Sipping into the holidays

Tis the season for the wine industry to pull out the big guns at industry taste fests featuring way too many wines to ever evaluate seriously — a deplorable situation which requires a strategy. At a recent Glazer’s tasting at the San Antonio Country Club, mine was to concentrate on Champagne and to move onto big reds only after most bubblies had been broached.

I won’t condescend by waxing eloquent over the usual suspects. Yes, the Pol Roger Brut Rosé was spectacular; it had better be at its price. At half the freight, the Pommery Brut Rosé would also not be booted from the dining table. But it’s more fun — and more challenging — to seek out the lesser-known (and more gently priced) sparklers. You are probably already familiar with the Grüet label from New Mexico — if not, seek it out in any of its variations: brut, rosé, or blanc de noirs. But the one that really caught my attention was the Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’ Alsace Brut Rosé. It confirmed my bias toward rosé bubblies at whatever price level and satisfied some primal urge to find the bargain of the event; it should retail for under $20. And it should pair beautifully with turkey.

If you’re planning on smoking your turkey — or tossing tradition by the wayside and going for prime rib or venison backstrap on your holiday table, let me recommend all three of the Cline Zinfandels I tasted: the Live Oak, the Bridgehead, and the Big Break. None of these will break the bank.

Late fall also seems to bring the winemakers out of the woodwork. With harvest over, they can afford to spend time selling. In no particular order, here are some of my favorites from recent such schmoozefests:

Family-owned and operated Pedroncelli offers some amazing bargains in California wines — a category that’s getting harder and harder to fill. Their 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Eastside is classic CA with the advantage of added minerality. The ’03 Benchlands Merlot was peppery, minty, and nicely structured. And the ’04 Three Vineyards Cabernet, blended with estate-grown merlot and cabernet franc, was easy drinking and a great value.

Pedroncelli also produces an attractive vintage “Port” from estate-grown Portuguese grapes. The ’02 shows pretty prune and raisin flavors and would cap a holiday dinner handsomely.

A tasting of some wines from the Pasternak Wine Imports portfolio yielded two bargains from New Zealand worth seeking out: the Dashwood 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough and the Dashwood 2005 Pinot Noir Marlborough. The SB was more multi-dimensional than many NZ grapefruit bombs; the pinot, a quintessential turkey wine, was much more generous than many Kiwi pinots, which can be very tight and acidic.

We also tasted the creamy, appley, and beautifully balanced Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvée Gastronomie Brut — a little over our $15 price point, but often on holiday sale.

Our price point is perfectly represented by the entire portfolio created by the peripatetic Laely Heron, owner, label designer, and winemaker at her facilities in California, France, and Spain; none of these should be over $13 or so. Look for the most recent vintages of the Heron Vineyards label California Chardonnay (half barrel-fermented, half stainless, with good citrus and mineral), and Merlot (good cherry and mint); both the Merlot (earthier than the CA) and the Pinot Noir from Pay d’Oc in southern France; and the grippy, ballsy Sexto from Terra Alta (next to Priorat) in Spain. The last is a blend of six grapes, mostly on very old vines. Great holiday party wines, all of them.

European winemakers rarely waltz through San Antonio hawking their wares, but we do at least get export managers. Tony Apostolakos was in town at the end of summer with the wines of Masi from Italy’s Veneto region north of Venice. We can afford more of them than you might think, and you should look for the 2006 Masi Masianico Pinot Grigio & Verduzzo blend. Masi dries the verduzzo grape component (25-percent), which increases fruit concentration and gives this PG the body and complexity so many seem to lack; if your turkey is dressed with, say, oysters, go for it.

The 2004 Masi Campofiorin Ripasso reveals its fermentation method in the name: ripasso is a process that passes fresh wine over semi-dried grapes, yielding a second fermentation that boosts body and concentration. It’s beautifully complex and would be stellar with that backstrap mentioned earlier.

Pushing our price point, but worth it, is the 2003 Brolo de Campofiorin, even fuller and more robust than the Ripasso. Made from corvina and rondinella grapes, this is a wine at once unfamiliar and yet somehow comforting. Welcome it into your home this holiday season and see what develops.

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