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Value Vino

Smart wines from 2011 ... for 2012

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Although it has always seemed a little like cheating, recapping an entire year is useful for critics feeling the end-of-year time crunch. Hence, a few standouts: all falling within the $20 limit (though some were purchased on sale). Year-of-the-Dragon-type aphorism: sale karma is enhanced by a prepared palate.

I had one of those place-over-price epiphanies in Orvieto years ago, wherein a simple carafe of the local white seemed like a godly elixir after viewing the gold-mosaicked cathedral façade in a slowly fading sunset; never afterwards did the wine taste the same. Either memories have faded or wine-making has improved (or both), but a recently sampled Santa Christina 2010 CampoGrande Orvieto revived my interest in the wine. It had a golden raisin/elderflower nose that gave way to green melon, tart pineapple, and later, red grapefruit on the palate.

Washington State doesn't have the historical baggage/advantage of Italy; there are no exquisite cathedrals sitting atop rock outcroppings to tweak one's perceptions; a wine needs to stand on its own. The 2008 Hogue Columbia Valley Riesling does just that. There's a great nose of smoke and mineral perfumed with a little jasmine and white peach; the palate offers up some of the same fruit (add apricot to the compote) bolstered by bracing acidity. This is just fine for sipping very cold but would work equally well with spicy cuisine such as a chile-spiked shrimp sauté.

Another grape that can cloy in the wrong hands is torrontés, now finding its true home in Argentina. Gougenheim's 2010 Valle Escondido Mendoza Torrontés avoids the raisiny quality that sometimes bedevils this muscat relative, substituting instead spicy aromas paired to a palate of almond, green melon, and maybe even a touch of Granny Smith. Plus some citrus… and all of this at around $12.

Among the reds, it was good to return to Pillar Box Red, a perennially dependable blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot from South Australia — despite the fact that Robert Parker likes it. The licorice, blueberry, blackberry, and all of it in spades, just doesn't quit. Think steak (not shrimp) on the barbie for this powerhouse, usually under $10.

The 2008 Bodegas Caro Malbec Cabernet Mendoza, a product of Domaines Barons de Rothschild and Nicolas Catena, may cost a little more (maybe $17-$18), but the slight splurge is worth it. Cassis, leather, cedar, spice, coffee… you name it, it's there in the nose and on the palate. "Big but not burly — more of a gentle giant," say my notes… and it was great with a Tomme de Crayeuse cheese from Central Market. Equally earthy, here sporting ripe black plum and blackberry, was Spain's LAN Rioja 2006 Crianza. Ripeness on the palate was countered by good acid and bright tannins that mellow in the glass. Smooth but never flabby.

If sampling these excellent and affordable wines isn't resolution enough for 2012, try recapping that bottle of wine more often; it's not always necessary to drink it to the bottom in one sitting.

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