Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Take One for the Team" - Reviewing the world's cheapest popular wines

In the course of preparing over 600 wines reviews for Spirit of Wine, I've had the chance to sample some of the world's most notable - and costly - wines, from Dom Perignon 1999, to Sassicaia, to Mollydooker's Velvet Glove. Some of these were outstanding experiences, some simply mediocre.

But during the course of these reviews, I've also pursued another, more noble, path. In what I've called my "Take One for the Team" series, I've provided detailed reviews and ratings for some of the world's most popular, cheapest wines. Think "Two Buck Chuck" (formally, Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon), Beringer White Zinfandel, Inglenook Chablis - wines of this calibre.

In the "Take One for the Team" series, I frankly wasn't seeking to attain an exquisite wine experience. I simply wanted to identify which of these wines stood a notch or two in quality above their "practically free" price.

And indeed, I did have some luck. Below are quick snapshots of several of the wines from this series. Included are tasting notes, along with the number of rating stars based on the Spirit of Wine scale. Clicking on the wine will look up current inventory on WineZap. So, during times of economic stress, consider one of these popular, low-cost wines, and enjoy your not-insignificant savings versus a bottle of 2005 Lafite Rothschild:

*** Blackstone Cabernet Sauvignon: In the glass, it is dark magenta with purple highlights. On the nose, it sports a deep, fruity, oaky cab essence - a touch of pickle (or is that vinegar?) incorporated into the highlights. No off-notes are seen on the palate. It touches mid-palate, with simple, round, fruity feel, a touch of oaky, velvet depth. Finish is gone in a flash. No benefit to further aging.

*** Taylor California Cellars Chablis: In the glass, the Taylor California Cellars Chablis is a clear color with hints of vanilla. On the nose, it is sweet, bright, clean and dancing in its aromatics. To the palate, it is firm and solid, almost light jello-like in its fluid consistency. Flavors are muddled apples and pears, not aromatic, and without the acids of the original fruits. The finish is quick and indistinct, but sweet and pleasant.

*** Yellow Tail Shiraz: In the glass, it does show deep purple magenta, not quite opaque. In the glass, black raspberry and prune candy aroma pumps out, sweet in its tone. On the palate, there is a furry, lightly oaked dark fruit as the first note, hitting squarely in the mid-mouth. Sweetness and modest tannic cloak circulates the flavor into the rest of your jaw. A slight touch of acids joins the tannins and fruit for a balanced finish.

***- "Two Buck Chuck" (Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon): The color of the "Two-Buck Chuck" cabernet sauvignon is dark transparent red. Creamy fruit aroma lifts from the glass, but spiked with just a touch of cauliflower and pickle. Round in the mouth, a clean berry fruit with touches of acid. Really no tannins to speak of to ground it or give it lift. But pleasant. Not memorable. But who could say unpleasant?

**+ Sutter Home White Zinfandel: In the glass, Sutter Home White Zinfandel is transparent, with a hint of rose. Its aroma at cool temperatures is bright, reminiscent of chrome steel and fresh grass. Interesting. At cold temperatures, the aroma fades almost completely - just a tiny hint of grass. On the palate, the first impression is of the broad, smooth and sweet middle. The finish is ripe, quick, with residual sweetness. Friendly sweetness and mild acids trump any notable flavors, especially at colder temperatures.

**+ Yellow Tail Merlot: In the glass, this looks like a serious contender, deep mahogany/purple at the edges, and opaque within a quarter inch or so of the glass rim. The nose is fairly shy, offering slightly dark, plum aromas, reminiscent of a somewhat creamy Beaujolais. On the palate, is a solid frontal note of charred cherry, backed by a touch of sweetness and acid. The flavor curls up into a sort of acidic marshmallow ball at the top of your mouth. Not much in the way of a finish. Pleasant enough for two stars, a plus because of its aromatic intrigues.

**+ Inglenook Chablis: In the glass, color is almost transparent, with subtle glints of yellow and golden and green. Aroma is shy, but has hints of a mineral-crisp slate. Appealing if not bold. On the palate, first sense is of dry lemonade, touching the upper reaches of your palate and gums with a slightly sweet, sprightly acidity. Little hints of chardonnay-style fruit and slate in the background, but only hints. The finish comes back to the lemon - it lingers just a bit.

**+ Carlo Rossi Burgundy: In the glass, the Rossi Burgundy is medium red, going lighter a good distance from the edge. Aromas are shy, fresh ripe muddled cherry and raspberry fruit. The taste is consistent, bringing a sweet, round middle of the same fruits, touched by almost no acids or tannins. Finishes clean, with no cloying sweetness.

**+ Beringer White Zinfandel: In the glass, you'll notice the Beringer White Zinfandel shows transparent, with a whisper of rose/orange coloring. While slightly cool, the aroma is shy, but hinting of a dusty basement. On the palate, the first thing you notice is a substantially sweet middle, moving quickly into a finish that is as brief as it is non-descript. I guess the trade-off of not offending anyone is that a wine may stop short of thoroughly engaging anyone as well.

*+ Franzia White Zinfandel: On the nose, it has a peculiar aroma of burnt marshmallows. In fact, it is like the marshmallows I would pull flaming out of the campfire as a kid, hoping I could give to someone else to eat. Very unusual and odd. Distinctive, but disturbing. On the palate, the Franzia shows a s'mores taste, consistent with the marshmallow aroma. A sweetness in the mid-palate is the first sensation, along with the charcoal-broiled marshmallow. No other flavors or layers are notable. The wine finishes rapidly and clean.

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