I’ve been tasting all kinds of sparkling wines in recent weeks with an eye toward suggesting some satisfying and economical choices for New Year’s and beyond.  There is, of course, nothing quite like Champagne (we’re talking about the genuine thing). Eric Asimov of The New York Times makes the case in his column last week  that it’s a good time to buy Champagne because prices are down; he includes one of my perennial favorites, Pol Roger Brut. I’m going to look beyond Champagne with some excellent sparkling wines that you can enjoy for a fraction of the cost.


From California, Mumm Napa’s Brut Rose is superb, with nice touches of raspberry, cream and herbs on the finish. It’s well worth the $24 suggested price.

From Washington State, Domaine Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Valley Brut is very dry with fine bubbles and notes of pear, lemon, bread and herbs. At $12, it has unusual richness.

Also from Washington, Pacific Rim’s “White Flowers” Brut Sparkling Riesling, $14, is tangy and tart with white peach, lemon and lime notes. A natural pairing with shellfish and even caviar.

From Argentina, Trapiche’s Extra Brut, $12, is crisp and light with apple and citrus notes. Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York.

And from Italy, Oriel’s Prosecco 360 is a rich interpretation of the classic Italian sparkler. At about $15 or so, it has nice touches of pear and strawberry and a yeasty finish.

In tasting these and other non-Champagne sparklers, I was reminded once again that, at relatively reasonable prices, they offer a festive and satisfying experience. And in this economy, who isn’t looking for that? On that note, I’ll raise my glass and offer my best wishes for a happy and successful 2010.


Wine in a box (yes, good wine)

The innovative wine company Yellow + Blue has come out with its fourth offering, a crisp sauvignon blanc from Chile. It joins a malbec and a torrontes from Argentina and a rosé of syrah and monastrell from Spain that, together, present  a quartet  of excellent wines for everyday drinking. See my MSNBC.com column on Yellow + Blue from earlier this year. IMG_3890_2[1]

The wines are all made from organic grapes, which is worth applauding in itself. They’ve also made me a convert to wine in a box, a concept that I found a bit difficult to swallow until now. The wines come in one-liter boxes that contain one-third more wine than a typical glass bottle. The juice is shipped to this country in containers and then packed  in the Tetra Pak boxes. The process reduces the carbon footprint of shipping wine. (The  point is that Yellow + Blue = green.) The 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s Central Valley is fermented in stainless steel with native (naturally occurring) yeasts and shows notes of lime and orange with a bit of vanilla on the finish. It has a suggested price of $11. Once you pour yourself a glass, you’ll quickly forget that it came from a box.


A Spanish red with some age

If there is a downside to tasting so many new releases, it is that they are, well, new. While many wines – red and white – are intended for early drinking, especially those at the lower end,  higher-quality wines will almost always improve with age. The point was driven home to me again the other night when, after opening a newly released red from France, I had a yearning for something with a few years of bottle age.

After a quick search of my home wine collection, I pulled a Spanish red from the rack. It was from the Ribera del Duero region -- Prado Rey’s 1999 Reserva, which is 95 percent tinto fino (tempranillo), three percent cabernet sauvignon and two percent merlot. As I recall,  this wine didn’t leave much of an impression when I tasted it on release four or five years ago. But now, a decade into its life, it had started to come into its own. The fruit, a combination of dried red berries and fig, was joined by an appealing earthy rusticity and a backdrop of muted cedar. Still quite tannic, it had several more years to go before reaching its prime. But this taste, in midlife, foreshadowed even better things to come. Wine, indeed, is one of the things in life that improves with age.


Washington wines

I was impressed by a number of new releases from Seven Hills Winery in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley.  Seven Hills  grows grapes in its own vineyards and sources fruit from other growers in five Washington state appellations and, in the case of an excellent pinot gris, from a vineyard in the Umpqua  Valley in southern Oregon.

The 2008 Oregon Pinot Gris is made in a crisp, mineral-driven style (just 10 percent of it has oak contact) and is well 4-288priced at $16. Another real value is the 2008 Columbia Valley Riesling, $12, a lovely, off-dry wine with “wet pebble” aromas and pear, apricot and lime tastes. Among the reds, the 2006 Columbia Valley Tempranillo, $22, is an exciting interpretation of the Spanish variety that is gaining a foothold in Washington. It’s fruit forward with concentrated blackberry, blueberry and herb tastes. The 2006 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Seven Hills Vineyard” is accessible and bright with sweet tannins and blackberry and vanilla notes. It’s $32 and drinks well now. Do I smell a steak?