than its more structured sibling, Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot has a bit of softness, a hint of richness, that make it a good choice for autumn and winter meals.

But Merlot critics do have a point: there was such a high demand for Merlot some people got carried away and began mass-producing wines that lost all of the plummy, peppery, clove, and mocha notes that make wines made with this grape distinctive.

Here are a few affordable bottlings that will get you reacquainted with Merlot. And here's a handy list of foods that go well with them: Mustard, Mushrooms, and Meatloaf (and other dishes made with ground beef). It's an easy list to remember, and will help you out in the store whether you're inspired to make Melissa Clark's Chicken with Mustard Croutons, Jamie Oliver's pappardelle pasta with wild mushrooms, or a classic meatloaf or burger.

2009 Rutherford Ranch Merlot (suggested retail $18; available for $14-$20) With characteristic chocolate, plum, and spice notes that persist from the aromas, through the flavors, and continue on into the aftertaste, this is a very good QPR choice. Nicely balanced between fruit, acidity, and oak, the wine impproves with air, suggesting it is suitable for drinking between 2011 and 2014. Buy a bottle for now--and set one aside for 2012 or later.

2009 Arroba Winery Merlot (suggested retail $19.95; available for around $15) A good QPR choice with plum and baking chocolate aromas and flavors. Good acidity and spice in the aftertaste makes you head back to the glass for another sip.

2009 Bella Sera Merlot (suggested retail $7.99; available for $7-$11) Very good QPR at around $8, this Merlot smells and tastes of plums with hints of chocolate around the edges and pleasingly smooth tannins. It may not convince Merlot skeptics, but those who enjoy the grape should give this Sicilian bottling a try.

2008 Concannon Vineyard Merlot Selected Vineyards (suggested retail $10; available for $7-$11) Another very good QPR Merlot for the price, with more structured rich plum and currant aromas. These fruits are evident in the flavors, too, which are nicely accented with spice. A reminder of the versatility or Merlot, and that the grape can be great if treated well.

If you haven't had Merlot for a while, give it another try. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised by what's on offer these days.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

The Pursuit of Chardonnay

There are days when I just despair for the future of Chardonnay. All it takes is a string of uninspired, overly manipulated examples with loads of fake oak flavors and it makes me swear off the stuff for weeks.

But it only takes one good bottle to remind you why some of the world's great wines have been made from the grape.

If you're in pursuit of Chardonnay, this bottle should help you remember what Chardonnay can be.

2009 MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay Sonoma Coast (suggested retail, $20; available in market for $12-$20) This is a good example of a California Chardonnay that has seen some time inside a barrel, so there are flavor elements that derive from oak, namely a vanillin note that did not strike me as at all fake or forced. Hurray! The entry for the wine comes from its aromas of dough and apple (a bit like an apple crumble), with a note of honeyed vanilla that is the prelude for tastes to come. The flavors are dominated by cream and apple, with a cantaloupe note that I can't say I've ever tasted in a Chardonnay before, but which added an interesting dimension to the wine. Creamy vanilla notes linger in the mouth after your last swallow. Very good QPR, if you like rich and full-bodied California Chardonnays that remain true to the grape.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Napa Cabernet for Under $20

Cabernet Sauvignons from California's Napa Valley are among the iconic wines of the USA. They have a cult following, and are in heavy demand, which means that they have hefty price tags, too. Is it possible for those with leaner wallets to see what the fuss is all about.

Absolutely.

If you're looking to try a Napa Valley Cabernet--with all the rich flavors that the appellation promises--try to get your hands on this bottle. It may not have all the complexity and structure of a $100 bottle of Napa Cabernet, but for around $15 it's far more affordable.

The 2008 Irony Cabernet Sauvignon (available in market for $11-$17) is a very good QPR choice in Napa Valley Cabernet, with good varietal character and some distinct Napa pizzazz. High-toned plum, cherry and pomegranate aromas and flavors gain depth with a cedary, spicy aftertaste that reminds me of much more expensive bottlings. Though the tannins pucker the tongue with a nice grip, the wine is never heavy. As a result, it is very food friendly and will pair beautifully with stews, roast meat, and steaks.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Something to Celebrate

Five years ago, on 7 October 2006, I wrote my first blog post after going wine shopping. Here we are, more than 714, 000 visitors later. As with most things in life there have been ups and downs, some bumps in the road, and some unexpected miracles which led to unexpected hiatuses in posting. Thanks for sticking by me through thick (when I wrote a post a day) and thin (when I wrote no posts for months) and everything in between (like now, when I'm doing my level best to post every Monday and Thursday--or in this case, Sunday and Thursday).

Since a 5th Year Anniversary is something to celebrate, today I've got a round-up of under $20 sparklers for you. They come from Italy, France, and Austria. And because they're affordable you don't need any particular excuse to buy one and open it just because it's Monday!

2009 Weingut Markus Huber Zweigelt Hugo ($18, domaineLA; available in market for $16-$17) A nice choice in sparkling roses under $20, this is made with Zweigelt, and has distinctive strawberry aromas and flavors. Very yeasty (almost beery) in terms of the carbonation, this is a more rustic sparkling wine perfect for charcuterie or a plate of grilled sausages. Very good QPR.

N.V. Clos de La Briderie Crémant de Loire Brut Pureté de Silex ($15, domaineLA; available in market for $16-$19) Very good for the price, this wine is made with Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon under biodynamic growing protocols. The color is rose-gold, and the bubbles are medium-sized and long-lasting. Crisp citrus flavors are paired with richer notes of bread dough and toast. Even Champagne lovers will be impressed with the quality and depth of flavor for $15. Excellent QPR.

N.V. Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Extra Dry (under $20 at domaineLA; available in market for $14-$18) Clean lemon and lemon-blossom aromas and flavors, and the bead is quite small, which makes for a fun, frothy Prosecco that is good enough to be had on its own as opposed to mixing into Bellinis. Very good QPR.

N.V. Voveti Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (suggested retail, $17; available in market for $12-$15) Greenish in color with small bubbles. this wine is part of a new venture in wine making from a Spanish/Italian team. The partnership really shines in this wine which has the apply/bready notes of Spanish sparklers and the citrusy notes of prosecco without any bitterness or excessive yeastiness. Crisp, but can stand up to food especially vegetables and fish. Very good QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of the Voveti for possible review.

When Life Gives You Lemons…

There is something fresh, clean, and bright about the scent of a lemon. No wonder we use the juice to liven up the flavors in food, and put fine ribbons of lemon peel in so many dishes to add just the right crisp, sweet note.

Today I have two recommendations for lemony wines. Like lemon juice or lemon peel, these bottlings will brighten up your table and enhance the flavors in food. And here's something that will put an even bigger smile on your face: they both retail for around $11.

2010 McManis Family Vineyards Pinot Grigio (suggested retail $10.99; available in the market for $8-14) For around $11 this wine impresses with its clean-edged lemon peel aromas, pure lemon flavors, and slightly waxy texture. There's not a false note or a rough edge to be had, and it's not too bitter so it's a perfect wine if you're looking for something citrusy to accompany lemon-roasted chicken or piccata. Excellent QPR.

2010 Robert Mondavi Winery Sauvignon Blanc Private Selection (suggested retail $11; available in the market for $8-11) With loads of lemon and lime zest in the aromas, this wine is reminiscent of the fresh, zippy Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand. The aromas are echoed in the flavors, which take on a nice lemongrass complexity. Clean, zesty, and focused this is another steal for the price. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

The Future Looks Rosé

Now that we're into autumn, you may think the future looks decidedly less Rosé.

Those of us who drink Rosé wines--those pale to dark pink bottles of wine made from everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel--tend to think of them as summery offerings, suitable for picnics and barbeques but not for serious food.

Actually, Rosé wines are versatile and food friendly. They pair with almost everything. Served with a bit of a chill, they offer refreshment when your table contains spicy dishes. And they are usually very affordable.

Here are two of my favorite Rosés, which I tasted over the summer and early fall and which I have no problem recommending to those of you who are ready to take out your stew pot and turn on your oven. And both of them are dry wines--which means that they will pair with almost everything.

2010 San Giovanni Garda Classico Il Chiaretto ($15.00, domaineLA; available in market for $13-$15) This delicious Rosé is made from an Italian blend of Barbera, Groppello, Marzemino, and Sangiovese. You will smell the strawberries, and the aromas carry over into the flavors. There is a pleasant stony edge to the strawberry tones, and a lovely, savory note in the aftertaste. Well-balanced, medium-bodied, and excellent QPR. We had it with a Jamie Oliver dish of grilled tuna with oregano and lemon, grilled zucchini, and some garlicky cannellini beans, and the wine had the right amount of fruit, acidity, and minerality to pair with the dish. It would also be great with creamy pasta dishes, sausage, or roast pork. Note: It comes in a cute, chubby bottle but it does contain the full 750ml that you're used to.

2010 Château d'Esclans Côtes de Provence Whispering Angel ($20.99 from my local independent grocery store; available in market for $13-$27)
This wine is very, very pale pink in color--think ballet-tights pink. The aromas are even drier than those of the Il Chiaretto, with under-ripe strawberries, chalk, and melon rising up from the glass. The flavors echo the aromas, but the chalk becomes more intense. Very dry, very savory, and very good QPR (though if you can get it for under $15, you will find it's excellent QPR) This wine is made mainly from Grenache, with some Rolle, Cinsault, and Syrah blended in to it. A nice pairing for shrimp or other shellfish, salmon, tuna, or roast chicken.

Advanced Topics in White Wine

It's that time of year. If you have kids they're back in school with their pencils sharpened and their notebooks already full of doodles. You might be feeling a bit nostalgic about your own schooldays-gone-by, when you were taking courses and learning new subjects.

The best thing about loving wine (ok, one of the best things...) is that there is always more to learn. This fall, why not try some interesting whites that are beyond your normal Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc-Riesling comfort zone? You just may find a new favorite.

2009 M. Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Blanc Belleruche (suggested retail $12.99; available in market for $8-$15) Red wine fans may be familiar with the rich, affordable red blends from the Southern Rhône, but have you ever tasted their whites? This blend contains Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc. It is more "old world" in style, with a fresh, neutral taste dominated by mineral and lemon peel notes. It tastes robust, and stands up well to richer fish (tuna, halibut), vegetable dishes, and chicken pot pie. If you like Sauvignon Blanc, I think you'll enjoy this wine. Very good QPR.

2010 Viña Robles White4 (suggested retail $16; available in market for $13-$16) ) This white blend is from Paso Robles, and gets its name from the four white grape varieties that go into every bottle: Viognier, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc, and Vermentino. This year's bottling is a very good QPR, versatile white wine with honeysuckle and citrus aromas and flavors. If you like dry Rieslings but are looking for a wine with more body, give this a try.

2010 Freie Weingärtner Wachau / Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Terrassen (suggested retail $15; available in market for $11-$17) The grapes are grown in Austria's Wachau region, and the wine that results is crisp with pear, stony mineral, and citrus elements. The wine tastes full and delicious, while retaining its bright and lively profile. Excellent QPR. I love Gruner Veltliner with fish, roasted chicken, anything made with lentils, and even Indian food.

2009 Leo Steen Chenin Blanc Saini Farms (purchased in my local grocery store for $19.99; available in market for around $17) Made from grapes grown in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley, this lovely Chenin Blanc is a lovely, dry example. There are apple and honeycomb aromas and flavors, which bring back the tastes of summer. If you like the apple notes in Chardonnay, but are not always fond of the oak that many winemakers use, try this wine and you won't be disappointed. And if you're looking for wines to set aside for Thanksgiving, this would be a great choice. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: With the exception of the Chenin Blanc, I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Autumn’s Transitional Red

The temperature is up.
The temperature is down.
You want to use your grill once last time before you put it away.
You want to break out your crock pot.

If this sounds like you, then you need to have some Malbec on hand. Many people associate Malbecs with summer barbeques, but this versatile red is just as good with soups or stews as it is with grilled chicken or steak. In other words, it's the perfect transitional red!

A few reminders about Malbec: though today the grape is most associated with Argentina , it was once quite popular in Bordeaux and produces wines that remind me of French Cabernets and Merlots. Expect a rich, full-bodied wine that can hold center stage. And keep in mind that while some Malbecs can be big, fun fruit-bombs, others are far more restrained and can exhibit mineral and herbal characteristics.

Here are three Argentinian Malbecs I'm recommending this autumn:

2010 Colores Del Sol Malbec (suggested retail $12; available in market for $6-$12) This excellent QPR option has lovely, lush blackberry and boysenberry aromas. That fruity aroma profile is found in the flavors, as well, and there are additional notes of leather and spice which linger on after the fruit flavors fade. This Malbec will go well with grilled sausages, meats, chilis, and stews.

2008 Gauchezco Malbec (suggested retail $14.99; available in market for $8-$11) A more restrained example, with typical varietal characteristics, this wine has earthier, raisin, and black cherry aromas and flavors. With air there was a nice spicebox quality to the aftertaste, as well as some tobacco notes. Very good QPR at around $15, if you can find it for around $10 I think it would be excellent QPR for those looking for a more traditional taste.

2009 Argento Malbec Reserva (suggested retail $16; available in market for $14-$16). Don't be worried if the plum aromas are faint when you first open this wine. They develop nicely with some exposure to the air, as do the plum, blackberry, and tobacco leaf flavors. The tannins are drying, and will probably soften a bit with storage time. Also traditional in style, this would be particularly good with grilled or braised meat. Very good QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

To Reserve or Not to Reserve? And What’s the Difference Anyway?

In your wanderings down supermarket aisles and through wine stores, you may have come across wines labeled "Reserve" or bearing the name of a vineyard and wondered what the designations were all about. What does it mean to be a "reserve" wine? A vineyard wine? And what difference--if any--does it make to the taste? Or the price tag?

If you are confused about what "Reserve" means there is a good reason for it: there is no standard or regulated use of the term. In its purest sense, it was once used by winemakers to specially mark wines they felt were superior. Today, it can be used to indicate the wines have been reserved in the winery for an extra year or two, that they received special oak treatment, that the grapes used in the wine were from a select portion of those harvested, or some combination. It can also be used purely as a marketing term, because who wouldn't want a special wine?

Wines with vineyard designations are regulated, however, and if you see the name of a vineyard on a bottle it means that 95% of the grapes used in the wine must come from that vineyard. Vineyards vary tremendously in terms of soil, climate, and exposure and all of these variables can alter the taste of your wine. Sometimes, a winemaker feels that the grapes grown in a particular patch exhibit special characteristics, and they decide to keep that fruit separate to accentuate the unique qualities of the grapes.

Recently I had a chance to taste three wines made from the same maker, from the same grape, and all from grapes grown in the same county (although different parts of that county). One was the standard bottling, one was a vineyard designate, and one was a reserve bottling. All three were excellent--but had distinctively different taste. Here's my take on them.

2009 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Sonoma County (suggested retail $13.50; available in the market for $8-$15). A clean and crisp Chardonnay, with apple and lemon aromas and flavors accented by richer pineapple and creamy vanilla notes. A portion of the juice was fermented in barrels, the rest in a tank, which helps to explain both the vanilla notes (the oak) and the crispness (from the stainless steel tanks). Flavorful, well-balanced and food friendly. Very good QPR.

2009 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Chalk Hill (suggested retail ; available in the market for $13-$21) This wine was made from grapes grown in an estate vineyard in the Russian River Valley. A distinctive, classy Chardonnay with apple and toasted oak aromas followed by apple flavors. Layers of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg make the wine spicy, but the apple flavors remain strong and keep the wine fresh as do the underlying mineral notes. The aftertaste is nicely spicy, too, in part from the time the juice spent in both new and seasoned French oak barrels. Very good QPR.

2008 Rodney Strong Chardonnay Reserve Russian River Valley (suggested retail $35; available in the market for $24-$35). This wine was one year older than the others I tasted (even though it is a recent release) and tasted and smelled far richer with its apple and toasted coconut aromas. Full, creamy baked apple and sour cream flavors were followed up with a rich, spicy aftertaste. The Rodney Strong website explains that the wine was made in their "small lot winemaking facility," and that the juice was fermented in French oak barrels. Though this wine cost significantly more, it was an excellent value of the rich, oaky style of California Chardonnay. Very good QPR.

When faced with a decision of whether to choose a standard, vineyard designate, or reserve bottling, remember this: it's all about the taste and what you find affordable. In this case, the higher priced wines were richer-tasting, in large part because of their contact time with expensive oak barrels. However, sometimes what you want is a crisp Chardonnay. In that case, you'd be far happier with the Sonoma County bottling! As for me, my palate was most pleased with the Chalk Hill example.

As for food pairings, any of these wines would provide you with a pleasant Chardonnay to pair with your late summer/early fall dinners of grilled or roasted chicken, butternut squash ravioli, or grilled halibut.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.

Love Fish? Try Falanghina

I don't know why, but recently my largely-chicken diet has turned in the direction of fish. This means my white wine preferences are shifting subtly, too. It's harder and harder for me to find a Chardonnay that doesn't overwhelm fish's delicate flavors. Sauvignon Blancs can be too assertive. Riesling doesn't work for my tastebuds for some reason, unless the fish preparation is quite spicy or I'm having shrimp.

So I kept searching for whites that would pair well with my fish tacos, linguine alle vongole, grilled tuna, halibut, scallops, and shrimp. And I found Falanghina. This wonderful grape is native to the southern Italian region of Campania, and is especially well-known in the vineyards around Naples on the Amalfi Coast.

The wine that knocked my socks off and won a permanent spot on my table is the 2009 VIVI Falanghina Campania IGT. And the suggested retail price? $9.99 (available in the market for $8-$13). You will find that the wine smells fresh and floral, like sitting in a garden by the seaside on a summer's day. As you swirl it in your glass, you may notice some citrus notes, too. Flavors of lemon and honeycomb round out the wine. And while there is plenty of zip and acidity in the juicy aftertaste, it will not overwhelm the delicacy of the seafood or fish you might be serving. Excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received a sample of this wine for possible review.

Fire Up the Grills–and Buy Cabernet Sauvignon

It was 90 degrees in Los Angeles. I know it's snowing in Buffalo, but here it is spring (or maybe even summer). So last night I fired up the grill for the first time, marinaded a skirt steak, threw some sweet potatoes in the oven (note to self: roasting potatoes in oven for an hour heats up the house), and tossed some cherry tomatoes with mozzarella, fresh basil, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Then I hit the Cabernets.

I love grilled steak with Cabernet Sauvignon, and I have three recommendations for you: one under $10, one under $15, and the other just a hair over $20. Even if you are experiencing snow, these wines would also be good with stews, braised short ribs, or a pot of chili.

Under $10: 2009 Big House Wine Company The Usual Suspect Cabernet Sauvignon (suggested retail $9.99; available for $6-$10). Not the most complex Cabernet, perhaps, but a solid example of the grape with characteristic plum and currant aromas. The palate was dominated with plum notes and accented by a bitter taste reminiscent of coffee grounds. The aftertaste was nicely bitter, too, which kept this fruit-forward wine from becoming too jammy. A touch of Grenache is blended into the Cabernet. Good QPR.

Under $15: 2009 Robert Oatley Cabernet Sauvignon James Oatley TIC TOK (suggested retail $14; available for $12-$16) This is another fruit-forward Cabernet, with currant and blackberry aromas and flowers. A spicy aftertaste is accompanied by nice tannins that have just enough grip. Very good QPR.

Just Over $20: 2008 Viña Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Huerhuero Vineyard (suggested retail $22; this new release currently available at the vineyard; previous releases available elsewhere for $15-$25) This was a wonderful wine, and tasted like something considerably more expensive than the sticker price. Aromas and flavors of currant, pencil lead, and eucalyptus made for an elegant and complex wine. With air, the currant notes turn plummy. The aftertaste is smooth, with spicy, well-integrated tannins. This is a lot of wine for $22, and excellent QPR.

Full Disclosure: I received samples of these wines for possible review.