The Year in Wine: Highs, Lows, Bargains & Holiday Picks

As I mentioned a few weeks ago in this space, I’ve been on a mission of sleuthing out cheap wines, particularly with holiday entertaining in mind. For an extra hand, I sought the advice of Steven Kolpan, a wine professor at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. Lucky for us, Kolpan shares our love for cheap wine, which is given special treatment in “WineWise,” his latest book, co-written with CIA colleagues Brian Smith and Michael Weiss.

Wine expert Steven Kolpan.

In addition to his cheap thrills, below, Kolpan reviews the year in wine and -- extra bonus -- serves up some tasty sipping ideas to go with some of your favorite holiday dishes.

Steven, Can you share your top three picks for great value, at any price?
Vintage and “Prestige” Cava from Spain -- extraordinary bubbly for under $25 (most under $20). Some to try: “Reserva Heredad” from Seguras Viudas, Freixenet “Brut Nature,” “Reserva Raventós” from Cordoniu, Juve Y Camps Reserva de la Familia, Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva, and Llopart “Leopardi.”

Concha y Toro “Marques de Casa Concha” line of wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Chardonnay. These are extraordinary single-vineyard, estate-bottled wines for less than $20. The reds are ageworthy, but enticing at a young age, and the Chardonnay is balanced, with good acidity, and subtle hints of tropical fruits.

Dry and off-dry Rieslings from both Germany and Australia. These are incredibly food-friendly wines with real depth of flavor and fruit. The German wines tend to have a bit more minerality and earthiness with zesty fruit flavors emerging from the background, while the Australian wines emphasize citrus fruits, floral aromatics, spice, and lightness.

From Germany, look for the bargain-priced Qualitätsweins from Loosen, Burklin-Wolf, Prüm, Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt, Selbach-Oster, St. Urbans-Hof, and Baron zu Knyphausen, among many others. German Rieslings from the Mosel tend to be lighter, while those from the Rhine regions tend to be richer.

Bargains in Australian Rieslings are easy to find these days from producers such as Leasingham, McWilliams, Yalumba, Jacob’s Creek, Annie’s Lane, and Alice White, among many others.

And what are some of the most underestimated wines over the past few years
From Europe, the red wines of Greece, which can be spectacular. The red wines of Sicily, Sardinia, and Puglia in Italy; Rioja from Spain; red wines from Portugal’s Douro Valley (better known for Port); red wines from France’s central Loire Valley, made from Cabernet Franc.

From the United States and Canada, the red wines of Mendocino County; Zinfandel from the Sierra Foothills; wines from Long Island; Riesling from the Finger Lakes; Syrah from Washington State; Pinot Gris from Oregon; Riesling from Canada.

From the southern Hemisphere, Sauvignon Blanc from Chile; Torrontés from Argentina; Verdelho, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc whites from Australia, as well as Grenache from Australia for reds; New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon; South African Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.

If I handed you a $20 bill to buy two wines to take to a holiday party, what would you pick?
The holidays call for bubbles, in this case budget bubbles. So, I’d choose a bottle of Cristalino Rosé Cava from Cataluña, Spain (about $8), and for a still wine I’d go with a Montevina “Terra d’Oro” Zinfandel from Amador County, California (about $12).

What would you say are the most oversipped/overhyped wines, the ones that make you say, “time to move on?”
I really do believe that overly-oaked/high alcohol Chardonnay has seen its day, and I believe the same thing about overly ripe/high alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are drama queens, produced to create a “wow” factor at the expense of balance, and to satisfy the palate of wine critics. These wines are really not very food friendly.

I’m beginning to see that the members of the American wine-drinking public is being to trust their own palates, and are looking for wines that are balanced, even subtle; a very good thing.

Your thoughts on what to drink on the winter solstice (Dec. 21), the darkest day of the year?
As autumn turns to winter, I like to sip a warming, welcoming true Vintage Port throughout the long night, perhaps served with a Stilton blue cheese. Some classic vintages to consider: 1985, 1977, 1970, 1963.

What do you suggest for some of those holiday favorites, like baked ham…

Because of the high salt content, the more fruit and the less tannin the better. My favorite: Gewürztraminer or Riesling from Alsace, France (these whites are red wines in drag), or a fruity red such as Valpolicella Classico or this time of year, Beaujolais Nouveau. And, of course, bubbles.

…And roast turkey….
White: Dry/Semi-dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier from California or Virginia, Rueda from Spain, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico from Marche, Italy.

Red: Cru Beaujolais (such as Brouilly or Fleurie), inexpensive (lighter) Pinot Noir or Zinfandel, crisp Rosé, such as Tavel from the Rhône Valley or Bardolino Chiaretto from Lugano, Italy.

…Or if you’re hosting an Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve…

This is a traditional southern Italian feast, so think about Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino, or Greco di Tufo, all great whites from Campania. Speaking of “Greco,” an ideal match: Moschofilero from the Mantinia province of Peloponnese, Greece.

…Or are celebrating Hanukah with latkes and jelly doughnuts…
While spinning the dreidel, enjoy kosher Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc from the Galilee or Shomron wine regions in Israel with the potato latkes. Producers include Barkan, Binyamina, Carmel, Dalton, Galil, Recanati, and Yishbi, among others). With jelly doughnuts, try an Asti (formerly Asti Spumante; spumante means “sparkling”) or better yet, a Moscato d’Asti from Piemonte, Italy. Bartenura and Rashi produce kosher versions.

….Or fixin’ a pot of New Year's Day Hoppin' John….
A great dish, a bit on the salty side, so choose a fruity white or red, without oak and with low tannins. My favorite with this southern New Year’s classic, Champagne or other good American méthode champenoise bubbly from Oregon (Argyle), Washington State (Domaine Ste. Michelle), New Mexico (Gruet), North Carolina (Biltmore Estate), or California (Iron Horse, Roederer Estate, Gloria Ferrer, and Schramsberg come to mind.)

Got any favorite New Year's sparklers?
Budget Buster:
Brut, “La Grande Dame,” Veuve Clicquot, Champagne, France 1995

Brut, Nicolas Feuillatte, Champagne, France NV

Balanced Budget:
Brut, Lucien Albrecht, Crémant d’Alsace, Franc NV or
Brut, Blanc de Noirs, Gruet, New Mexico NV

Bubbly on a Beer Budget:
Brut, Prosecco, Zardetto, Veneto, Italy NV or
Brut, Paul Cheneau, Cava, Spain NV

And speaking of party planning, how much wine should we estimate per guest?
Half a bottle per person is the usual guideline (that’s 2 to 3 glasses over the span of the party). Then, buy a few more bottles so that you don’t run out, or in case a guest shows up with an unexpected reveler. If it is an extended dinner party with several wines, perhaps a bit more. If most people are driving, err on the side of serious caution.

As we close in on 2008, what’s the best and worst news of the year in the wine world?
Best: The United States is poised to become the number one wine consumer in the world (not per capita, but total consumption), and wine is now the number one alcoholic beverage in the United States. In an era of Change, this is an exciting – and civilizing – change.

Worst: Continuing consolidation by multinational owners of wineries, and a serious reduction in the number of wine distributors, both of which can lead to a “sameness” in the wines, and discourage small wine producers who may suffer for lack of a market. Also, the impact of global warming and climate change on wine is beginning to be felt around the world, and the prognosis is not good. The issue is serious, as wine grapes are the most climate-sensitive crops in the world, like canaries in coal mines.

What can we look forward to sipping in 2009 -- grapes, vintages, growing regions, trends?
In 2009, the wine consumer is queen or king. We are in the midst of a serious economic collapse, and while folks continue to drink wine, they are choosing their wines more carefully, looking for bargains. Fortunately, bargains abound if we know where to look (The last chapter of WineWise, “Got Cash?”: Our Bargain Choices” is a good place to start; more than 500 great wine bargains from all over the world). So, bargain-hunting is definitely a trend.

In that vein, I think we’ll see folks trying more wines from off the beaten path: wines from Greece (all regions) , Portugal (the Douro Valley and Dão), southern Italy and islands (Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily), Argentina (Malbec, Bonarda, and the white Torrontés), Canada (Riesling and other whites).

Chile will continue to be strong in Cabernet Sauvignon, but also in Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will continue its rise, too. Australia has had four straight years of drought, so prices will rise, and its marketing juggernaut may be placed on pause.

The inflated prices of mediocre to fair California wines will have to contract in order to compete on the world stage. I hope that people will finally discover France as a great place for wine bargains, with vin de pays and lesser-known AOC regions gaining traction in the US market.

Italian wines overall will continue to dominate; the Italians have shown a real ability to read the American wine market.

I also think we will begin to appreciate our local wines -- all 50 states produce wine now -- which will only encourage local winemakers to do an even better job, and for all of us to decrease our carbon footprint.

And in 2009, as always, I hope we Americans will be enjoying our wine with our daily meals and in moderation, to preserve wine’s place as a healthy beverage in a healthy society.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 5, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Wine and Spirits
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I have become addicted to sparkling Shiraz - specifically a wonderful Naked on Roller Skates by an Australian vineyard - Some Young Punks. It is difficult to get in MoCo but a decent substitute is The Black Chook. Perfect for someone who doesn't care for champagne but wants something festive.

Posted by: jackdmom | December 5, 2008 8:41 AM

THANK YOU. This is a great and timely post (Centre starts to cut and paste to print out for carrying in her wallet; hopes to find time to hit the wine shoppe).

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | December 5, 2008 10:11 AM

Great column. I was hoping to see Torrontes on the list. Gruner Veltliner from Austria is another value-priced white and a good alternative to Riesling.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 5, 2008 10:38 AM

Nice of this so called expert to not recommend anything from VA or MD. Especially Va. What a great expert!
And since Kim since a large portion of the readers of this blog are from Dc area maybe
a DC area expert instead of this prof. typical prof doesnt have a clue.

Kim with your fondness for local grown. Local wines compliment local foods.

Another disappoint from Kim. Isnt it time for the WP to get someone local!

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | December 5, 2008 10:38 AM

WUNC-FM, the public radio station in central NC, had a fascinating program on wine with two guys who operate The Wine Authorities in Durham, NC. One of the many things we learned is that it is ILLEGAL for wineries to include the contents of the bottle of wine on the label! There can be up to 200 "legal" chemicals in a bottle. Here is the write-up for the story with a link to the podcast. It is well worth listening to the entire hour. Meet the Wine Authorities
Tuesday, November 25 2008 by Frank Stasio and Olympia Stone | Send to a friend

Craig Heffley and Seth Gross are self-described “wine nerds” who are on a mission to change the way you think about wine. Seth and Craig are co-owners of “Wine Authorities,” a wine shop that opened up a little over a year ago in Durham. They have modeled their store along the lines of an old-time butcher shop, where customer service is at a premium. Thanks to that old-fashioned notion, "Wine Authorities" has quickly established a solid fan base of core customers and continues to grow. Craig Heffley and Seth Gross join host Frank Stasio to discuss the merits of smaller, family-owned vineyards; the lack of transparency in wine labeling, and what wine you should serve with your Thanksgiving meal.

Listen Now!Download

Posted by: holleahock | December 5, 2008 10:44 AM

Omar, Please read before you write. Mr. Kolpan mentioned wine from Virginia, specifically Viognier from Virginia to go with turkey.

Posted by: esleigh | December 5, 2008 3:39 PM

So, Omar, what Virginia wines would you recommend? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 5, 2008 3:47 PM

Great to see your definition of cheap as $20. Even better to see New Zealand included.

Imagine the opportunities for Saturday night wine if a few trips and $$ to the coffee shop were channeled to the wine budget.

Central Otago Pinot Noir becomes an option and lots of other gems from New Zealand.

Ron McFarland

Posted by: RonMcFarland | December 5, 2008 9:40 PM

Appreciate your mention of Finger Lakes Rieslings. Our region produces arguably some of the best domestically made Rieslings. These wines are also some of the best values in the country with pricing between $12 - $18 average per bottle retail.

Because most of the wineries have limited distribution it is best to plan a trip to Finger Lakes Wine Country to taste and buy these wines.

Complete travel information at

Posted by: flwinelady | December 6, 2008 1:31 PM

Hi Kim,

So sorry to have missed the happy hour. Unfortunately, being the secretary of my bowling league, I had to handle a postponed match.

Anyway, though I think Omar's trolling, it'd be great to have a future wine column focus on local wines. I'm a fan of Finger Lakes Riesling, northern Missouri wines, and others. Also a Barboursville fan, particularly Phileo and Octagon. It'd be fun to have everyone weigh in local faves.

Love the column and hope to meet you on a future visit.


Paul Lane (aka the Fairlington Blade)


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 7, 2008 11:44 PM

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