Wine of the Week: Spring cleaning — wines under $20

WASHINGTON — Just a few weeks ago, snow was on the lawn and in the forecast. My sense of balance was put to the test on several occasions as I struggled to stay upright on icy sidewalks and driveways. It felt as if I was under assault by Mother Nature, herself.

But now, winter is in retreat, and spring — I think — is finally beginning to spring.

What does this have to do with wine? Well, just like squirrels who store their acorns for the winter, I store wine samples. Each fall, I receive bottles of wine from marketing firms, winemakers and vineyards from around the globe. And then it starts anew each spring. The “tasting queue” begins to swell with wines patiently waiting their turn for analysis and judgement.

The challenge is simply keeping up with inventory. Sometimes it’s easy. Certain wines may lend themselves to a particular theme or story line that I am working on. Other times, there may be a notable event (think holiday meals) on the horizon where I can slip in a particular wine or two. Either way, I try very hard to make sure that the “good” wines get the exposure they deserve. After all, I feel a certain obligation to the nice people who go out of their way to navigate the myriad of legal red-tape just to get the wines sent my way. I owe it to them and, more importantly, I owe it to my listeners and readers.

Each week, the boxes are opened and the wines are organized into groups, and then sampled to see which wines will make the cut. For those wines that don’t fall into any specific topic or theme, I set them aside and hope that I can work them into a story along the way. Since I now have a pile of good wines and no theme, I thought it might be time to do my version of spring cleaning. But what unifying theme could I use to tie all of these delicious-but-disparate wines together?

Thanks to a friendly Uber driver during a recent trip to the airport, the theme presented itself. He was a frequent listener to this station and was even familiar with the Wine of the Week segment. However, he was often disappointed that I did not review enough wines in his price range — under $20.

And he’s not alone: Most consumers want to find a good bottle of wine that won’t break the bank. According to Nielsen’s Beverage Alcohol Practice, the average price per bottle of wine in the U.S. eclipsed the $10 mark in 2015 and continues to climb.

So, I consider this column a win-win: I get to give my Uber driver a few good “under $20” wine tips while clearing out my tasting queue. I just hope he’s listening.

Carménère is a transplant from Bordeaux, France, where it was once considered to be one of the six (now five) noble grapes of the famed region. It’s now found almost exclusively in Chile where it has become known as the national grape of that country. The 2016 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carménère from Chile boasts scents of black plum, blueberry and cocoa on the fragrant nose. Flavors of plum, black cherry, coffee and dusty spices coat the palate on a medium-bodied frame but get an extra boost from the hints of warm chocolate on the soft finish. A nice pairing with dried fruits and soft, ripe cheeses. $11

Vineyards located in the cooler climate of Monterey County in the central coast of California provide the fruit for the 2017 Hahn Pinot Gris. The intense bouquet explodes with scents of white flowers, juicy stone fruits and wet stone. This extraordinarily easy-drinking wine emphasizes flavors of nectarine, white peach and melon highlighted by abundant acidity. Citrus notes provide a tangy and refreshing finish. $15

The Guigal family of France has made serious rosé wines since the 1940s, and their 2017 Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rosé, like all their Côtes du Rhône wines, is a genuine value. Produced using a blend of grenache (70 percent), cinsault (20 percent) and syrah (10 percent) from low-yielding vines, it sports a beautiful bouquet of raspberry and cherry on the nose with fresh, clean strawberry and cherry flavors in the mouth, with just a touch of watermelon on the crisp, clean finish. Pair this with fresh fruit tart. $15

If you’re looking for a pinot noir under $15 that actually tastes like pinot noir, try the 2016 Alfredo Roca Pinot Noir from the Mendoza region of Argentina. This highly enjoyable wine is a round, full-bodied pinot, with scents of black cherry and vanilla aromas, and flavors of plum, strawberry and dark raspberry fruit on the palate. There is an unexpected baking-spice quality on the soft, bright finish. $12

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