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Sleuthing for Hidden Treasure: Wines Under $20

Sleuthing for hidden treasure: wines under $20


I’ve had wonderful wines for $10, horrible vintages for $90, and unexpected delights for $20, all of which have convinced me that much of wine’s pricing is hype…or lack thereof.

Most of us can’t afford $50 wines every night, but something in the $6-$20 range is probably doable for most folks. And it’s certainly the range my family and friends inhabit, often with excellent results.

So, let’s take a look at some terrific fall wines.

As warm days and cool nights of autumn arrive, transitional wines are perfect, departing from the lighter selections of summer and leading into the heavier wines that accompany hearty, winter meals. You might still be barbequing or enjoying a bit of sharper cheese for appetizers, so each of these wines should work well for you.

You know that  when the first words you utter after tasting a wine are “Oh, yum,” you have a winner. Such it was with my first taste of the Barbera wine produced by Basalt Cellars, just across the Snake River from Lewiston, Idaho.

The Clarkston cellar is small, but don’t judge a winery by its size! Once through the door of the redone industrial building, you’ll find an intimate tasting room and some lovely wines. For this issue, their Barbera is the star. Once an exclusive, moderately priced popular wine of northern Italy, Barbera has been migrating around the world.

Although most Barbera grapes are still found in Italy, around 7,000 acres are now grown in the US. All of the grapes for Basalt’s Barbera come from Washington’s Tri-Cities area. Barbera is an old-grape variety, arriving on the scene a full thousand years before cabernet sauvignon. Basalt’s Barbera is medium bodied but not wimpy, has an absolutely gorgeous aroma redolent of ripe, juicy blackberries, feels warm in your mouth, is lower in tannin but more robust in acidity.

The color is deep and intense. The grapes used in this wine are 100 percent Barbera, aged 17 months in oak barrels. This was our wine of choice for eclipse viewing in August, and all our guests agreed this is one fine wine.

It would be scrumptious with a pesto or marinara sauce over pasta with some sharp, freshly grated Asiago cheese. But during the eclipse, we drank it unaccompanied by food, and it was just right for the occasion. It is an absolutely beautiful transition wine from the Italian tradition and at $18 is priced just right.

Another wonderful red for fall is Apothic Crush. Apothic Winery is based in California, with Debbie Juergenson as winemaker, featuring all California grapes in its offerings. Crush is a blend of predominantly pinot noir and petit sirah.

Grapes for this wine come from the Lodi area of California known for producing wines that are balanced with rich flavors. The year 2015 had ideal growing conditions and perfect weather in the fall, allowing the fruit to mature evenly and develop richer flavor. According to the Apothic winemaking notes, the pinot noir grapes were “cold soaked for two to three days prior to fermentation and then held its fermentation between 82 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit” to further enhance flavor.

This is a balanced blend that feels smooth and silky in the mouth, not astringent, and redolent of lush, ripe raspberries, or better yet, wild thimbleberries, which have a more tart and intense flavor.

Underlying the fruit is the slightest suggestion of chocolate and just a ghost of caramel as well. Juergenson is known for looking for intense aromas and bold flavors, and she’s hit just the right note with Crush. In fact, I would say this is an excellent wine for those unfamiliar with reds.

It is approachable, not overbearing, goes well with a variety of foods, and is just delightful on its own. It is fresh, but not a lightweight. It has a richness that I enjoy immensely and have yet to find someone who hasn’t appreciated it as much as I do. And I can reliably find it under $10: it’s a best buy for fall!

Finally, it can be hard, for me at least, to find a white that makes the transition from summer to fall. While some luscious chardonnays enliven winter gatherings, October and November seem abandoned by many winemakers.

Gone are the days of sprightly pino grigio or sweet moscato, but what is there to take their place? The Fumé Blanc Dry Sauvignon Blanc from Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland, Wash., is just perfect for this time of year.

Rob Griffin and his wife, Deborah Barnard, have a fabulous winery complete with elegant tasting room and restaurant, called The Kitchen, which features farm-to-fork dining for lunch and dinner.

The menu is eclectic and provides an array of food choices, and wines by the glass or bottle to match any appetite. Barnard also has a fused glass studio on site, one of a kind for wineries across the country.

Griffin began his winemaking career in 1977, working for Preston Winery and then as winemaker and general manager for Hogue Cellars 1984-91.

The couple’s own label came out in 1983, and the winery was completed in 1996. The Fumé Blanc was a delightful surprise for me and a close friend: it was the first time for both of us to sample a wine from Barnard Griffin, and it certainly won’t be the last. The aroma from the glass was redolent of melon and pear with a touch of lime with a fresh, lingering finish.

All Columbia Valley grapes are used in the Fumé Blanc with 95.15 being sauvignon blanc and 4.9 sémillon. This wine was from 2015 grapes when eastern Washington experienced an excessively hot summer, but with low nighttime temperatures. This allowed the acids in the fruit to mature and develop complexity. This is a fruit-forward wine that would go well with mild white fish or lighter appetizers.

We tried it with seared halibut and also with creamy Havarti cheese on multigrain crackers, and it complemented both very nicely. But we enjoyed the wine on its own as well, and both of us agreed this is one of the nicest white wines we’ve ever tasted. At under $15 a bottle, you simply can’t go wrong buying this wine…and enjoying it any time of year!

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