In the under-$10 wine crapshoot, an impressive Spanish white

In the middle of summer, I crave fresh, lighter white wines, preferably with little or no oak but with good complexity and a price that will permit me to buy plenty of them to have on hand to sip with weekend lunches, before dinner or with the fresh fish and shellfish. 

With those requirements, I tend to gravitate to the wines of the lesser-known appellations of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, which can still offer excellent values. One of them is  Avelino Vegas’s 2013 “Abadía Real” verdejo-viura blend, a $9 Vino de la Tierra from the large Castilla y León region of northwest Spain.

In the classification hierarchy of Spanish wines, Vinos de la Tierra are a step below  Denominación de Origen wines, but as this one shows, they can over-deliver on quality for the price, which is exactly what I’m looking for. With modest alcohol of 12 percent, the wine is both easy to drink and interesting, with pear, white peach, tropical fruit and subtle vanilla notes. An impressive summer value. Imported by Spain Wine Collection, Congers, N.Y.


Prohibition ended 80 years ago today

It was on this day back in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended Prohibition after roughly 14 years. Take a look at this old newsreel on the announcement that includes some classic images showing how authorities tried to enforce the ban on alcohol.

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Sips: From California, Donelan's Kobler Vineyard Syrah

I've been thinking a lot in recent weeks about a growing trend in California winemaking -- a return to more modest and elegant wines that still have great fruit concentration but with lower levels of alcohol. Some of this has to do with weather conditions, some with vineyard location and some with a winemaker's decision on when to harvest grapes (the longer they hang the higher the sugar and resulting alcohol levels).

You may have read about an excellent Dry Creek Valley zinfandel from Dashe Cellars that I reviewed in my column on NBCNews.com. Its alcohol is a modest 13.7 percent. Another superb wine in this more modest style comes from Donelan Family Wines in Sonoma, which produces a line of vineyard designated wines, mostly syrahs, but also a pinot noir, a chardonnay and a rousanne-viognier blend.

One of Donelan's syrahs, the 2010 Kobler Family Vineyard Syrah from the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, is among the  most beautiful California syrahs I have tasted, a wine of retrained elegance, wonderful balance and gorgeous fruit. And here's the kicker: the alcohol level is a mere 12.8 percent, a function, to some extent, of the cool 2010 vintage.

What does this mean in terms of what you'll experience in the glass? This is a wine that is at once complex and effortless to drink, a wine that easily invites you to take another sip, to pour the next small glass. Sip again and repeat. Aged for two years in French oak, none of it new, the wine is plummy with raspberry and blackberry notes. There's some spice here as well, along with cinnamon and touches of licorice and white pepper.

The wine reminds me more of the northern Rhone than California, but is, hopefully, another sign of a broadening return to leaner times in California winemaking. The suggested price is $45. Recieved as a press sample.


Swirls: A wine to support equality for gay Americans

These days, making wine is often about creating a concept, for better or worse. The store shelves are loaded with bottles depicting everything from animals to cars and trucks to those that donate part of their sales to research on various diseases. And now, a new concept -- a wine billed by its promoters as "the first wine created in support of equality for gay Americans."

It's called Égalité, and it comes to us from Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, an importer based in Rosyln, N.Y., that says it will donate part of the proceeds to organizations that promote quality for gay Americans.

Égalité is a sparkling wine, a Crémant de Bourgogne from France with a suggested price of $24. A press release says that it's the product of "exhaustive research by Biago Cru as well as input from the gay community." A focus group helped develop the name and label.

Part of the strategy, not surprisingly, is to capitalize on moves by an increasing number of states to  legalize same-sex marriage, and Biagio Cru calls its wine "the perfect touch for weddings, engagements, anniversaries, galas, and all celebrations." And it hopes, of course, that the wine will have broad appeal beyond the gay community.



Sips: A classic California cabernet sauvignon, to drink and gift

Beyond Bordeaux, California became synonymous long ago with great cabernet sauvignon. That said, it’s also true that memorable California cabs don’t come inexpensively -- unlike Bordeaux, where it’s still possible to find notable cabernet and merlot blends for $20 or under.

And yet price alone is no guarantee that a California wine (or one from anywhere else) will be interesting, as I discovered the other night when I opened a $60 cabernet wine from a celebrated Napa Valley winery and found it one dimensional. The opulent California fruit was there but not much else.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case with Hanna Winery's 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This superb $39 wine made from 100 percent cabernet has beautiful complexity and balance with a delicious blackberry and black cherry core and undertones of fennel seed and even fresh fennel, giving it a nice licorice note. Ripe tannins round out the picture in a wine that, despite its youth, is drinking very well now. It's a natural for steak and lamb, and as a serious wine for a holiday gift that won't completely break the bank. Available on Hanna's website and elsewhere. Received as a press sample.


Sips: Marqués de Cáceres’s superb 2011 “Deusa Nai” Albariño

Marqués de Cáceres is a big producer based in Spain’s Rioja region, but the winery, it turns out, also bottles a terrific wine from Rías Baixas in Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain. This is white wine country where the most important grape is the indigenous albariño, which is either bottled as a single variety or blended with others. Marqués de Cáceres’s 2011 “Deusa Nai” Albariño is made exclusively from the variety and is among the best of a dozen or more albariños I’ve tasted this year. It’s a wonderful wine for fish and shellfish or on its own as an aperitif. Pear and grapefruit tastes are accented by floral and mineral notes and a touch of vanilla. The price is about $14 and although production is limited (about 6,600 cases), the wine appears to be widely available based on a check of Wine Searcher.


Pasta with a sauce of yellow tomatoes and hot and sweet sausage

A couple of weeks ago, after I reviewed an excellent Tuscan red made by the tenor Andrea Bocelli in my NBCNews.com column , a number of readers asked if I could provide a recipe for the pasta dish I had with the wine. I use yellow tomatoes when available for this sauce because I like their lower acidity and their sweetness, but I have also enjoyed this dish many times with red tomatoes, both fresh and canned, so feel free to substitute them.


½ pound sweet Italian pork sausage
½ pound hot Italian pork sausage
2 tbsps olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
Small bunch of Italian parsley chopped
2 pounds of yellow or red tomatoes, cored, broken apart by hand or coarsely chopped
1 pound penne, fusilli or other pasta
Grated Parmesan cheese


Spoon the olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, preferably cast iron. Add sausage (if sausage is in casings squeeze the meat out). Over low to medium heat, break sausage into small pieces with a wooden spatula and cook for 10 minutes or so, tossing frequently, until nicely browned but not burned. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and stir with onions and sausage until golden. Add tomatoes and mix thoroughly with other ingredients. Use the spatula to break the tomatoes apart. Cook over a low flame, partially covered, for 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes have softened. Remove cover. Break tomatoes apart more with spatula if needed. Simmer 10-15 minutes more until tomatoes have cooked down and sauce has thickened. Stir in parsley. Toss with penne, fusilli or your favorite pasta and top with grated Parmesan. Serves 4.


Sips: La Quercia’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

I am always on the hunt for juicy, fruit-forward Italian reds, the kind I can pop open on the spur of the moment to enjoy with pasta, pizza or other casual foods. One that really over-delivers for $11 or so is a red from the Abruzzo region, La Quercia’s 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

This is a relatively soft, easy-drinking casual wine that’s made from the native montepulciano grape without oak and is all about the fruit – blackberry and blueberry tastes with a hint of unsweetened chocolate on the finish. When you breathe it in, it fills the nose with these dark fruit aromas. It’s delicious on its own and, as I said, is a versatile wine for all kinds of Italian and other dishes at a price that can’t be beat.

Imported by August Wine Group, Seattle, Washington. Received as a press sample.