Four delicious reds for $20 and under

If you scan the shelves of your local wine shop, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that you can spend virtually any amount of money on a bottle of wine. That could be just a few dollars or literally thousands. Of course, most of us aren’t going to spend anywhere near the upper end, and the bottom end is, shall we say, hit and miss. That leaves a very wide middle ground to consider.

Within that I have often found the $15 to $20 range to be of interest for a number of reasons. On the one hand, while no dollar figure guarantees you’re going to like a wine, spending more than $15 increases the odds that it’s a well-made selection. And for a lot of wine drinkers, $20 is a bit of a glass ceiling for everyday drinking. So here are four red wines that perfectly fit into that price window. Two of them are from California’s Paso Robles, and the others are from Chile’s Viña Ventisquero. Both of those areas also represent places one can still find a lot of outstanding values for everyday drinking, which is precisely what these wines represent to me.

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Chronic Cellars 2013 Suite Petite ($15)

Suite Petite is composed of Petite Sirah (87 percent) and Syrah (13 percent). I’ll tell you a secret about my wine tastes: I love Petite Sirah. The truth is, when I’m out tasting, I will never turn down a Petite Sirah, no matter what. So with that in mind, I’m always interested in drinking them and seeing what they’re like. This example from Chronic Cellars does a really nice job for $15. The dark nose is full of violet and plum aromas, along with bits of leather and sage. Black cherry, blackberry and an avalanche of dark fruits mark the juicy palate. Plum pudding spices, black pepper and a touch of chocolate sauce are evident on the finish. Nice tannins and sufficient acid provide solid structure. If you like your wine dark and somewhat brooding, here you go.

Chronic Cellars 2014 Purple Paradise ($15)

This offering is a blend of Zinfandel (70 percent), Syrah (14 percent), Petite Sirah (11 percent) and Grenache (5 percent). This Zinfandel-dominated wine has a healthy dollop of Petite Sirah blended in, which I’m quite fond of. Not just because I love Petite Sirah, though – Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are great partners. If they were in a band together, Zin would provide the screaming lead guitar and Petite Sirah would hold down the bottom end with some deep bass notes. Red raspberry aromas lead the nose. Blueberry, plum and more raspberry are evident on the somewhat jam-laden palate. Toast, white pepper and strawberry notes are all evident on the clean finish. Whether your Tuesday night dinner consists of pizza, burgers or a tamale pie casserole, this wine is going to carry the day for a song.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards: Delicious wines & great value

Toad Hollow Vineyards was founded in 1994 by a group of friends. They launched their winery with “Francine’s Selection,” an unoaked Chardonnay. At the time, particularly in California, this was not only uncommon, it also ran against the trend. Defying what was popular, Francine’s Selection was a huge hit and sent the vineyard off and running. In the years since, their portfolio has expanded to include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet and more. I tasted through some brand new releases and found a lot of deliciousness for a small amount of money.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay ($13.99)

This Chardonnay is produced from fruit sourced in Mendocino County. It’s made up entirely of Chardonnay. The 2014 bottling represents the 22nd vintage of this wine, the most popular in their lineup. The moment you stick your nose in the glass, a burst of fresh, unadulterated apple and pear aromas leap out. The palate is similarly stuffed with oodles of fresh fruit flavors accompanied by hints of spice. All of these characteristics continue on the long, fruit-laden finish. This is a delicious, easy-to-drink Chardonnay that you’re going to want a second glass the moment the first is empty.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 “Eye of the Toad” Rosé ($11.99)

This dry Rosé is composed entirely of Pinot Noir sourced at a variety of vineyards throughout Sonoma County. Toad Hollow has been producing a dry Rosé for 20 years, well ahead of its current popularity in the U.S. A hint of crème fraiche underpins the freshly picked strawberry aromas that inform the nose here. Bing cherry and continued strawberry notes are in evidence on the beautiful and bone dry palate. White pepper and continued red fruit flavors are evident on the crisp, zippy finish. If you need a perfect pairing partner for fried chicken, this is it.

Toad Hollow Vineyards Merlot ($16.99)

This offering is composed entirely of Merlot sourced at the Richard McDowell Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. These 16 acres were planted in 1995. Ripe wild strawberry and raspberry aromas fill the nose. The palate is loaded with darker fruit flavors such as black raspberry and cherry, as well as black pepper and hints of toast. Light bits of espresso and a touch of dusty cocoa emerge on the finish, along with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. This is a well-priced and tasty example of Merlot.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($19.99)

This is a single-vineyard Pinot with all the fruit coming off of “Goldie’s Vineyard,” their estate property. After fermentation and being racked twice, it was aged in French oak for 14 months. Rose petal and red cherry aromas leap from the nose here. The palate is full of even-keeled red fruit flavors supported by a significant spice component. Bits of savory herb, sour red fruits and continued spices are apparent on the long, even finish. This terrific under-$20 Pinot Noir will pair well with a remarkably wide array of foods.

All of these wines represent better than average values. The Pinot Noir, though, is the steal of the bunch. This notoriously fickle and difficult to master grape is also one of the hardest to find at a bargain. At under $20, this offering from Toad Hollow Vineyards is precisely that. Buy a case and drink it as a house wine. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value in California Pinot Noir.

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Robert Oatley is making tasty wines from all over Australia

Although the Robert Oatley Vineyards is located in Mudgee, they don’t limit themselves to fruit from that region. Instead, they look throughout Australia and source grape varieties in the Australian regions where they thrive most. They use sustainable practices and strive to be as organic as possible. They produce a wide swath of wines that show off good varietal character. I recently tasted through a number of their current releases and found a lot to like. Here are some thoughts on a few of my favorites.

Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc ($18)

Lemon zest aromas inform the welcoming nose; subtle bits of grass and white pepper are present as well. The palate is gently layered with white peach and other stone fruits. A hint of marzipan emerges on the finish, alongside bits of sour yellow melon and grapefruit. This Sauvignon Blanc has a really soft and lovely mouth-feel. It goes down easy and features lots of solid character. It also rides the middle of the Sauvignon Blanc line; it’s not super citrusy, overly grassy, nor extremely tropical. Instead, it draws bits from all of those camps.

Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series Margaret River Chardonnay ($18)

Anjou pear and wisps of white peach emerge from the nose here. The palate is fruit-forward, while remaining proportionate and lovely. Lots of orchard and stone fruit characteristics are joined by subtle hints of spice. Bits of limestone are present on the above-average finish. There is a nice weight and terrific feel to this wine; I simply didn’t want to put it down. It’s a really expressive and clean Chardonnay that is gently accented by oak.

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Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series McLaren Vale GSM ($18)

This wine is a blend of Grenache (60 percent), Shiraz (30 percent) and Mourvedre (10 percent). There’s a gentle bit of pleasing tar on the nose, alongside a potpourri of red fruit aromas. Blackberry and forest floor elements are in evidence throughout the palate, while earth, minerals and hints of smoked meat are evident on the finish — which is well above average for the price point. This is a fantastic food wine; pair it with all but the lightest or heartiest fare.

Robert Oatley 2014 Signature Series McLaren Vale Shiraz ($18)

Plum, violet and blueberry aromas are tinged by a tiny hint of charcoal on the lovely nose. There’s a ton of black cherry and pepper spice on the palate, along with more blueberry notes. Bits of espresso and sour black fruits mark the finish. Fleshy tannins and firm acid provide good structure. You’ll have a hard time finding a better wine to pair with a burger.

Robert Oatley 2013 Signature Series Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon ($18)

Toast, vanilla, sage and dark berry fruits are all present on the nose here. The palate is stuffed with black fruit flavors, spice and savory herbs. Bits of earth, black cherry and a dusting of cocoa are all present on the finish.

This quintet of wines from Robert Oatley impresses with the quality in the bottle at under $20. In each case, the wine is typical of the variety in question. In the case of the blend, it’s a pretty classic example of a GSM at a very agreeable price. Besides those qualities, these wines are connected by a purity of fruit and lovely textural elements that keep them on the same stylistic page. These are wines that most can afford to drink on a regular basis, but the quality may inspire you to pour them on special occasions too — and that’s okay; they’re clean tasty wines that will enjoy wide appeal. These wines represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Robert Oatley portfolio.

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It’s time to go Greek… with your wine selections

One of the great advantages wine lovers have in the United States is diversity. We have access to wines from all over the world. Certainly some countries and regions represent stronger than others, but more join the party every year. Among those creeping up in visibility and availability in recent years are the wines of Greece. There’s a lot to like with Greek wine. Most importantly for me is that taken as a piece, they tend to be high acid wines that are eminently food friendly. If you’re a wine lover you’re probably pretty interested in what you’re eating too. There are Greek wines perfectly suited for just about any type of cuisine, so don’t get stuck in the idea of needing to pair Greek wines with Greek foods; experiment and you’ll find the matches that work best for you. Here are four offerings from Greece that I recently tasted that hit the spot. Give one or more of them a try with dinner tonight; it might just be a revelation.

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Gavalas Winery 2014 Santorini ($13)

This white wine from Santorini is composed entirely of Assyrtiko. The fruit comes from the most traditional vineyard on the island which is also the oldest in Greece. It was never affected by phylloxera and it sits on its own root stock. Lemon zest, rosemary and thyme aromas are evident on the wonderfully buoyant nose, while sour yellow melon and a who’s who of citrus flavors dominate the palate. Limestone, graphite and bits of clementine emerge on the crisp, dry and refreshing finish. This is a steal for the price. Pair this with light appetizers, creamy cheeses, entrée salads and the like. It’s going to be hard to beat the value here as an everyday white.

Antonopolous 2014 Malagouzia ($20)

This white wine is composed entirely of Malagouzia. All of the fruit was sourced in the Peloponessos region. Orchard fruits, yellow flower and linseed oil aromas are present on the nose here. The palate is studded with a ton of Granny Smith apple notes as well as wisps of white pepper and white peach flavors. Lemon and lime elements, mineral and continued spice notes dominate the above average finish. This wine will pair well with light foods and it’s also delicious sipped on its own.

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Alexakis 2013 Syrah/Kotsifali ($16)

This blend is composed of Kotsifali (60 percent) and Syrah (40 percent). The average age of the vines the fruit was sourced from is 26 years. This is a small, family winery and the second generation is now deeply involved in many aspects of the business. Red cherry, mushroom and sage aromas light up the nose of this red blend. The palate is filled with dried red and black fruits of all kinds, but cherry characteristics dominate. Earth, black pepper and hints of anise are all part of the impressive finish. It has absolutely killer acidity. This wine will pair well with an absolutely astounding array of foods. It’s tasty right out of the bottle, but if you have time, decant it for 45 minutes, because it really blossoms with some air.

Kitma Gerovassiliou 2008 Avaton ($47)

This offering is composed of Limnio (50 percent), Mavroudi (30 percent) and Mavrotragano (20 percent). The winery was established in 1981, and today, they have 54 hectares (about 133 acres) under vine dedicated to a combination of indigenous and international varieties. Mushroom and savory herb aromas lead the nose here, followed by red and black plum aromas. Bits of toast emerge on the palate where black fruits lead the charge along with copious spice notes. Subtle bits of tar, minerals, smoked meat elements and dusty baker’s chocolate lead the long and very expressive finish. This wine is delicious today, but will age well for the next six to eight years. It’s particularly suited to pair with roasted meats and hard cheeses. It has impressive depth and complexity that will please a wide array of wine lovers.

These wines are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Greece. So get out of your Chardonnay and Cabernet routine and try some indigenous Greek wines; they might just blow your mind!

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2015 Holiday Gift Guide: Booze

Walk into any liquor store and you’ll see hundreds of options. You can zero in on someone’s favorite drink when picking a gift, or you can get creative and choose something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. Also, remember that you don’t want to come to a party empty-handed, so get in the habit of at least bringing a bottle.

And for more gift ideas, check out the other categories in our Holiday Gift Guide.

BACARDÍ Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron

If you’re looking for a simple way to class up your bar without breaking the bank, Bacardi’s new Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron is a great addition for under $25. This newly released white rum is crafted to be a high-end mixer, adding a touch of sophistication to the classic cocktails made at home. Besides casually mentioning the “Gran Reserva” label to describe your concoction, you can further impress your guests with the knowledge that the rum has been double aged; it’s initially aged for a year and blended, then returned to white oak barrels for an additional three months. While immediately flavorful upon tasting with light and fruity notes, we found its bite to be a little strong to be sipped on its own. However, stay true to its calling as a mixer, whether in cubas libres, mojitos or daiquiris, and you can’t go wrong. The Gran Reserva was created to pay tribute to the Master Blenders at Bacardi, but everyone might think they passed on some of their distilling secrets to you as well.

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon

Master Distiller Basil Hayden Sr. experimented with the addition of rye to bourbon in 1796, believing the spicy flavor profile of the grain would strikingly complement the sweeter, corn-heavy mash bill, and more than 200 years later, we’re still celebrating his decision one drink at a time. While Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is the lowest proof (80 proof, 40% ABV) in Jim Beam’s Small Batch collection, it brings a near double dose of rye (27%) compared to the others. The resulting flavor profile is “blessed with rich hints of peppermint, notes of pepper, slight citrus overtones and a spicy, warming finish.” If that doesn’t sound inviting during the holidays, we’re not sure what does. We can’t get enough of this bourbon, preferring to drink it neat from a bourbon snifter to maximize its aroma and flavor. But we were also very pleased using it as a mixer in Manhattans, allowing for the rye to add an extra layer of depth to the drink. Putting this all together in a nicely packaged bottle, Basil Hayden’s is that bourbon you break out on special occasions like the holidays.

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