Screaming Good Deals for Summer

Summertime often brings casual, hot, sweaty, outdoor parties. And even though friends deserve the very best, the budget deserves attention too, so locating a great tasting wine to enjoy with friends while not breaking the budget is a great way to feel good about the next party!   Here are several wines that might help with both goals – ALL good quality, ALL under $10! Last weekend I tested these wines on my friends and they showed well (always nice to get extra opinions!), so I suggest you enjoy them all… and with the money you saved, buy something nice for yourself!!!


De Perriere Rose Brut France NV (PLCB Code: 47635 $8.99 Available in Premium Collection Stores)   What a nice bottle of inexpensive rose sparkler! This may be a perfect for casual, warm evenings with friends. Lightly effervescent with strawberry scents on the nose, the flavors, while not layered or complex, are straightforward red fruits that persist through to a clean finish.   Upon tasting this sparkler, a friend reminded me that for less than the price of many, mildly-disappointing glasses of non-descript restaurant sparklers, you can have the entire bottle of the De Perriere Rose Brut – which makes it my new favorite inexpensive sparkler AND makes it a Screaming Good Deal!


Bommarito Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2014 (PLCB Code: 33803 $9.99 widely available) This Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc is produced under famous Napa producer Whitehall Lane.   Anyone familiar with new world style Sauvignon Blancs will recognize the trademark heavier weight and concentrated fruit flavors – this particular SB features a number of candied fruit elements that overshadow the typical Sauv Blanc grassy/grapefruit elements, all of which drive through to a finish that features a slight savory note, possibly due to the alcohol level of 13.2%. While this wine is not a style that I seek out, it is a representative example of new world, full-throttle Napa white, and at this price point, for those who like a bigger white: it is a Screaming Good Deal!

Xanthos Chardonnay California 2013 (PLCB Code: 33788 $8.99 widely available) If the previously referenced Sauvignon Blanc is “full-throttle” then this California Chardonnay is “full-er-throttle”!   Despite the high, but not uncommon in CA Chardonnay, 14.3% alcohol, the nose is full of apricot and honey notes followed by a big, high density, mouth full of baked apple flavors followed by a persistent finish tinged (not badly) with oak and pear flavors.   A great example of an inexpensive wine produced from a high quality vintage delivering value to the consumer.   Big, new-world white wines are not my bag, but lots of people will find lots of great elements in this highly affordable California Chardonnay – for those who like a heavy hitting Chardonnay: this is a Screaming Good Deal!


Dezzani Otto Bucce Piedmont DOC 2013 (PLCB code: 33805 $7.99 widely available)   A blend consisting mainly of the fantastic for young, easy-drinking reds, Dolcetto grapes (68%) combined with small (8% or less) of seven other grapes including Barbera, Bonarda, Freisa, Albarossa, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite the exhausting number of grapes in the blend, this ruby red, light to medium bodied wine delivers a pleasant and smooth mouthful of easy-drinking red and black fruits. The mid-palate touch of sweet fruits, is unusual, but works, and carries through to a soft finish.   This is not a tannic wine to keep in the cellar, rather a wine to drink this summer and fall before the weather demands more full-bodied reds.   At this price point, definitely a Screaming Good Deal – I would grab several bottles for my next evening barbeque invitation!

Bodegas Langa Real de Aragon Garnacha Calatayud 2012 (PLCB code: 44035 $9.99 Available in Premium Collection Stores)   Who says Southern France is the best source of value-oriented Grenache? Simply change a few letters of the grape name and you’ve got Garnacha (same grape, just the Spanish name).   Grenache in Southern France benefits from a warm/hot growing season and Spain has plenty of hot weather, so it stands to reason that this Garnacha from the Calatayud region, which is roughly mid-way between Barcelona and Madrid, where Romans first cultivated wine of many grape varietals, but now 88% of the region’s grapes are Garnacha.   This Real de Aragon Garnacha is seriously dark, nearly opaque without a dominating nose, but evenly structured, displaying solid, ripe juicy black fruit along an undertone of slightly spicy vanilla bean and fine grip/tannins on the finish – this wine has depth that is unexpected at this price.   Definitely a Screaming Good Deal that would be happy paired with grilled meat or blue cheese!

Altovinum Evodia 2013 (PLCB code: 43553 $9.99 Available in Premium Collection Stores)   Another Garnacha from Spain’s Calatayud region, this relatively young 2013 vintage bursts with fruit, both in the nose and the forward leaning ripe red peppery fruit flavors.   The mouth feel definitely has some weight to it, but despite the heft, this wine still shows the structure and cut to keep it in the old-world style.   If your friends lean toward new world, fruit forward styles this may be a great introduction to the old world wines that feature big fruit but bring structure and acidity along for the ride.   This wine is unapologetic in its fruit delivery, so I am unapologetic in declaring it a Screaming Good Deal!

Screaming good deals – Reds for the summer grill! (Cotes du Rhone and California Merlot)

The weather is getting warmer, and peoples’ palates are starting to consider summer whites and rose’, but hey, you still need some reds for those perfect summer evenings with THE GRILL!   So here are two widely available reds that should fill the role nicely, impress your friends, while not breaking the bank

Bouachon Cotes du Rhone Les Rabasieres 2012 – this wine will find its way to my summer wine stash, probably a case or more!   There is much to recommend this humble Cotes du Rhone.   Just the look of the sturdy bottle with the attractive label gives it ‘curb appeal’.  With its floral nose and muscular body, the fruit reaches deeper than expected for such an inexpensive wine.  Is it as round and complex as a good Chateauneuf du Pape?  As rustic as the best Gigondas? No, but that is ok, because hints of both Chateauneuf and Gigondas exist in this wine. The trademark rustic Rhone-grip balanced with such depth of fruit flavor give this red wine all the indicators that it is a quality Southern Rhone wine.  In some respects it might have too much character for some people – and that’s fine – more for the rest of us! When setting up the grill this summer, think about how this Bouachon Cotes du Rhone’s deep, ripe, red raspberry fruit flavors with the powerful grip and finish make it the perfect match to grilled protein (steak!) or hard and blue cheeses – not a bashful wine, don’t be bashful buying it!  (PLCB Code: 33672 Bouachon Cotes du Rhone Les Rabasieres 2012 $9.99 widely available)

Wente Family Estate Merlot Sandstone Livermore 2012 – Merlot is underrated – there, I said it!   California is always dominated by the big Cabernets with big prices, but hovering just below the Cabernet buzz is the hardworking (and much more respected in places like Bordeaux) Merlot Grape.   And when it comes to buying red wine for big events and casual parties, I often look for bargains like this one.   This Wente Family Estate Merlot has double knocks against it in the wine world – it is from Livermore, an up and coming region for sure, but not from Napa or Sonoma, AND it is Merlot, not Cabernet… These ‘knocks’ against render the Wendte Merlot undervalued in my opinion!   On top of that, 2012 was a hugely successful vintage across California, so why not give it a try?   This wine shows a number of California Merlot trademark characteristics: lush body, unobtrusive tannin, blueberry and black cherry flavors, sweet mid-palate and camphor-like flavors followed by vanilla spice in the finish.   Are you having a party with people who might be turned off by the French-ness of a Cotes du Rhone?  Buy this Merlot and watch the crowd get happy with its trademark, comfortable, California style.  This Wendte over delivers for the price!  (PLCB Code 33727 Wente Family Estate Merlot Sandstone Livermore 2012 $9.99 widely available)

Wine on Tap – Good or Bad?

The answer: GOOD! (Although will likely be better in the future… pros and cons below)

Recently I was invited by a bar owner to taste wines from a wine tap system she recently installed as she was rehabbing her bar/restaurant.  She explained that the tap system was ideal for her because her business inhabits an older building with limited bar space, so fewer bottles cluttering the bar space (and fewer empties rattle around before disposal) seemed a great idea.   Of course there is also the best possible reason: profits.   Although prices vary, the wine kegs she buys (which contain approximately 27 standard bottles of wine), provide significant savings compared to purchasing single bottles, or even cases of wine in standard glass bottles.   Finally, there is the green argument slowly making its way through the wine industry.   Understandably, the added heft and packaging costs of several cases of wine causes the packaging and shipment portion of total cost to be much higher, while the lighter, metal keg with handles holding 27 bottles of wine is easier to move, less expensive to ship, and clearly less environmentally impactful.   Even if a customer doesn’t typically consider all those points, most any consumer will appreciate lower prices, and the bar owner will enjoy increased margins!    So what’s not to like?   Well, I was skeptical about the quality of the wine, even though the logical side of my brain knew that a sealed keg was likely a MORE stable way to transport wine than a bottle enclosed with a cork (even in modern times we expect roughly 5% of bottles to be tainted in some way, often by the cork), but the romantic and emotional side of my brain loves the “pop and circumstance” of opening and handling a bottle.   To be fair, a typical bar likely has very few people who would actually like to see the bottle from which their wine came, so the bottle idea is a non-issue.   Even so, what about quality?

In an effort to get to the bottom of this, a tasting was planned.   My idea was to locate same year and vintage wines in bottle, bring them to the bar and try them side by side with the tap wines.   So that my opinions weren’t the only ones in the room, I invited a good friend and fellow wine lover and author of the highly useful wine newsletter “an eye for wine”

I located wines in bottle from same maker and same vintage as several of the bar’s keg wines.   We filled our table with glasses of bottle and tap wines to determineif we could discern one from another – and we could – slightly – but only initially…   The only difference between bottle and tap wines that we could discern was that the bottle wines seemed to open up much faster.   The nose was especially more open on the bottle wines and that may have enhanced the flavors on the initial sips.   However this was not a clear victory for the bottles, because after a few minutes of breathing in the glass, the tap wines opened and became (to my palate at least) completely identical!  Why this happens could have to do with the absolute lack of air in the keg arrangement or possibly the amount of wine to surface area etc. – there is no way for us to know…   but we found this ‘closed’ aspect on the tap wines to be present in each of the wines we compared.   Given this, we concluded (somewhat surprisingly) that while we recommend significant swirling, there is no reason to avoid a wine that was transported in a keg and served from a tap!

Here are some pros and cons from my perspective:


  • Less spoilage
  • Fewer bottles to store and dispose
  • Higher margins for operator – and potentially lower retail prices for consumer
  • 27 bottles each keg means lots of servings before having to change out
  • More selection coming in the future


  • 27 bottles each keg means lots of servings before having to change out – so a slow seller will take a long time to get out of the system
  • Snob factor – some people feel better about a bottle and a cork etc
  • Equipment investment – bar owner has to commit capital up front and embrace the wine on tap concept
  • Limited selection currently – the bar owner said only about 50 different wines available – so it might not work for every restaurant

It’s here: Chairman’s Selection Tasting Results – Fall 2014

Pennsylvania Wine enthusiasts often suggest the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board system keeps Pennsylvanians from the great retail sale prices available in other states.   Debate over the PLCB’s efficacy will go on… and on.   In the meantime, we consumers can walk into many of the state’s specialty stores this holiday season and find some high quality “Chairman’s Selection” wines at very competitive prices (brought to us by the Chairman’s Selection program leader Steven Pollack and his team, who take advantage of the PLCB’s market heft to locate and bring to our market, wines that would otherwise never find their way here at these prices).

Through undeniable good fortune I was invited, to be among PLCB wine specialists and a handful of press (including Elizabeth Downer of the Post-Gazette), to taste through 40+ upcoming Chairman’s Selection wines.   Below are my favorites of this tasting with a few additional selections included, with wines divided into several categories.   Additionally, I’ve added my own numerical score to help give perspective on my impressions vis-à-vis other tasting publications.


Screaming good deals – solid quality wines under $10 per bottle – serve these wines before revealing the price (and prepare for a pat on the back!).

Cultivate the Feast Red California 2010 $7.99 (PLCB Code 33578 – In stores early December) – This wine started life as a California red blend exclusive to a large national restaurant chain – but corporate desire shifted away from this wine and now Pennsylvania has several thousand cases to sell.   And sell it will (if purchasers aren’t put off by the unattractive label, but isn’t quality wine always more important than quality label art?).   The 2010 California vintage produced high quality grapes for many wines and this blend (78% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec, 5% Syrah) is certainly a quality wine with aromas of raspberry, blueberry and spices followed by a dense but balanced and lush mouthful of dark fruits backed up by some oak in the long finish.  I could not find ratings on this wine, but I award it a solid 90 points and I expect to purchase a case of it!  Information for this wine provided by the Chairman’s team states an original price of $25 which seems plausible – but for $7.99 this wine is a Screaming Good Deal!

Victor Vineyards Roadside Red California 2011 $8.99 (PLCB code 33629 – In stores mid-December).  California Zinfandel is known as one of the most jammy red wine varietals which invites both detractors and admirers.   Combine a super jammy grape with a cooler than usual 2011 growing season and the super ripe characteristics are tempered slightly, which in this instance works out well!   The Roadside Red combines a heavy dose of Zinfandel (65%) with smaller amounts of Merlot (18%) and Petit Syrah (9%) – the result is a big, but not lopsided, wine full of red fruits and a little spice (possibly thanks to the Petit Syrah) in the finish.   The Wine Enthusiast called this wine a “great bargain” and awarded 88 points, but I feel like the additional time in the bottle has benefited the wine and I feel it is worth 89 points.   Original pricing for this wine is said to be $16, but discounted in PA to $8.99 which makes the Roadside Red a Screaming Good Deal!

Evening Land Bourgogne Blanc 2011 $9.99 (PLCB Code 33575 – In Stores now) – A white burgundy (100% Chardonnay) from an un-typical producer… Also an un-typical wine in that the fruit is somewhat more pronounced than the acidity, possibly a nod to the American Chardonnay style – a hint of oak along with apple pie and pear flavors get bigger as the wine warms in the glass.  87 points from me.   This wine provides a lot of sophisticated flavor without charging a lot of money – and at $9.99 this wine is a Screaming Good Deal.


Solid values – wines that deliver interesting and compelling taste/flavor experience without breaking the bank.

Peltier Station Viognier 2009 $6.99 (PLCB code 33661) – Party white!  Hailing from California’s super warm central valley Lodi wine appellation, this is a nearly heavy, tropical fruited, spicy white.  While some might suggest higher acidity would better counter the fruit, I might argue the fruit is nice by itself (additionally I might argue that Lodi is not famous for producing crisp white wines, so it is likely that this Viognier never expected to be crisper than it is!).   A great party-white especially for guests who love the dense fruit of California Chardonnays – at this price you can serve at a holiday party and feel no remorse!  Drink soon. 86pts

Goose Ridge Vineyards Riesling, Columbia Valley Washington 2013 $7.99 (PLCB code 33574) An interesting wine.  The folks at Goose Ridge delivered a Riesling that straddles the range between fully sweet and dry.   The fragrant aromas suggest floral and honeysuckle but then a taste delivers succulent peach and tangerine flavors finishing with some mineral and savory notes.   If serving turkey for the holidays this Riesling could be the right match at $7.99.  86pts

Paul Dolan Gewürztraminer Revolution, Mendocino County California 2013 $9.99 (PLCB code 33570) An American Gewurztraminer is an unusual wine, but next time I order Indian take out it will by my choice!   Aromatics include pear and floral notes with a soft mouth feel followed by flavors of citrus, pear and a mineral-tinged finish.  87 pts

Signae Grechetto IGT Umbria Italy 2013 $9.99 (PLCB code 33608) – Crisp White!  Produced in central Italian region of Umbria from a blend of Grechetto, Sauvignon, and Malavasia di Candia.   This is a light, bright white wine with a citrusy nose and nicely composed bright tropical/citrus fruit flavors – slightly similar to a Pinot Grigio, but slightly more interesting!  88pts

Stone Forest Chenin Blanc South Africa $11.99 (PLCB code 33658 available mid-January) – South Africa is famous for light, crisp styles of Chenin Blanc (sometimes referred to by the name “Steen”).   In France’s Loire valley, the heart of Chenin Blanc wine making tradition the styles are can range from crisp to slightly softer, somewhat sweeter style.  The Stone Forest Chenin Blanc is a lovely example of the refreshingly crunchy South African Chenin Blanc with tropical, crisp white with floral hints that soften the crispness. 90 pts

Terra da Vino Masseria dei Carmelitani Gavi di Gavi DOCG Piedmont Italy 2013  $12.99 (PLCB code 33699 available mid-December)  A dry but deeply juicy wine from Italy’s most northwest region of Piedmont.   Gavi di Gavi whites are highly sought after, so when a good example comes available for only $12.99 a careful look is warranted.   This Gavi di Gavi from Terra da Vino Masseria dei Carmelitani delivers a juicy, medium-bodied, floral-tinged but dry mouthful of light fruits.  Lightly sauced fish or shrimp will match nicely.  89 pts

Villa Montignana Chianti Classico Riserva Tuscany Italy 2009 $12.99 (PLCB code 33694)  Possibly the most recognized Italian wine term is “Chianti” – and maybe this is because the wine is so much a part of the Italian food culture.   With this in mind, everyone should make an effort to try some of their favorite Italian red-sauce-based foods with some Chianti wine and enjoy the experience!   This Chianti Classico Riserva (designated for steps upward in wine-making and ageing from the simpler Chianti wines) is 85% Sangiovese with 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.   The small portion of Bordeaux grapes makes a difference in this wine by adding heft and slight blueberry and blackberry flavors, but the trademark intense red fruits from Sangiovese still take center stage.   Many Sangiovese-based Italian reds require hours and hours of decanting to arrive at a reasonable drinking point, but as this wine already has a few years bottle age, it may be easier drinking sooner.   A good price for a nice, if untraditional, Chianti.  Wine Enthusiast awarded 89 pts, I rate it 89 pts too.

Colli Ripani Pharus Rosso Piceno Superiore Castellano DOC 2010 $13.99 (PLCB code 33670 available January)  Rosso Piceno wines are produced in the Central-Eastern Marche region of Italy – these wines are required by law to have at least 60% Sangiovese with the remainder filled out by Montepulciano grapes (not to be confused with the Italian region and wines that are called Montepulciano).   Interestingly, this Rosso Piceno showed typical red fruits in the nose and flavors of red and black fruits packed over a richer than expected frame – if tasted blind I might have suggested it were a new world, modern style red.   Either way, a nicely balanced, food friendly wine for a competitive price.  88 pts.


Impressive wines – Wines that impress, regardless of price

Vignamaggio Castello di Monna Lisa Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG $24.99 (PLCB code 33606) Another modern feeling Chianti Classico Riserva and despite the seeming contradiction in terms this wine is quite polished and refined.   Sangiovese content hits the minimum 80% threshold to keep the Chainti Classico DOCG designation with the remaining 20% filled out my (unsurprisingly) Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.   Other Chiantis may provide a more rustic and traditional experience, but in this wine there is quality wine-making and quality fruit to carry the modern wine forward.   There is good depth in the traditional Sangiovese notes of violet, cherry and leather yet the refined tannins suggest the wine will become more complex in the next few years (or after several hours of decanting!).   Wine Advocate awarded 90 pts and I agree with 90 pts now, but would anticipate a higher rating (91-92 pts) a few years into the future.

Archaval Ferrer Quimera Mendoza Argentina 2011 $28.99 (PLCB code 33644) – A high end wine from one of Argentina’s most highly respected producers.   Produced with a blend of all five traditional Bordeaux grapes (38% Malbec, 26% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot), this wine is dense and opaque, but delivers floral and violet notes on the nose.  Flavors are intense, savory, cherry and black fruits with uplifting juicy acidity, leading to a long finish with cassis and hint of tea and tobacco.   Tannins are sturdy, but fine grained – I suggest some decanting, or simply keeping a bottle for a year or two, you will definitely reap a reward on this one.  Wine Advocate awarded 90 pts, Wine Spectator awarded 92 pts, I fall in line with the Spectator and rate this wine 92 pts.

Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2009  $34.99 (PLCB code 33622 – available mid-December)  Here is another example of the interesting deals that only a program like the Chairman’s Selection program can provide.   Emblem wines are produced by the Mondavi family who have more than a little experience making high end Napa reds.   In this case it appears the Rutherford Cabernet is being discontinued and the remaining stock sold off to PA wine consumers.   This Rutherford Cabernet displays all the wonderful attributes typically associated with Napa Cabs, warm cassis, cedar overlay some dark fruits while aromatic camphorwood notes float over top.   The familiar, dusty, Rutherford tannins are quite apparent now, but should settle nicely with some decanting or another year or two in bottle.  This Emblem Cab tastes like a much more expensive wine… I will certainly find a few of these for my cellar.  I rate it 92 pts.

Clarendon Hills Syrah Brookman Australia 2008 $36.99 (PLCB code 33612) Clarendon Hills was founded in 1990 by a South Australian biochemist pursuing his passion to produce vineyard-inspired wines.   Since then Clarendon Hills has enjoyed countless accolades and high prices for big, heavy, impressive Aussie Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Mourvedre and Grenache wines, all from single vineyards and single grape varietals.   As fashion in America (and Australian Dollar exchange rates) shifted away from the big Australian Shiraz styles, Clarendon Hills has pressed on, continuing to make their trademark big reds although prices have dropped – which is good for the consumer!   The Brookman is a great example of trademark Clarendon Syrah style.   Nothing here is subtle, but despite the power there is plenty of complexity and refinement.   Mouth feel is dense with rich smoky plum and blackberry flavors over a strong but not over-bearing backbone of oak and tannin.   With a little breathing this wine will impress big red wine fans now, but should keep improving for a few years to come.  Wine Spectator awarded 90 pts, Wine Advocate 92 pts, I agree and rate the Brookman 92 pts.


Champagne!  (no description needed…)

Herbert Beaufort Brut Champagne Bouzy Grand Cru Carte d’Or NV $32.99 (PLCB code 33675 – available mid-December)  Source grapes for this Champagne came from the historic Grand Cru Bouzy appellation which is famous for Pinot Noir, so it is hardly surprising that this Champagne is a blend of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay (bearing in mind that inclusion of the third Champagne grape, Pinot Meunier would render the sparkler a non-Grand Cru as there are no Grand Cru Pinot Meunier vineyards in Champagne).   As often expected from Pinot Noir dominant sparklers, the wine taste comes through the mouth feel of rich frothy bubbles.   In this Herbert Beaufort medium-rich Champagne we find notes of almonds, peaches and pears with dried fruits blended together followed by a taut grip at the finish –Robust enough to match a buttery lobster dinner!  91 pts.

Pierre Legras Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut NV $34.99 (PLCB code 33274 in stores now) A Grand Cru Champagne for less than the big corporate, well-known, highly marketed blends – worth investigating to be sure, and rewarding in this case.   To those who enjoy the delicacy and finesse of a Blanc de Blanc Champagne (100% Chardonnay), this example, for which the grapes were sourced only from designated Grand Cru vineyards, hits the target.   Although light in weight, the bead is intense and flavors are a concentrated-yet-refined blend of apple, yeasty biscuit, and chalk – seamless throughout and finishing cleanly with mineral hints.  No bad flavors or hard edges.  If you have Champagne-loving friends, impress them with this Blanc de Blanc!  Wine Spectator awarded 91 pts, I rate it 93 pts.

Alfred Gratien Brut Champagne NV $39.99 (PLCB code 33609 specialty stores) Champagne is a great pleasure for many – and this Alfred Gratien Brut will surely provide pleasure to all who try it!   Persistent, lively mousse does not cover over the nicely integrated flavors of hazelnuts, dried fruit and citrus which slowly give way to a clean, slightly chalky, crisp finish.   Even though oak is used in production there is little evidence in the flavor.  This is a lighter style of Champagne that recalls a Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) with great finesse and delicacy, despite the blend of all three traditional Champagne grapes (45% Chardonnay, 43% Pinot Meunier, 12% Pinot Noir).  Sip on its own or try with shellfish and light appetizers.  Wine Advocate awarded 90 pts, Wine Spectator awarded 92 pts, I rate it 92 pts!

Autumn reds for autumn foods – Rhone always delivers!

As weather turns chilly and leaves turn colors, much of what we eat turns toward warm, savory autumn meals and wine-enthusiasts’ thoughts often turn to warm and approachable Rhone style red wines.   Paired with hearty stews, and game night chili, the so-called “Rhone Varietals” are a solid red wine choice for the season’s cuisine.   Indeed anyone who has enjoyed a slow-cooked cassoulet paired with a Chateaunuef du Pape knows how wonderful this seasonal dish can be!

Grapes used in France’s Southern Rhone, or Rhone Varietals as they are often called (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan and several more which are produced in smaller quantities, 13 in total) are so-named because they are the primary components of the world famous wines of the Rhone Region.   By contrast, the Northern Rhone wine region features red wines produced principally from the single varietal Syrah mostly, yielding completely different personality which warrants a separate discussion.  Regarding the Southern Rhone, even if the grapes themselves are unfamiliar to many of us, many people have heard of wines from famous Southern Rhone sub-regions like Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, not to mention the high-value and popular regional wines called “Cotes du Rhone”.

When blended, Southern Rhone grapes lend different character to their wines, Grenache brings spice and red berry fruit characteristics, Syrah contributes structure and smooth savory pepper and smoke qualities, while Mourvedre adds deep color and leathery dark fruit flavors.   When combined into a blend – Rhone wines from different makers and regions can range from round, deep sophisticated classic Chateauneuf du Pape to herbal, raw-meat-game flavors of top Gigondas, to rustic, fruit driven and affordable regional wines called Cotes du Rhone.

In a restaurant setting, an easy technique to locate these wines is to keep it simple and remember three letters: G, S and M (for Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre).   Many winemakers around the world use the acronym “GSM” when naming wines that contain Rhone varietals and blends of them.   So with a quick reference to these three letters, or mention of Rhone Varietals, a knowledgeable restaurant sommelier will lead you to these wines.   Important to remember, is that these varietals are used in blends and on their own, in wines all over the world.   Differences between the old-world French and new-world versions fall along typical old/new-world lines with the French exhibiting slightly more herbal and complex savory fruit flavors while new-world versions are more dense and fruit driven.   But all over the wine world, Rhone varietals are produced with great success – so one needn’t focus purely on actual French Rhone wines (although you wouldn’t be disappointed!).

Australia has a celebrated wine history driven in a large party by Rhone varietals (Syrah, or Shiraz as the Aussies call it, and many containing traditional GSM blends).   South America and South Africa both are making waves for their Rhone varietal wines.   And in California there is even a group of wine-makers called ‘the Rhone-Rangers’ because of their steadfast commitment to making top quality Rhone blends, and several actual French Rhone winemakers are producing wines in California.   An added bonus: wines blended of these grapes from anywhere in the world are regularly food-friendly, so you cannot go wrong!

After some experimenting, you can identify different styles that appeal to you and can then seek them out in restaurants and at PLCB State Stores.   Here are some I recommend: 

Widely available Rhones/Rhone Styles at Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board Stores:

Cotes du Rhone – regional wine meant to be consumed within a few years of release, these are fruity approachable wines with rustic Rhone characteristics.

PLCB Code: 8132 E Guigal Red Wine Cotes du Rhone 2010 $14.99 Sale Price: $12.99

PLCB Code: 6794 Perrin et Fils Cotes du Rhone Villages $12.99 Sale Price: $11.99

PLCB Code: 6557 M Chapoutier Belleruche Rouge Cotes du Rhone $14.99

PLCB Code: 45213 JL Chave Mon Coeur Cotes du Rhone Rouge 2012 $21.99

Gigondas – meaty and rustic, often accessible when young, but can last many years.

PLCB Code: 33532 Domaine de la Tete Noir Gigondas 2012 $29.99

PLCB Code: 48191 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas 2011 $34.99

PLCB Code: 45033 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas 2012 $39.99

Chateauneuf du Pape – round, smooth and classic, Chateauneuf wines may last a long time, but don’t be afraid to try them when only a few years old.

PLCB Code: 7278 Domaine De Mont Redon Chateauneuf du Pape $41.99

PLCB Code: 6790  Clos de l’Oratoire Chateauneuf du Pape $44.99 Sale Price: $39.99

PLCB Code: 48462 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape La Crau 2011 $84.99

New World – generally more fruit driven but highly satisfying

Australia: PLCB Code: 46194 D’Arenberg Stump Jump GSM 2011 $9.99

Australia: PLCB Code: 38883 Schild Estate Grenache Mourvedre Shiraz Barossa Valley 2012 $14.99

USA: PLCB Code: 45523 Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Rouge Paso Robles 2011 $17.99

Pittsburgh Restaurants (subject to change of course):

Open Bottle Bistro in Shadyside (5884 Ellsworth Avenue) serves the J.L. Chave Selections’ “Mon Coeur” Cotes du Rhone for $9 per glass, and will sell a recent vintage of Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf du Pape from the 500+ year old producer for $95 per bottle.

Dinette in Shadyside (5996 Centre Avenue) serves a Cotes du Rhone, Domaine du Joncier 2012, for $11 per glass and $42 per bottle.

Lawrenceville’s Allegheny Wine Mixer currently features a Rhone blend from Corbieres (Southern France) for $9 per glass and $36 per bottle.  (Chateau Spencer La Pujade Corbieres – Carignan/ Mourvèdre/Syrah/Grenache – Languedoc, France 2012)

ROOT174 features Le Garrigon, Cotes du Rhone for $10 per glass

Downtown, The Carleton’s Wine List contains a Rhone section with 15 Rhone wines by the bottle, ranging in price from $32 to $220.  This list also features several Australian GSM blends and another section dedicated to American Syrahs and Rhone-style blends.

Stagioni serves TWO Rhone blends by the bottle, one from Vacqueras (Domaine du Terme, Vacqueyras, Rhone, 2010 $50) and a Cotes du Rhone (J.L. Chave Selections’ “Mon Coeur” 2012)

Eleven features several Rhone wines in the bottle list, ranging from $45 to $210.  None by the glass.

Legume features a French Rhone-blend (Corbieres) and an American (Qupe, Santa Ynez Valley), none by the glass.

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All duck dinner – duck five ways with five wines!

We are fortunate to live in a city with a restaurant like The Crested Duck.   Chef Kevin Costa painstakingly obsesses to make sure that every single bite is satisfying and tasty – AND reflects the flavors he intended.   With this in mind, and knowing several people who love duck – we at challenged The Crested Duck to create a five course dinner with some element of duck in EVERY COURSE!   Chef Costa accepted the challenge and produced a menu that looked great to us, so we sent the invitation hoping to capture the interest of those few who dig duck like us… it sold out in three hours!

Matching the wines to the courses would hopefully be less challenging than creating the food, but we would see…   As it turned out the food was fantastic, and my biggest surprise was the ice cream made with duck fat – Wow!   The wines performed well: the Sauternes was the appropriate and correct match for the Foie Gras, the Decoy Chardonnay was wonderfully crisp for a Californian chardonnay, but despite my imagining that the main duck courses would match better to the smooth and spicy Rioja (which was still a very nice wine), the overwhelming crowd favorite was the Dierberg Pinot Noir.   I will note that one bottle of the Pinot Noir smelled slightly ‘off’ but fortunately this blew off quickly and the wine returned to its normal lushness.   Finally the Gruet Brut NV was the ever-reliable-bubbly that we have loved for years, providing a lively counter to the super rich duck ice cream dessert.

Off-the-Grid Sunday Supper –ALL DUCK DINNER at The Crested Duck















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Napa Merlot worth trying – Bommarito Merlot Napa Valley 2012 by Whitehall Lane

While contemplating the famous anti-merlot statements in the movie ‘SIDEWAYS’, my enthusiast friends and I reiterated our belief that Merlot got a bad wrap in that movie scene.   To be fair to those who cheered when the line was delivered, we recognize that Merlot as a varietal became hugely popular through the 1990s, which led to over planting and over production of the California favorite and too much mediocre, over-ripe, too-sweet Merlots.   But does this mean Merlot is ‘bad’?  Of course not – some of the world’s most famous wines are Merlot-based – has anyone priced a Chateau Petrus lately? For those of us who cannot afford the world’s most sought after Bordeaux wines, we are still quite fortunate to have access to perfectly tasty Merlot wines that no one would (or should) be embarrassed to order!

One such wine is the Bommarito Merlot Napa Valley 2012.   Famous Napa producer Whitehall Lane created this wine (named after the historic Bommarito Vineyard in Rutherford) from Napa Valley sourced grapes during the high volume and equally high quality 2012 vintage.   Despite the affordable $14 pricetag, this wine delivers aromas of cherry and oak on the nose, and a big, rich, ripe, mouthful of dark berries and (common Merlot trademark) blueberry flavors ending in a not-too-tannic finish that is quite pleasing.   Of note, even though fruit is huge in this wine, at no point is this Merlot too sweet or over-oaked in its assembly.   Overall this wine delivers what Napa reds are famous for, at a price far below most quality Napa wines – so we consumers owe it to ourselves to give it a try!   Try it with hard cheeses and grilled meats, I certainly will!

(Bommarito Merlot Napa Valley 2012 by Whitehall Lane PLCB Code 33389 $13.99)

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Bargain Portuguese red blend Carmim Aragones Reguengos 2012

Looking for a wine to stand up to burgers and other summer-grill favorites?  Try the Carmim Aragones Reguengos 2012 – you may want to buy several to last the remainder of the Grilling Season!

First some background: American wine enthusiasts often overlook the wines of Portugal, not for any ill will toward the country (I loved Portugal in all aspects during my visit) but more for the fact that Portuguese grapes are little known outside of Portugal, many Portuguese wines are blends of multiple grapes and this is a difficult hurdle to overcome in a world wine market focused on universal grape names – how many times have we heard a customer tell a server “I’ll have a Cabernet” or “I like Chardonnay”?   Conversely, rarely is heard the phrase “please bring me a multiple grape blend of Portuguese grapes that I cannot pronounce”…

So while there may be understandable reasons why Portuguese wines do not own high level American mind-share, there are many reasons wine enthusiasts should give them a try.   For example, Portugal’s wine industry suffered (like the rest of its economy) through difficult political rule in the 20 century, leaving many of its vineyards neglected and wineries idle, but the past 20 years have seen vast financial investment with influx of international talent which resulted in rapid redevelopment of Portugal’s wine industry – this allows the wine-buying public to enjoy good quality wines at bargain prices.

Case in point:  Carmim Aragones Reguengos 2012 is a quality red at a good price ($10 bucks!).   Hailing from one of Portugal’s lesser known regions (Alentejo Region covers the south central portion of the country), and specifically a co-op in the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, a town due east of Lisbon and nearly to the Spanish border which also is home to very successful ESPORAO Wines and Olive Oils.   A blend of 40% Trincadeira (sometimes referred to as ‘Portuguese Malbec’, but in reality not related to Malbec), 40% Aragonez (also called Tinto Roriz in other Portuguese regions, and Tempranillo in Spain), 20% Castelão (sometimes called Periquita in Portugal), these are not the most commonly known grapes, but the blend results in a pleasing red wine.   The color is dark garnet red, not purple, but nearly as dark.   Although medium bodied, the wine packs an intense, juicy delivery of red and black fruit flavors with a bit of a rustic character.   The freshness and clean flavor intensity together with medium body gives away its old world origin – and makes it ideal to stand up to cheeses and possibly grilled veggies or meats.   Additionally, this wine is listed as #20 on a popular wine magazine’s top 100 best buys.   You might like it too – and at this price it is worth a try!  (PLCB Code: 43567 Carmim Aragones Reguengos 2012 $9.99 750ML, 14% ABV, Available in Specialty Stores).

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Screaming Good Deal: The Show Chardonnay 2012 at $7.99

A certain satisfaction always accompanies declaring a Screaming Good Deal – defined as a wine with below $10 price point and above $10 quality.   In the case of The Show Chardonnay 2012, satisfaction is clearly warranted.

Similar to many other wines at affordable price points, The Show Chardonnay is a wine produced by winemakers and business people using purchased grapes, rather than by a winery on an estate using exclusively estate grown grapes.   While the estate grown and produced wines may produce consistently high quality wines vintage after vintage, the less expensive production method of simply buying grapes and making wine has potential to yield high quality wines at low prices IF the vintage is especially good.   In my opinion, California’s high quality AND high quantity 2012 vintage, during which many grape growers complained only about not having enough space to store all their harvested grapes, will afford us consumers great value opportunities in some lower priced wines.

The Show Chardonnay 2012 at $7.99 is exactly this scenario.   Created from a blend of 100% chardonnay grapes from California’s Sonoma and Monterrey regions, and aged in French oak, this California Chardonnay may lack the prestige of a big name estate or region, but the successful 2012 vintage delivers moderate apple and pear aromas followed by flavorful hints of citrus, pineapple, pear and baked apple.   Although oak was used, there is mercifully little of the heavy oak flavors that trademark many California Chards.   Instead, the oak/vanilla hints are balanced with the overall soft acidity and fruit flavors.   The Show’s weight and flavors are clearly Californian, but with alcohol measured at a comparatively low 13.6%, this Chardonnay isn’t too heavy or thick to encourage more and more sips on a warm summer evening or with a rich fish like Salmon or Arctic Char.   At this price, buying enough to last the rest of the summer is worthwhile!   (PLCB Code 33338 The Show Chardonnay 2012 750 ML $7.99 – available in PLCB Specialty Stores)

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Two Tasty Americans – solid value Pennsylvania Chairman’s Selections: Beringer Sauvignon Blanc and Sebastiani Merlot

With price points just north of my $10 qualification to be a ‘screaming good deal’, these two wines present very solid value to the wine-loving consumer.

Beringer Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2012 – The Beringer winery in Napa Valley is an icon of the US wine industry.   Founded in 1875, Beringer has operated successfully and steadily expanded to its current globally recognized status.   Known for high volume production, and high-end estate wines, Beringer’s solid quality regional wines are sometimes overlooked.   The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley is a regional (all the fruit is from Napa) wine we should not overlook.   Starting with a bright yellow color in the glass, the Sauv Blanc offers fresh aromas of citrus and a hint of grass.   A sip reveals a medium bodied, juicy mouthful of nicely balanced citrus, especially lime and melon, ending with a nicely fresh, not-too-crisp finish.   The Wine Advocate awarded a score of 89 to this wine – if considering the value of this $10.99 bottle; I would push that up to 90 points using a similar scale.   This is a wine that will be useful all summer long, on porches, decks and in backyards with light bites and fish dishes!   (PLCB Code: 33239 Beringer Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2012 $10.99 Orig. $16.00)

Sebastiani Merlot Sonoma County 2010 – For years Sonoma County winemakers have offered fine alternatives, often more affordably, to the more hyped Napa wines.   Others have suggested that Sonoma is more ‘relaxed’ than the more tightly-wound-tourist-focused Napa region.   With no science to decide on these suggestions, we can only judge on a case by case basis.   In this case, the Sebastiani Merlot Sonoma County 2010 is a laid back, fruit-driven, rewarding red wine that deserves some attention at this Chairman’s Selection price point!   Sometimes surprises are welcome, but other times a consistent performer that delivers exactly what you expected is even more rewarding… and this Merlot delivers the full-figured, mouth-filling, lush, dark fruit that one would hope to find in a California Merlot.   Just shy of being over-the-top (in recent years many CA reds have suffered from off-putting over-rich flavors), this Merlot hits the flavor targets and oak-balance very nicely.    If you are grilling cheese burgers with friends and need a firm red to accompany, this Merlot will do the job!   Tons available, but grab some before it sells out!     (PLCB Code: 33258 Sebastiani Merlot Sonoma County 2010 $10.99  Orig. $18.00)