Wines under $20

Pinotage | South Africa’s Wine Jewel

Vineyard at Pigley Wigley

Winter vines on an estate along the Midland Meander, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa

On my recent trip to South Africa I became re acquainted with Pinotage.  My experience with the varietal had been limited to the rather small selection of “value” wines available inside the United States.

Once in South Africa I found an incredible selection of Pinotage.  Pinotage in South Africa is like Cabernet in California. On my three week trip I tasted 20+ Pinotages, and many of them multiple times.  I was able to get a pretty good idea of the spectrum of flavor profiles the  Pinotage grape can produce across all price points.

The history of Pinotage dates back to 1925 when it was “invented”  by a South African professor of viticulture, Abraham Perold.  He was attempting to make a hearty Pinot Noir by crossing it with Cinsault.  The result was not much of a success until 1959 when a Pinotage took home first prize at the Cape Wine show.  It wasn’t until many years later, in 1991 that Pinotage was back in the spotlight.  South African wine maker Beyers Truter won “Wine Maker of the Year” at England’s International Wine and Spirit Competition for his Pinotage and after that there was a major renewed interest in Pinotage

The flavor profiles vary from a sweet and jammy Zinfandel like wine with a raspberry liqueur component  to a smoky meaty, brambly and velvety Rhone styled wine.  The tannins are usually very robust when the wine is young, but can mellow out nicely if left to age for several years.

Within the borders of South Africa, Pinotage’s price/quality ratio is outstanding.  You can pick up a  good wine for as little as 65 Rand ($10) or a VERY good wine for 130Rand or about $20.  These outstanding wines would be in the $40 to $60 category in the United States.

One thing to keep in mind while exploring the Pinotage varietal: If at first you dont like what you try, try again.  Pinotage style and quality can vary widely.  I will be posting some reviews on some of my favorites from my trip in the coming weeks.

Have you tried Pinotage?

Twigs Organic Wine | Malbec | Cabernet | Merlot

Twigs Organic Wine’s 2008 releases feature a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot and a Malbec.  All are certified Organic by the OIA, an organization which is accredited with the USDA.

Organic WineAlthough the Twigs name is new, the family behind the wine is not.  The Cecchin family has been farming grapes for 100 years, in the traditional way- with horse tilled fields and without the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Originally from Italy,  the Cecchin family put down roots in the Maipu region of Argentina and in 1959 they founded the wine company Bodega Familia Cecchin.

Twigs 2008 Malbec is 100% certified Organic Malbec from Maipu, Mendoza.  The alcohol content is refreshingly light at 13.5%.  This is an unoaked, fruit forward wine.  Though it is not terribly complex, it is well balanced and quite approachable, and should satisfy a wide range of palates.  Retail price is $14.99

Twigs 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% certified Organic Cabernet from Maipu, Meondoza.  Once again the alcohol content is 13.5%,  the wine is unoaked and fruit forward.  This wine has a slightly peppery finish.  As with the Malbec it is approachable.  Retail is $14.99

Twigs 2008 Merlot is 100% certified Organic Merlot also from Maipu, Argentina. Alcohol is 13.5%, the wine is fruit forward and unoaked.  Retail is $14.99

All three wines are almost identical in style.  Uncomplicated, fruit forward, light on the alcohol and unoaked.  At $14.99 the wine is a decent value.  I think if it you can find it for under $10 it would be an exceptional value.

Twigs Wine is distributed by Potluck Wines

Twigs Wines

*This wine was received as a sample

3 affordable summer white wines

d’Alessandro Inzolia | Franciscan Estates Sauvignon Blanc | 

J Vineyards Pinot Gris

white wine under $15It’s June and the summer heat is about to create a shift in our wine drinking habits.  Big Reds by the fireside will be replaced by cool and refreshing whites by the poolside.  If your wine collection is like mine, you are in serious need of some white wines that entertain, and bring exceptional value…and so without further ado…

d’Alessandro 2009 Inzolia

Varietal: 100% Inzolia

Alcohol: 12%

Aging; 4 months stainless steel, 2 months bottle

If you’re like me you have a rather limited exposure to the Inzolia grape.  In fact this wine was my first experience.  Inzolia is one of the primary grapes used in the making of Marsala.  The grape is primarily found in Sicily.  This particular wine is light and crispy with a distinct almond like nuttiness to it.  I receive a lot of wines as free samples, and end up pouring a fair amount down the sink after a half bottle.  This wine, however, I enjoyed on back to back nights.  It’s just an easy to drink, light wine, with a little bit of complexity to make it interesting enough to keep for a second night, if you don’t drink the whole bottle.  The wine retails for around $18.    86 points

summer wine under $15Franciscan Estate 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley

Varietal: 100% Sauvignon Blanc

Alcohol: 13.5%

Wine making: 90% Tank fermented, 10% neutral oak fermented

Alcohol: 13.5%

Franciscan, like most Napa producers is probably more well known for its Cabernet, but relies to a certain extent on the quick turn-around of Sauvignon Blanc for cash flow.  However,  this doesn’t mean the wines are not quality.  The 2009 Franciscan Sauv Blanc is quite delicious, and there must be a fair amount of people that feel the same way because as of right now their website is temporarily sold out.  Not sure where they are going to find some more on the vineyard, but you should be able to track this wine down at most grocery stores. This wine was received as a sample.

The nose consists of citrus and sweet fig, and the palate is citrus driven, with a grapefruit and lime like crisp acidity.  The alcohol is nicely in check at 13.5% which is something to consider when sipping wine earlier in the day. 87 points

Summer wine under $15J Vineyards 2009 Pinot Gris, California

Varietal: 100% Pinot Gris

Alcohol: 14.3%

Production: 20,000 cases

Price: $15

This wine was my favorite of the three, and the only one I purchased.   The grapes for this wine come from several well known areas including Russian River and Monterey.  Non Malolactic and stainless steel fermentation gives this wine a nice crisp and refreshing acidity.  The wines from the different appellations are made separately and then blended at the end.  This allows the wine maker more control of the final taste.

As for the taste…once again citrus on the nose, maybe a little more ripe than most Pinot Gris, mandarin and honey.  However, the palate is crisp and slightly effervescent , which gives the wine a nice velvety mouth feel. 90 points

$5 Rose from Mexico wins “Best of” at San Diego International

Monte Xanic’s Winery from Baja California, Mexico gained some critical acclaim recently at the San Diego International Wine Competition.  Their “Calixa de Monte Xanic” Grenache Rosado (Rose) won the top prize for Rose’s “Best of Show Rose”.  While winning the top prize may  be considered exciting by itself, the fact that this wine retails for $5 a bottle is sure to create a lot of excitement.

The name Xanic comes from the Cora Indians and means “flower which blooms after the first rain”. Monte Xanic was founded by 5 friends in 1987, just after Mexico opened up its markets to international wine. Even though many local producers were unable to survive the general perception that all imports were better Monte Xanic boldly pushed forward and today is widely considered one of Mexico’s best.

Monte Xanic is located in what is considered Mexico’s Napa Valley – Valle de Guadalupe.  Located near the town of Ensenada on the northern tip of the Baja Peninsula, about 85 miles south of San Diego.  Vineyards and wineries in the area date back to the 17th century and were producing wine of such great quality, that, as the story goes, the Spanish government decided it was a major threat and banned all production.  Luckily renegade monks continued to produce wine and according to historians in the area, much of Napa’s stock originated south of the border.  Valle de Guadalupe boasts no less than 17 boutique wineries nestled in amongst its lush rolling hills

And now the technicals on the award winning Rose!

Monte Xanic “Calixa”  Rosado, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja Mexico

Grapes: 100% Grenache

Production: “partial fermentation in stainless steel, with partial maceration”

Alcohol: 13%

Price: $5

I haven’t had an opportunity to taste this wine yet, so I am referring to the winery literature for the tasting notes:

“Nose: delicious red cherry bouquet, wild strawberries and red grape fruit.  Mouth: balanced with slight acidity, and a flavor of sun drenched ripe citric fruits, very fresh and vivacious.”

It’s always interesting to me to balance the locavore philosphy with a quest for new things from less known regions.  I am going to be on a quest to find this wine.  Have you tried any Mexican wines? Have you tried this wine?

Xanic Winery Website

More on Valle de Guadalupe

Cameron Hughes Wines | A Revolutionary Wine Business Model

Wine bottlesThose of you that read my blog know that Cameron Hughes wines are nothing new to me.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Cameron Hughes label, do yourself a favor and read the recent Wall Street Journal article titled Taking advantage of the wine glut.

Cameron Hughes has undertaken an innovative business model, buying up the excess supply of high-end winery’s wine at a bargain basement price. The Cameron Hughes label is then slapped on the bottle and sold for a fraction of the price to retailers across the states. Hughes has taken advantage of the current over supply in California to build a reputation for quality, affordability, and entrepreneurial prowess.  The 2008 Cameron Hughes Lot 200 Napa Valley Cabernet really takes his business model to the next level.

Lot 200 Label

Lot 200, $200 Juice?

The fruit for this monster Napa Cab comes from three of Napa’s most prestigious sub appellations: Stag’s Leap, Rutherford and Oakville. On his website Cameron gives just a glimpse of who’s juice this maybe.  He had to sign a 3 page Non-Disclosure Agreement which left very little left to say except that the people he acquired this wine from do not sell a bottle of wine for under $200 and have multiple 100 point scores under their belts.  This wine was available for $27 on the website but sold out in a matter of weeks when Costco bought almost ALL of the 4,000 cases produced!

lot 182 label

Lot 182, 4 years in shiners

Another outstanding value is Lot 182 Atlas Peak Meritage.  As the story goes there was a mix up in this deal and the labels had already been printed when Cameron discovered that this Meritage was actually 90% Cabernet and could have been sold as an Atlas Peak Cab, but c’est la vie!  This wine was purchased in shiners and had been minding its own business in a cellar for 4 years before being released.  It is drinking really well right now, and I use it as my go to “pop and pour” wine.

The Cameron Hughes production model has been able to thrive in a time when California wines have suffered, becoming less fashionable during the shaky economic climate of the past couple years. California 2009 retail wine sales were down about 3%.  Have you tried any Cameron Hughes Wines or any American wine negociants?

More Reviews:

Lot 200

Lot 182

Central Coast Chardonnay roundup #1 | Mer Soleil | Layer Cake | Chalone

Wines reviewed in this article:  Mer Soleil Silver 2008|Layer Cake 2009 Virgin Chardonnay|Chalone 2009 Monterey

Photo courtesy of Ben Ladouceur

While many parts of North America are still in the grip of winter I have been preparing for spring and summer by tasting Chardonnay.  That way, when everyone else finally thaws out ( I live in Phoenix ) they will already have some Chardonnay “inception” on the brain.  Let’s get started!

The vast Central Coast region of California  stretches 250 miles from Santa Barbara County all the way up to San Francisco .  The massive region encompasses 6 Counties and 26 different sub A.V.A’s (American Viticultural Area).  There are more than 90,000 acres of vines planted in the Central Coast and about half those acres are Chardonnay.  One of those sub AVA’s is The Santa Lucia Highlands which is located  about 30 miles east of Monterey, California overlooking  the Salinas valley, the same Salinas valley made famous in many of John Steinbeck’s novels.

2008 Mer Soleil Silver

Mer Soleil Vineyard is located on the southern end of the AVA and is named after the influences of the Ocean (Mer) and the Sun (Soleil). The Mer Soleil vineyard is actually part of the Wagner family of wines.  The Wagner family has a very long history of wine making in California, and just in case you still don’t know who they are…have you heard of Caymus? Now we’re talking!

Mer Soleil makes two styles of Chardonnay, oaked, and unoaked (Silver).  Mer Soleil Silver is fermented in cement and stainless steel tanks and does not undergo Malolactic fermentation.  The vineyard subscribes to the agricultural practice of crop rotation and according to the vineyard  nearby lemon orchards is impart their flavor profile of the wines.

Mer Soleil’s website has little to offer in terms of technicals on their wine, so I have no information on total production, brix ect.  But it does let us know a little about the style.  A mix of Chablis like minerality and tropical fruit.   I found the wine to be rich, with solid acidity, and slightly riper than I expected, which was pleasant.  Think lemon and grapefruit.  The wine is dry and has a  nice big mouthfeel.  The alcohol weighs in at a hefty 14.8% but don’t let that scare you, its really well balanced with the fruit and I didn’t detect any off putting “heat” from it.  Mer Soleil Silver retails for around $20 a bottle.

Virgin Chardonnay label Layer Cake

Are you tempted by the cake??

You might have seen Layer Cake’s eye catching label, a nice big slice of layer cake, and you might have been tempted to buy the wine purely on that association and I forgive you for that because I bought their wines for the same reason!  Laker Cake’s 2009 Central Coast “Virgin” Chardonnay’s fruit is sourced from two vineyards within the Central Coast AVA; Monterey and Santa Barbara.

Layer Cake’s  Chardonnay is quite different than Mer Soleil’s Silver even though both are unoaked.  The first thing you will notice is the difference in alcohol content, with the Virgin Chardonnay coming in at a refreshingly light 13.5%.  The wine is lighter on the palate, with less minerality though it still retains enough to make it interesting.  The fruit is more lime and pineapple than grapefruit.  This wine retails for $13.99 and was provided to me as a sample for review

Chalone Chardonnay bottleChalone Vineyard 2009 Monterey Chardonnay.  Chalone Vineyard Estate is the oldest winery in Monterey County, and is the only winery in the Chalone AVA.  Chalone received international critical acclaim in the Judgment of Paris, 1976 earning 3rd spot out of 10.   As different as Layer Cake was to Mer Soleil, Chalone is to both of those wines.  Chalone makes wine very much in the French, Burgundian style.  The grapes are sourced from the northern portion of the Salinas Valley, in the Arroyo Seco AVA.  The soil consists largely of limestone which gives us a clue to the Burgundian connection.  By “Burgundian” I mean terroir or specific place driven wine as apposed to producer driven wine such as Bordeaux.  Chalone’s Monterey Chardonnay is also relatively light when compared to the typical Chardonnays of Napa Valley, the alcohol comes in at 13.5%   This wine, in contrast to the other two, saw 6 months in a combination of French, American and European oak.  Light on the oak, but enough to soften the crispness of the mountain fruit a little, as well as add another layer of complexity not found in the other two wines.  This wine retails for around $10 which is actually an amazing deal.

These three wines should keep you busy with variety for at least a weekend.  Next week I will have 3 more Chardonnays for your consideration


Wine Review | Cameron Hughes Lot 197, 2008 Merlot, Napa Valley

Disclaimer:  I was given a signed bottle as a gift, by Jessica Hughes, who clearly states that I ROCK!

Alrighty then, with that technical matter out of the way lets get down to business.

Napa Valley Merlot

It's official: I rock

Lot 197 hails from the Carneros area of Napa Valley, although it does not state this on the label, Cameron mentions it on his website.  Production for this wine is a miniscule 518 cases and the wine retails for $12 a bottle.

Though I would not call myself a big Merlot drinker, this is definitely a Merlot I could get used to.  It is a big monster of a Merlot, with alcohol coming in at a whopping 15.3%.   A big whiff reveals a bit of an alcoholic burn in the nostrils, but that is nicely evened out by the aromas of red berry fruit.  On the palate this wine is ripe, which has more to do with the alcohol % than sugar.  The palate consists of ripe black cherry and chocolate.   The alcohol content is certainly going to be an issue for some people, and it usually is for me, but this wine is an exception.  The fruit and the smooth tannins, really play well with the alcohol which enhances the aromatics as well.  And for $12 it’s definitely a deal.  I paired this wine with a tomato based pasta sauce seasoned with cayenne.  The heat of the sauce really played well against the ripeness of the wine.

Rating: 89 points

Wine Review | Cameron Hughes Lot 182, 2005 Meritage, Atlas Peak

Cameron Hughes Lot 182, 2005 Meritage, Atlas Peak

2005 Atlas Peak Cameron Hughes Meritage

90% Cabernet

There is a kind of funny, unofficial story behind the labeling on this wine.  The blend is 90% Cabernet, 5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot.  Technically this wine could have been called a Cabernet.  But as the story goes, there was a mix up and the labels had already been made.

Total production for Lot 182 is only 1,700 cases, and rather unusual to this acquisition is the fact that the wine was purchased in shiners (unlabeled bottles) that had been cellar aged for 4 years.  And speaking of the bottles, these bottles are taller and heavier in weight than most.  The extra aging has an amazing effect on this mountain fruit.  It is ripe and rich with loads of Blueberry, Cassis and Blackberry.  The tannins are firm and fine, and the finish is rich and chocolaty.  According to Cameron this wine was aged in 40% new French Oak.  Alcohol comes in at 14.5%  At $15 this is a ridiculously low price for a wine that is really starting to reach is prime right now.

Rating: 93 points.

Wine Smackdown #2 | BC Wine


In December 2010 I took a trip to British Columbia, Canada to visit friends and family.

desolate highway

1,700 miles in a day and a half

While I was there my friend suggested we pay a visit to a special wine shop located in White Rock called Mud Bay Wines.  This wine shop carries only VQA certified British Columbia wines.  The shop is fairly small, but it is well laid out and has a huge selection of BC wines.  The staff was friendly and helpful as well.  I found the purchasing process unusual in that I knew nothing of the wineries or  viticultural areas.  And very few of the wines had shelf talkers.  It was like being transported back in time to my first wine purchase.  So after much deliberation, we made our choices and headed home to critique. The wines are in the order that we consumed them.  I thought I would be able to find the technical information about each wine online, so I did not include them in my notes.  However, upon sitting down to write this post I have discovered that this information is hard to find! Note to less well known wine producers:  Consumers like to know as much as possible about your wines, the process and the technical information.

The first wine we popped open was Volcanic Hills, 2009 Gamay Noir from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

BC Wine

Volcanic Hills Gamay Noir

After a quick decant we were restless and ready for a drink.  On the nose this wine came across  light with aromas of red fruit.  The palate was predominantly raspberry and cranberry. The finish was crisp and clean.  While this is not a complex wine,  it is a decent effort.  It’s a light and fruity, easy sipper and for only $15 it’s well worth it. 84 points

Next up was Domaine de Chaberton 2008 Pinot Gris, Okanagan Valley.

BC wine

Domaine de Chaberton Pinot Gris

This wine was nice enough, but I had a tough time discerning the aromas on the nose and the flavors on the palate.  It is a very light wine, although the alcohol clocks in at 13%.  I detected a little citrus on the nose. The palate displayed a very slight lemon profile with a hint of nutty butterscotch on the finish.  Once again, at $15, a decent wine, decent value but nothing to get too excited about. 82 points

Wine number three was Summerhill Pyramid Winery’s 2006 Riesling, Okanagan Valley.

BC Wine

Summerhill Pyramid Riesling

The nose was not as aromatic as I had hoped, I could detect minerals, but little in the way of fruit.  The palate consisted of  Grapefruit and Granny Smith Apple surrounded by a rather searing tartaric acidity.  Alcohol weighs in at 9% and the wine retails for  $22. A decent effort, however this wine is an acquired taste. I would only recommend this wine to wine drinkers who are looking for a Riesling which is not sweet. 83 points

Wine number four:  Church & State Wines, 2006 Quintessential red blend.


Church and State Quintessential

This wine is a blend of all 5 Bordeaux varietals, however I cannot find any information on the % breakdown.  The nose was pleasant enough, and displayed aromas of Cherries and leather. However, the palate is where this wine fell far short.   Immediately I was hit with an overwhelming unpleasant sweetness.  I was expecting something vaguely Bordeaux like but this wine did not deliver.  I thought maybe it was me and did not say anything, instead I had the other guests give it a whirl and they came to the same conclusion without my influence. At $50 a bottle I expected a lot more.  And even more confusing to me is how this wine could have won “Best Red Wine” at the All Canadian Wine Championships in 2009.  75 points

A couple of nights later my friends and I visited Salt Tasting Room in downtown Vancouver.  Upon being seated I asked our server, who also happened to be the inventory manager, for the best Bordeaux blend he had.

Wine number five:  Clos du Soleil Red 2007 Similkameen, British Columbia.

Clos du Soleil Red

This wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet, 22% Merlot and 18% Cabernet Franc aged for 18 months in 80% French Oak, 20% American Oak. The alcohol comes in at 13.3%. Production for the Clos du Soleil Red 2007 was only 450 cases.

This wine was by far the best wine of my trip.  It displayed a pleasantly aromatic nose of cassis and vanilla with floral notes.  The palate featured chewy plummy tannins, great structure and a nice long finish.  A well balanced wine with all of its components in check.  This wine retails for around $40 a bottle which may be a little pricey but considering the comparative quality, it is worth it.  88 points.

I hope to get back to British Columbia again in 2011 and to sample more of what British Columbia has to offer in terms of wine.  I will have to be a little more discerning in my selections in the future, maybe to a little more research ahead of time.  The Canadian dollar is currently at par with the U.S. dollar which can put a lot of pressure on the budget when buying multiple bottles of wine purely for review.  Have you tried any wines from British Columbia, have you tried any of the wines reviewed here?

Wine Review | Cameron Hughes Lot 188

Cameron Hughes Lot 188, 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Chalk Hill Sonoma County

Alcohol: 14.5%Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon

Production: 7,500 cases

Price: $16 retail

This wine is sourced from the same vineyard/winery as Lot 73 and Lot 140 in the Chalk Hill area of Sonoma County.  Cameron Hughes Wine secured all of the Cabernet coming off  this 500+ acre vineyard which is the source for over 20 ultra premium brands.  The winery who held this Cabernet contract previously was selling their wine for $60 a bottle.

On the nose,  gentle aromas of raspberries and blackberries.  The palate has a rich mouthfeel with fine chalk like tannins.  NOTE: the wine does not taste like chalk!  Great balance of acidity tannins and fruit, and a decent finish make this wine a heck of a deal for $16 online, or $13.99 at select Costco’s.  If you enjoyed Lot 140 you will really enjoy Lot 188.  It’s just a little bigger and bolder, but equally ready to drink, a “pop and pour” wine as they say.  Although, with just a little decanting this wine will taste even better.  Cameron Hughes says this is a great “go to” wine…I agree.  It’s a great weekly drinker, a great wine if you’re suddenly in the mood for wine and don’t have hours to wait for the wine to decant.