Starter Wines

Scott Greenberg, special to

Last week, I touched on a couple of ways that consumers who want to learn more about wine can do so by reading wine books and attending tastings. But when it comes right down to it, the best thing to do is to simply taste more wine. The trick, however, is finding wines that will expand your horizons without shrinking your bank account.

The idea of spending north of a $100 on a bottle of wine for a learning experience is a bit outlandish, if not impractical. The good news is that with advances in winemaking techniques and choices from more countries, there are some very good wines that offer a lot of “palate education” for the money.

With a little bit of research and a lot of tasting, I have compiled a list of several wines that any wine novice or accomplished enthusiast can cut their wine teeth on for around $12 a bottle.

One of the best ways to really get a feel for a particular varietal is to try it “naked” – meaning without any oak treatment during the winemaking or aging process. The wines made by Ryan Flock for Simply Naked allows the expression of each type of grape to shine on its own. Ryan makes a Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that are clean, fresh, and straightforward, using premium fruit that has been sourced from some of the best regions in California. One of the most remarkable aspects of these wines is how fruit-centric the palate is while remaining balanced and structured. Best of all, they are each $10.

Originally launched in 1998, Echelon Vineyards was created to showcase fruit from the Central Coast region of California. Today, Echelon Vineyards has expanded its roots beyond the Central Coast to showcase the characteristics unique to several of California’s diverse appellations by introducing their “California Series” of wines. Echelon sources fruit for their new brand from a mixture of winegrowing regions including Lodi, the San Joaquin Valley, Monterey County and the Central Coast. Winemaker Kurt Lorenzi combines the best of these regions to layer flavors and complexity. For example, grapes from the cool, coastal valleys are used in the Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio ($10) wines and have great concentration and structure, while grapes for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Red Blend ($12) come from the warmer, interior valleys and add richness and suppleness.

One of the old wine tasting rules of thumb assumes that Italian wines must be paired with food. Castello di Gabbiano has two wines that will let you be the judge of that. The 2010 Gabbiano Chianti DOCG ($10) is a new-world Tuscan red that is aged in stainless steel tanks. It offers up pretty floral aromas and complimentary flavors of red cherry and dark strawberry. While the bright acidity would love to play with a tomato-based pasta dish, the sweet tannins are content to remain a solo act. The 2010 Gabbiano Pinot Grigio ($10) is perfectly happy performing on its own. Aromas of acacia flowers and citrus on the nose combine with flavors of tropical fruit and citrus in the mouth to deliver a wine that is crisp and clean. Winemaker Federico Cerelli adds touch of chardonnay to provide depth and balance.

The Familia Zuccardi line of wines hails from the Mendoza region of Argentina. They recently introduced a line of wines named Santa Julia ($10) that include Torrontes, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They use grapes are sustainably farmed on their own estate. The 2010 Torrontes and the 2010 Malbec offer an interesting dichotomy from white to red. The Torrontes offers up notes of white peaches, orange rind, pear and citrus flavors that are delicate, while the Malbec is full-bodied, featuring ripe plums, blackberries and mocha flavors and a long, expressive finish. Both are good examples of their varietal’s characteristics.

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