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Holiday Value Wines, Imports

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There are any number of reasons to go outside the bounty of our domestic wine industry to stock up on wines for the holiday, and price ranks at or near the top of the list.

Although the dollar has weakened considerably against currencies worldwide, many excellent imported wines continue to flood the U.S. market at attractive prices. If you're looking for a change of pace this holiday season and value is a prime consideration, there are a vast array of imports that will both quench your thirst and fit your budget.

This week's Wine Talk column offers up a mixed case of top-notch but inexpensive imports that I've had the opportunity to taste and evaluate over the past year. This is but a sampling, but hopefully it will encourage you to explore the generous options imported wines provide. The focus has been limited to wines priced between $10-$20 retail that are in national distribution, and thus more easily sourced, at least in major markets.

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

WHITES

Pikorua 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($15) — A deserving winner as best of show white wine at the San Diego International Wine Competition, the Pikorua is only now being introduced to U.S. wine markets. This huge victory in a major U.S. wine competition was accomplished with a stylish blend of richness and pungency, which all of the finest New Zealand sauvignons have. Rating: 93.

Villa Maria 2011 Sauvignon Blanc 'Cellar Selection,' Marlborough, New Zealand ($20) — This exceptional producer is celebrated for its success with sauvignon blanc, New Zealand's signature wine grape, and there is no better example than this latest release. The Cellar Selection Sauvignon delivers in two key areas of flavor that have made Kiwi sauvignon popular worldwide: the aromas of ripe gooseberry and pungent grapefruit. This vintage is well balanced, with mouthwatering acidity, and intense flavors and aromas that carry through a long, lingering finish. Rating: 92.

Royal 2011 Furmint Tokaji, Hungary ($16) — Light and easy to drink, this Furmint is nevertheless remarkably complex, exhibiting nuances of brioche, honey and wet stone complemented by fruit-driven aromas of gooseberry, citrus and green apple. Dry and crisp, this is a refreshing alternative for those craving a white wine that is both delicious and different. Rating: 92.

Jacob's Creek 2011 Riesling Dry Reserve, Barossa, Australia ($14) — Year in and year out this, might be the finest wine made at Jacob's Creek. A Platinum Award winner at the 2012 Critics Challenge, it was my favorite of the dry rieslings that advanced to the championship rounds. In the finals, some judges thought it a little austere, but its flinty minerality and razor-like acidity is what I loved most. And I also know the history of this wine. It will age out beautifully, gaining flesh and complexity, and in eight years' time be an extraordinary example of Barossa riesling. Rating: 91.

Torres 2011 Vina Esmeralda, Catalunya, Spain ($16) — A light-bodied, clean and refreshing blend of moscato and gewurztraminer, Vina Esmeralda from Torres exhibits aromas of white flowers and honey, and suggests sweetness, although it's merely off-dry. This vintage exhibits notes of honeysuckle and citrus and delivers crisp acidity. A winner with tapas, including savory Spanish jamon Iberico. Rating: 88.

Bibi Graetz 2011 'Casamatta Bianco,' Toscana IGT, Italy ($13) — Although Tuscany is best known for its red wines, there is a fair amount of white wine, primarily trebbiano and vermentino. The Casamatta Bianco is a blend of the two, with a splash of muscat. The result is a crisp and refreshing white that has both good acidity and decent richness and mouthfeel. This is a tangy wine with aromas of citrus and honeysuckle. Best served soon with light appetizers, mild cheeses or simply as an aperitif.

Rating: 87.

REDS

Chateau L'Hospitalet 2009 Reserve La Clape, France ($20) — This La Clape Reserve from L'Hospitalet is what's known as a GSM blend of grenache, syrah and Mourvedre. It delivers rich, sensuous textures with supple tannins and layered blackberry and black raspberry fruit. La Clape is a small spit of land that juts into the Mediterranean (eons ago, it was once an island unto itself) southeast of Narbonne in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. It was once a sub-appellation of the Coteaux du Languedoc, but last year was elevated to AOC Grand Cru status, a long overdue and well deserved promotion in vineyard rank. Chateau L'Hospitalet is the centerpiece of proprietor Gerard Bertrand's impressive wine empire that spans the entire Languedoc-Roussillon region. Rating: 91.

Natura 2010 Carmenere, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($11) — Carmenere, for those not familiar with this somewhat esoteric grape variety, was once common in the Bordeaux region of France, but was eventually abandoned because to thrive it needs more summer heat than Bordeaux typically provides. Chile, as it happened, had copious acres of carmenere planted under the mistaken impression it was merlot. But unlike true merlot, the vines the Chileans thought were merlot performed poorly in cooler regions and much better in warmer areas. DNA testing eventually outed the truth: What the Chileans thought was merlot was actually carmenere, and grown in the right areas it yields wines that are rich, robust and delicious. Rating: 91.

Banfi 2010 Centine Rosso, Toscana IGT, Italy ($12) — I've long been impressed by Centine Rosso, which I often call a "baby Super Tuscan." The 2010 is a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. What's most impressive is its structure. This is a well-proportioned red that has structure and depth not often seen in wines at this price. Banfi is most famous for its superb Brunello di Montalcino, but it was the success of Centine Rosso and Banfi's delicious but inexpensive Chianti Classico that influenced me most when I named Banfi my Winery of the Year in 2011.The Castello Banfi Brunellos start at around $60 a bottle. They are wonderful wines that will age well. But if you want a delicious Italian red tonight and your budget is a factor, Centine Rosso is a tough act to beat. Rating: 91.

Vale do Bomfim 2009, Douro Valley, Portugal ($12) — One of my top candidates for greatest value in red wine this year is the blend from Vale do Bomfim, the primary quinta of the Dow Port house. The Douro region, long recognized for its sweet fortified red wines, has taken a serious turn in recent years toward dry red table wines. This most recent vintage of Vale do Bomfim from Dow is a typical blend of touriga nacional, tinta roriz, tinta franca and tinta barroca. The 2009 exhibits palate weight and complexity that would be difficult to replicate in this price range. The fruit is fleshy and persistent, with notes of blueberry and blackberry, and the ample tannins are supple and smooth. Accents of spice and leather further broaden the palate of aromas. Rating: 90.

Sartori di Verona 2007 Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Veneto, Italy ($15) — Valpolicella was the Italian red wine of my youth. It was a wine of very little color, or character, and in austere vintages the acidity would burn your tongue. It's still cheap, but somewhere along the way valpolicella came of age. It is now a serious wine for those of you who love good wine that marries beautifully with food. Actually, the renaissance began when producers in this region of northern Italy decided to divert some of their finest corvina grapes, which had been used primarily to make sturdy amarone, to the production of valpolicella. Almost overnight, a wonderful transformation took place. The 2007 Sartori di Verona Valpolicella still sports fresh acidty, but with a fair amount of meat on those bones in the form of fleshy red fruit. The '07 is big enough and rich enough to stand up to grilled red meats, and exhibits enough elegance and character to also serve with fine cheeses. Rating: 90.

Peter Lehmann 2010 Shiraz Cabernet Art Series, South Australia ($13) — The Art Series wines from Peter Lehmann might imply a price premium, but the designation speaks to me more about value. The wines are relatively inexpensive, but have more oomph and complexity than most at the price point. The shiraz-cab blend offers good intensity with aromas of blackberry and black cherry. It is nicely structured, with enough tannin and acid to provide a good foil for a variety of savory foods. Rating: 89.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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