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Originally published Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 12:12 AM

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Buyers get bargains in this jammed wine market

In a jammed wine market, producers are reducing prices and advertising hard to win consumers. That means there are plenty of good wines at reasonable prices these days. Here is a list of recommended good buys, compiled in three "cases" — one featuring excellent Washington wines under $20, one highlighting wines made from unusual grapes and a third highlighting Washington rieslings.

illustrated by Susan Jouflas

The No. 1 topic in the wine world this past year has been the sudden reversal in consumer buying habits. According to all the polls and pundits, you are still drinking wine, but you're drinking more at home, less in restaurants. You are drinking up the cellar and holding off on new purchases. If you're on too many mailing lists, you are dropping some; and if you must purchase wine to stay on a list, you are buying less. And when you buy wine at retail, you are spending about half as much per bottle.

The result of all this is a logjam in the supply stream. The retail accounts (wine shops, grocery stores, wine bars and restaurants) stop buying the pricier wines. The distributors see cases stacking up in warehouses. The wineries watch as their sales slow down dramatically, unless they have an exceptional mailing list, high tasting-room traffic, or they specialize in low-cost wines and get good scores and reviews to go with those low prices. Everyone in the stream is well aware that millions of tons of grapes from 2009, generally considered to be a good to excellent vintage around the world, are already fermenting, ready to go with the flow.

What wineries are doing, as quietly as possible, is dumping wines at bargain-basement prices. Consumers are the beneficiaries. You will not only see name brands selling at discount; you will notice a proliferation of low-priced labels, adorned with bugs, lingerie — whatever some marketing maven thinks will appeal to shoppers looking for a little extra fun.

With all of this in mind, our annual presentation of three themed cases of wine pays particular attention to price.

The dozen wines in Case No. 1, all from excellent Washington vintners, are value offerings that over-deliver. I've looked for prices under $20. I quote suggested retail prices, but you will often be able to find these wines selling for less.

Case No. 2 is for the more adventurous. I like to invite friends to join me in exploratory tastings, and a frequent comment is "I never heard of that; is that a grape?" I've lined up a dozen interesting wines from unusual grapes, often specialties of certain regions, sometimes just a winery experiment that succeeded wonderfully. This is a global look at some of the bottles I've especially enjoyed.

Case No. 3 features a dozen rieslings from the Pacific Northwest. They range from bone dry to off-dry to sweet. Riesling is a particular strength in this region, and more and more are bottled under screw cap. Don't let that be a deterrent; it is no longer the mark of a poor wine. Rather it's an assurance that your wine will be fresh and free of bacterial taint.

CASE NO. 1: WASHINGTON'S BEST VALUE BLENDS

Call them mutt wines, generics, cash-flow wines — they are usually blends of grapes, barrels and vineyards, often given cute names and labels, and priced from $10 to $20. Sometimes winemakers craft these wines by making strict barrel selections, sorting out their less-impressive lots in order to bump up the quality of their best bottles. Sometimes they develop a special label and use purchased fruit to increase production. The quick cash flow then funds the time- and labor-intensive wines that bear the prestige labels. Here are 12 of the best:

Abbey Page ($9). There are three Abbey Page 2008 releases, all Columbia Valley wines: a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon and a syrah. The plain-jane label suggests that not a lot of money was spent on packaging, nor is there an expensive ad campaign to go with these wines. The money went into the juice, and it's excellent. All three are clean, fresh and fruity, with some depth and texture, and no fake oak flavors.

Alexandria Nicole 2006 The Girl Next Door 'Roll in the Hay' Chardonnay ($14). Behind the cute, sexy label is some good chardonnay, barrel-fermented and generous. Peach and citrus fruits lead, with supporting acids and moderate oak flavors of buttery caramel. This series also has an 'Ooh la la' Syrah ($16) and a 'Let's Play' Cabernet ($16).

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Bergevin Lane 2008 Calico White ($16). Calico is one of the most popular white blends made in Washington, and is moving toward an all-Rhône effort — now 44 percent viognier, 37 percent roussanne and just 19 percent chardonnay. Super-refreshing and lightly oaked, with lime, lemon, pale peach and quinine flavors.

Corvidae 2007 Rook ($13). A cabernet, syrah and merlot blend, the Rook (named for an Irish species of crow) is fruit forward, round and sweet; with moderately ripe red fruits in a balanced and accessible style.

Giant Wine Company 2007 The Ghost of 413 Red ($14). From Mark McNeilly (Mark Ryan winery) and Chris Gorman (Gorman winery) comes this affordable blend of cabernet, merlot and syrah. It has been aged for 20 months in French oak and captures the exuberant, full-throttle styling of these excellent vintners.

Hard Row to Hoe 2008 Shameless Hussy Roussanne ($15). This new label, says owner Judy Phelps, is "for wines that don't deliver what they promise." Au contraire; this delivers. Ripe and concentrated flavors mix stone and light tropical fruits with perky acids. You might also keep a lookout for other offerings with the Shameless Hussy moniker from this outstanding Lake Chelan winery.

Kamiak 2007 Rock Lake Red ($15). A Gordon Brothers offering, this cabernet, merlot, syrah and malbec blend has big, dark, toasty tannins and plenty of ripe fruit. Meaty and rich, it shows plenty of power, along with some earthier notes.

Robert Karl 2006 Horse Heaven Hills Claret ($20). At the high end of value pricing, but for a Horse Heaven Bordeaux blend, from Gunselman Bench, Andrews Horse Heaven Ranch, McKinley Springs and Phinny Hill vineyard grapes, aged in 50 percent new oak, this is in a category with bottles such as DeLille's D2 and Quilceda Creek's Red.

Saviah Cellars 2007 The Jack ($15). A smash success from the first vintage, the newest vintage of The Jack is always a happy find. The 2008 is not yet out as of this writing, but the 2007 continued a string of excellence. Winemaker Rich Funk coaxes lovely aromatics, seductive black fruits, and traces of pepper and licorice from this mostly merlot blend.

Syncline Subduction Red ($15). Syncline's James Mantone is producing many of Washington's most brightly expressive Rhône-style reds; this is his take on a Côtes-du-Rhône village wine. The blend usually includes syrah, mourvèdre, grenache, cinsault and sometimes counoise. The 2008 vintage will be out momentarily. Don't worry about a vintage change. Subduction could be renamed Seduction; in any vintage, it's going to please you.

Tamarack Cellars 2007 Firehouse Red ($17). Ron Coleman made 12,000 cases of this wine in 2008, a 50 percent increase in production. "We can't keep up with demand," he tells me. It's the quintessential kitchen-sink blend, with eight or nine grapes. Spicy, high-toned, bright and herbal, it's a classic.

Watermill 2006 Chances R Red ($15). Watermill's latest releases show a winery clearly headed for stardom. Here's a look at why. Two-thirds merlot, excellent vineyard sources (Milbrandt, McClellan Estate, Seven Hills, Stillwater Creek), all American oak-aged.

CASE NO. 2: YOU'RE KIDDING ME; THAT'S A GRAPE?

Here are some interesting varietals you may never have heard of, but I promise they will be fun to explore. Where possible I've included a Washington or Oregon version, as well as one or two from other parts of the world. For most, I've listed the name of the varietal grape first, so you can keep an eye out for others to try if you find that you like the grape.

WHITE WINES

Albariño. Bracing, acidic and lean, good fresh albariño, from the northwest corner of Spain, is made for oysters. Always drink it young. Think of it as a Spanish cousin to muscadet, though the two grapes are unrelated. A few acres are being grown here in the Northwest, notably at Abacela in southern Oregon, and in the Columbia Gorge. Recommended: La Cana ($16), Abacela ($23).

Arneis. This delicious, elegant wine is best in Italy's northwest, where it captures a floral delicacy and luscious minerality. Not inexpensive, but a good splurge bottle. Very little is made in this country, but Ponzi has pioneered it in Oregon. Recommended: Ceretto Blangé ($27), Ponzi ($20).

Grüner veltliner. A crisp, herbal, peppery grape, which reaches its apex in Austria, where it accounts for more than a third of all grapes planted. Prices for the best, single-vineyard grüners can top $40 a bottle, but some excellent inexpensive versions are made. Recommended: Felsner Lössterrassen ($11).

Pagadebit di Romagna. Also known as bombino bianco or campolese, pagadebit loosely translates as "pays the bills," which this wine does for the growers in Emilia-Romagna, where it thrives. The 2007 I tasted was delightful, dry but somehow unctuous, a luscious mix of floral, citrus and honey flavors. Recommended: San Pascasio ($13).

Pinot blanc. This overlooked grape doesn't seem to be grown in Washington, but Oregon's vintners have latched onto it with great success. It is also found as pinot bianco in Italy and pinot blanc in Alsace. I like the new-world versions, which have bright fruit, sharp acids and more minerality than their cousin chardonnays. Recommended: Tiefenbrunner ($15), Chehalem ($19), Eyrie ($16), WillaKenzie ($20).

Torrontés. Grown throughout Argentina, this grape, usually fermented in stainless steel and bottled unblended, can deliver an intriguing, quite fragrant set of floral and citrus notes. The best offer the herbal tang of sauvignon blanc, the green-apple snap of unoaked chardonnay and the floral/citrus highlights of viognier. Recommended: Alamos ($13), Andeluna Cellars ($9) and Bodegas Fantelli ($7).

RED WINES

Barbera. Though barbera has made an entrance into Washington, it's most distinctive in northern Italy. High in acid, tart and tasting of pie cherries, most good barbera is made to be enjoyed slightly chilled and drunk young, while you're waiting for those barolos to come around. Recommended: Pico Maccario 2007 Barbera d'Asti ($13), Woodward Canyon ($23, winery only).

Bonarda. Originally from Italy's Piedmont region, bonarda is grown widely in Italy under different regional names and is also found in Argentina (though there is some disagreement about whether it's the same grape). No matter, Argentine bonarda is a fragrant, tannic red wine, broadly fruity, resin-scented and big enough for a sizzling steak. Recommended: Trapiche Broquel ($16).

Carmenère. Chilean vintners offer a dazzling number of carmenère wines; the grape fits nicely between merlot and cabernet sauvignon in terms of style, flavor and concentration. Though sometimes prone to the veggies, when properly ripened and balanced it's a nice mix of black fruits, roasted coffee and dried herbs. Recommended: Carma ($10) and Reininger ($45).

Castelo do Sulco 2007 Riserva Tinto ($10). A dry red from Portugal, blending touriga nacional, aragonez (tempranillo) and syrah. Long stuck in a sweet, fortified-wine end zone, Portuguese producers are going all-out to compete with Spain in the cheap, dry, red category. Here's a success: lavender, soap and spice in the nose, brambly red fruit in the mouth, juicy and easy-drinking.

Tannat. For those who like thick, tannic, ultra-hearty steak wines, tannat will be a welcome discovery. It's the principal red grape of Uruguay, believe it or not, but has also crept into Argentina, where it makes a darker companion to the iconic malbecs. Recommended: Bodegas Callia Magna ($15), Alma de Los Andes ($13).

Klostor 2007 Sweet Red ($10). The name says it all. Well, almost. It's a sweet red wine all right, but what's the grape? After a little digging, I learned it is 100 percent dornfelder; and for a sweet red wine, it's dorn good. A light-bodied, fruity red from the Mosel, the sweetness is charming, and the fruit tastes like ripe raspberries, while the alcohol is just 9.5 percent.

CASE NO. 3: NORTHWEST RIESLING

Washington has reclaimed riesling as a signature grape, but it also thrives up and down the coast. These days, I am especially fond of Oregon rieslings, which are widely available at winery tasting rooms, but not always brought up to Washington. Here are a dozen first-rate rieslings, with indications as to whether they are dry, off-dry (fruity), off-dry (sweet) or dessert wines.

Airfield Estates 2008 Riesling ($14). Piercing scents of lemon oil and pineapple, expressive minerality and lemon tea flavors convey concentration and depth, with a dry, toasted cracker and wet stone finish.

Amity Vineyards 2007 Riesling ($18). This feels vividly dry in the mouth, and brings dried herb, paper, dried apple and other fruits in a range of flavors with plenty of concentration. A very fine Thanksgiving wine.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 Riesling ($10). Ste. Michelle is now the world's largest single producer of riesling, with 669,000 cases of this benchmark Columbia Valley bottling alone. It is off-dry, with fresh tastes of green apple and peach, and a hint of spritz.

Chehalem 2008 Dry Riesling ($21). Dry it is, but not sour; instead there are lovely sweet/tart flavors of peach and pear, honeysuckle and lime. It has a full mid-palate and a clean, refreshing finish.

Dunham Cellars 2008 Late Harvest Riesling ($19/half bottle). This delicious, late-harvest riesling is from the Lewis vineyard, where Eric Dunham sources many of his finest wines. Very sweet, with alcohol around 9 percent.

Eroica 2008 Riesling ($22). Ste. Michelle's Eroica project, a collaboration with Ernst Loosen of the Mosel, is now in its 10th vintage. It's a landmark wine, exceptional in this cool year. I suggest giving it at least eight years in the cellar if you want to see it evolve; otherwise, drink it very young, when the fresh fruits and acids are at a peak.

Lemelson 2008 Dry Riesling ($20). This riesling is packed with citrus, kiwi, peach and apricot. The acids are juicy and natural tasting, setting up a ripe, round, lingering finish.

Nefarious Cellars 2008 Stone's Throw Vineyard Riesling ($18). Aromatic and lively, with honeysuckle, peach, apricot, apple and cinnamon-pear scents. Both delicate and complex in the mouth; bone dry, with a lovely undertone of sweet blossom.

Pacific Rim 2008 Organic Riesling ($14). Off-dry, with honey, jasmine and tea notes, the sweetness perfectly proportionate to the acid. Pacific Rim is a riesling specialist, with numerous offerings; their 2008 Sweet Riesling ($11) and 2008 Dry Riesling ($11) are also very fine.

Spindrift Cellars 2008 Riesling ($13). With a strong perfume/floral flavor, it's almost like a gewürztraminer, but wrapped into a delicate riesling frame offering tea, honey, lemon and grapefruit. The alcohol is just 9 percent, yet the wine, technically off-dry, tastes crisp and almost steely.

Trust 2008 Riesling ($16). The beautiful match of acids and sugars found in many off-dry Washington rieslings is on display here. The aromas are ripe and rich with a nice mix of floral, apple, stone fruit and light tropical fruit. This feels like a wine that could age nicely.

Whitman Cellars 2008 Riesling ($14). This is the first riesling from Whitman, and it's a beauty, with inviting aromas of roses and rocks, leading into fruit flavors of pear, apple, white peach and orange. It's got plenty of acid, so the residual sugar is almost undetectable.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries." Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com. Susan Jouflas is a Seattle Times assistant art director.

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