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I was excited to re-try the Tasmanian wines I had lugged back. DGS was a cozy affair – about a dozen people, just enough to squeeze around the dining table. For food, we prepared cheese and chocolate fondue, along with chicken and steak, tons of fruits, bread, and mum-made walnut brownies. Very nice (and affordable) spread, if I say so myself. :)

We kicked off the evening with the bright and refreshing Riesling from Stefano Lubiana, the Stefano Lubiana Alfresco Riesling 2008. Everyone really enjoyed the slight tinge of sweetness and the fizz on their tongues. Wonderful way to get the taste buds alive.

We opened the Bay of Fires Chardonnay 2008 next. In comparison to the Riesling, this was heavy, but with enough acidity to make it lively and not dumb. Now this is a nicely balanced Chardonnay – just a touch of butter and lemon.

We moved on to the Moorilla Estate Praxis Pinot Noir 2008 from Hobart next. Now this one had a lovely nose – fruity, with some earth, just the way I like my Pinots. It had a nice solid body too, though still smooth.

Our next wine, the Pipers Brook Tamar 2004, elicited mixed responses. Everyone fervently agreed that it did smell like ketchup, but some, like RX, was not a fan. Where’s the fries, she asked.

We then went back to Stefano Lubiana, for the Stefano Lubiana Merlot 2006. Now, I remember that it wasn’t my favorite wine from the trip; we just felt like we had to buy at least two bottles from that winery, since we were getting Lubiana to help us ship a case of wine back to Singapore. Nonetheless, it was a solid wine, and RX expressed her enthusiasm for it.

At this point, people were starting to flag a little from the hearty food and wine. So I broke out the Delamere Blanc de Blanc 2004, a beautifully made sparkling that had just the right touch of yeast, bubbles, and sweetness. Loved it!

We sat around chatting and laughing for a while more, about all things irreverent, and then I decided to open another bottle, the Frogmore Creek Ruby Pinot Noir Port NV. I loved this port. The Frogmore Creek tasting was our last winery tasting, and I had resolved not to buy any more. However, the port was so delicious I couldn’t help it. So it was a delight to drink it again, and a bonus when RX decided she had had enough and gave me the rest of her glass. :)

Fun times, great wines. I didn’t check, but I do hope that everyone went away with similarly favorable impressions of Tasmanian wines.

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From the WSJ:

The Top Wine Bargains of 2007
December 21, 2007; Page W1

Just because something is inexpensive doesn’t make it a good deal. In our real lives, we all know that. That beef on sale might be fatty, that cheap golf ball might not fly well and that bargain-priced toy might be full of lead. It’s the same thing with wine. Many of the low-priced wines on shelves these days aren’t good values at any price because they aren’t pleasing. They’re made in industrial quantities from watery grapes and taste more like some sugar-alcohol concoction than wine. This is especially true of the most-popular varietals, the hot sellers such as Merlot and Chardonnay. In a tasting early this year of American Chardonnay under $20, for instance, only six of almost 70 wines rated Good or better. That’s nuts.

At the same time, though, there have never been as many genuinely good wines available at low prices. The trick, in most cases, is to look beyond the usual suspects. The world right now is awash in wine as country after country, from Austria to Uruguay, improves its winemaking and seeks to compete in the international marketplace.

We went back over our blind tastings for 2007 to see how many wines that cost $10.99 or less rated Very Good or better. There were nine. As we looked them over, we were reminded again how important it is to search for bargains in unexpected places in the wine store. Here are those nine wines.

It would not be a good idea to look for these specific labels at this point because we wrote about them some time ago, some really early in the year. What we’ve tried to do is use them as examples to point you to larger categories that might be useful to keep in mind as you look for bargains in the coming year. In one case, as you’ll see, the point is that, regardless of what we think, there are always exceptions. Also, because this list is based on our blind tastings during 2007, some of today’s great bargains — Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, which we wrote about in 2006, for instance — aren’t included. In addition, we found in a tasting that Malbec from Argentina continues to be a great deal overall; three of our eight favorites cost less than $10, though none rated Very Good or higher, so they don’t appear on this list. Having already concluded a couple of tastings for January columns, we can assure you this list will be different next year.

Powers Winery Muscat Canelli (Columbia Valley) 2006 ($10.33) and Maddalena Vineyards Muscat Canelli (Paso Robles) 2004 ($10.50). In general, sweet wines tend to be underpriced because they’re not very popular. Muscat Canelli is a lovely, fresh, light, sweet wine that’s perfect for guests after a big meal. In our tasting, we generally found the wines beautifully made and as charming as a smile. Especially considering the low prices, you really should think about taking a gamble on a Muscat Canelli even if you’re sure you don’t like sweet wines.

Torres de Anguix “Barrica” Ribera Del Duero 2003 ($9.99). If you are looking for bargains — well-made, interesting wines at good prices — you need to spend some time in the Spain aisle of your wine store, and this is just one example. This was one of the most outrageous bargains of the year. We wrote that it was “earthy and soulful, with fine structure and medium weight. Highly drinkable and interesting and just about bursting with blueberry-like fruit.” Ribera Del Duero is available at all price points, but we found that it was a good value up and down the ladder and is definitely a wine to look for.

Bodegas Muga Rosé (Rioja) 2006 ($10.99), Toad Hollow Cellars “Eye of the Toad” Dry Pinot Noir Rosé (Sonoma County) 2006 ($10.99), Château d’Oupia Rosé (Minervois) 2006 ($10.95). Rosé is suddenly very popular, which is both good news and bad news. The bad news, we found in a tasting, is that some wineries are trying to take advantage of its popularity by selling sweet, simple and cynical rosé — exactly the kind of stuff that turned people off to rosé in the first place and could kill this nascent trend. The good news is that there are still quite a few excellent, tasty, dry rosés on shelves from all over the world. These three are from Spain, France and the U.S. American vintners have come a very long way in rosé in a short time and Spain’s rosés have impressed us for some time, but our blind tasting showed that the French still have a very special touch with rosé and, in a hurry or a jam, that’s where we’d look for a lively, dry rosé.

Geyser Peak Winery Sauvignon Blanc (California) 2006 ($7.99). This is a golden age for Sauvignon Blanc, with excellent examples coming from just about everywhere, from New Zealand to Chile to South Africa. With all of the competition, it’s no surprise that there are some bargains to be had. We think American Sauvignon Blanc has found a great middle ground, with some of the weight of Sancerre and some of the mouth-popping liveliness of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. As we wrote about the Geyser Peak, one of our long-time favorites, it “tastes true” — and that is high praise for any wine.

Georges Duboeuf Juliénas 2005 ($10.99). Whenever we talk about bargain wines, we always note that there are some classics, and our best examples are always Beaujolais and Muscadet from France. We didn’t conduct a tasting of Muscadet this year, but we did try a large sampling of 2005 Beaujolais from the 10 villages. We found the wines delightful and excellent bargains, but none more so than this Juliénas from Duboeuf, which we described as a “big, earthy wine that could stand up to a steak. Chewy and complete. Dignified and serious, yet with lively fruit at the core.” Not bad for $10.99. In the coming year, we would urge you to look for 2006 Beaujolais from the 10 villages: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Regnié and Saint-Amour. These are consistently some of the most effortlessly charming wines on shelves.

Penfolds Wines “Koonunga Hill” Shiraz (South Eastern Australia) 2004 ($9.99). This is the exception. Over the past several years, we have been disappointed with Australian Shiraz under $20. In our tasting this year, we found that the vast majority of the wines continued to be simple, sweet and lacking charm. But, on the plus side, the best of the under-$20 wines were better than in past years, and this was the most notable example, a wine that we described as “dark and rich, with real depth. Serious wine, with good spices.” We certainly hope we find more Shiraz like this in the future.

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Yesterday at Whole Foods, I picked up a box of organic box wine from Australia.  Since September, the organic-friendly supermarket has started offering the Green Path Shiraz and Chardonnay by Organic One Winery in New South Wales. I was intrigued by the fact that it was an organic wine, and that it was in a box.

While I won’t get into the discussion on the supposed merits of organic wines in this entry, I would like to state again for the record that I’m a strong proponent for box wines, even if their quality as it stands currently leaves much to be desired. But, if we can get over our snobbish inclination to keep to the tradition of using corks and convert to screw caps, we should over time be able to accept the still-alien notion of drinking quality wines from boxes. The advantages of box wines are many fold: (1) cheaper; (2) portable; (3) ability to keep for a longer period of time. And demand creates supply. So as wine lovers, we should demand the sale of more – and higher quality – box wines. To that end, suppliers have become increasingly amicable to the idea of box wines. In a recent WSJ article, first growth Bordeaux Château Lagrange cellar master said in response to the shift towards more exotic packaging, “Normally, I am a traditionalist. … But if it works, why not?”

According to Wine Lovers, box wines make up more than one-third of the wines stocked in any Italian supermarkets now. Some of these box wines are packaged in the by now familiar bag-in-box wine package popularized by Australians, but the newest wine receptacles to hit the market are the Tetra Paks. Tetra Paks are soft-sided, flexible cardboard boxes coated with a neutral plastic lining and sealed with a plastic screw cap.

The following is a description of the box design by Wine Lovers:

Lightweight (about 2 1/2 pounds per liter when full of wine, a half-pound less than a 750 ml glass wine bottle holding 25 percent less wine), unbreakable, easy to carry and dispose of, the concept seems made for picnics and travel (although it should be noted that current airline security rules ban liquids from carry-on baggage). The Tetra Pak is also billed as being recyclable, although some Canadian critics have questioned this as a practical matter, as the combination of cardboard and resin requires special handling; empty Tetra Paks can’t simply be recycled with newsprint and office waste and may end up in landfills.

For traditionalists and wine snobs still grappling with the notion of screwcaps and synthetic artificial corks, the notion of re-inventing a mass-market package customarily used for fruit juice, soup or milk may seem more like a nightmare than a dream.

Indeed, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing high-end, ageworthy wines in Tetra Pak in the foreseeable future if ever; this packaging isn’t designed for products with a very long shelf life, and its natural market for wine appears to be everyday quaffers, the basic “spaghetti reds” and “sipping whites” meant to be drunk up while they’re young and fresh.

But from an industry standpoint, that’s hardly a problem, as inexpensive, everyday wines make up the lion’s share of the market. In Italy, it’s reported that Tetra Pak wines already make up one-third of all supermarket wine sales, matching the volume of low-end bottled wines sold there. In Canada, the LCBO blew large quantities of low-cost wine in Tetra Pak off the shelves just about as quickly as it could be packaged.

And even in the U.S., which has been slower to embrace the technology, the amount of wine-shop shelf space devoted to Tetra Pak is growing fast. Among others, “Three Thieves,” a California firm that made a splash in recent years with its inexpensive wines in old-fashioned liter jugs (July 31, 2005 30 Second Wine Advisor), rushed to market a couple of years ago with a new Tetra Brik line of California varietal wines dubbed “Bandit.” The French negociant Boisset has joined the cute-animal-label brigade with colorful Tetra Pak containers labeled “French Rabbit.” And U.S. natural-foods leader Whole Foods got into the stampede last month with an organic Australian wine in Tetra Pak called “Green Path.”

Love the Tetra Pak or hate it, we had might as well get used to it. With the market clearly accepting the concept at least for lower-end wines, the industry has little incentive to turn back, particularly when we consider that a glass bottle and cork adds well over $1 to the cost of every bottle of wine, while Tetra Paks in quantity cost the producer less than 10 cents per unit.

But how about the wine in the package? Two obvious questions arise: Does the container alter the flavor? And just how good is the wine?

Based on a couple of preliminary tastings that I undertook to check whether more extensive “blind” comparative tastings would be justified, my initial response is a cautious, slight positive: The Tetra Pak doesn’t seem to impart bad or “off” flavors, at least assuming that the wine is fresh. Based on this limited sample, though, the wines – consistent with the mass-market standard for box wines and jug wines – are simple, clean but not memorable, barely rising to the level that would appeal to most “wine geeks” except perhaps for a picnic or casual party.

Green Path Shiraz from Organic One’s Billabong Vineyard in Jerilderie, New South Wales, Australia

wholefoodswinesisg.jpg

My thoughts: I first took a sip when I was still sautéing my bratwursts, and immediately grimaced. It was harsh, and sourish, and I felt quite disappointed. Had I just spent $10 on a liter of wine I was going to use as cooking wine? I still had a whole box of old wine I was using for that purpose right then. Later on though, after I was done cooking my pasta, I tentatively took a couple more sips. I don’t know whether it had been mellowed down by the air or the food, but this time the wine tasted much more palatable – jammy, plumy fruit with a pleasant sweet finish. Not much of a nose, but I was distracted by my pasta anyway.

Thoughts from Wine Lovers Page:

Made with organically grown grapes and packaged in Tetra Pak for Whole Foods markets, this is a clear, dark cherry-red. Plumy fruit and aromatic oak with overtones of caramel. Mouth-filling and ripe, forward red fruit and oaky vanilla, a hint of sweetness well balanced by appropriate fresh-fruit acidity. Simple, quaffable; similar to pop-style Australian Shiraz in traditional bottles at the same low-end price point. It might not be my favorite style of wine, but I can’t see any evidence that the Tetra Pak is any less effective a container than glass, and it certainly boasts the advantages of lightweight portability, with a small extra point for the possibility of squeezing out most of the air before closing the plastic screw cap. Decent quaff with the bold flavors of Cuban-style arroz con pollo. U.S. importer: The Country Vintner Inc., Oilville, Va. (Sept. 7, 2007)

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