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Six Festive, Budget-Friendly Wines to Cheer Up a Dreary Year

5 Dec

By Sharon Kapnick

With turmoil in the Middle East, Europe’s leaders paralyzed and politicians in the U.S. unable to agree on anything, it seems that we could all use a little extra cheer this year. Because we may need to celebrate a little bit more, we may also need to celebrate a little more inexpensively. Here are a few reasonably priced wines to brighten your holidays.

Prosecco is the delicate, crisp, refreshing, charming, fruity, sophisticated yet casual sparkling wine that Italians, especially in the Veneto, sip (occasionally) in the morning, (more regularly in) the afternoon and evening. Mionetto, one of Italy’s largest Prosecco producers, offers many choices. Its IL line ($12 SRP*) comes in three versions–Prosecco, Moscato and Rosé. The Prosecco is frizzante (lightly sparkling), light bodied, fresh and crisp with pear, citrus, apple and peach aromas and flavors.

IL Prosecco makes an excellent aperitif and complements light cuisine. It’s perfect in Bellinis, the signature drink of Venice, and other cocktails. It’s lighter in body than Champagne, lower in alcohol (10.5%), easy on the pocketbook, great for parties–and terribly easy to sip all day long. But it’s not a wine to cellar–it’s best within three months of purchase.

For something more elegant, try Korbel’s 2008 Natural Russian River Valley Champagne ($14 SRP, 12.5% alcohol). Like French Champagne, it’s made using the méthode traditionnelle (formerly called the méthode champenoise), in which the wine is fermented inside the bottle from which it’s served. Korbel also uses traditional French Champagne grapes–in this case 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Chardonnay. The wine is crisp, dry, delicate and delicious–delicious enough to have been served at the last seven presidential Inaugurations. Korbel notes that its Natural is one of the few things both political parties agree on. The wine fares well as an aperitif and also with lighter fish dishes, grilled prawns and fresh fruit, especially citrus and apples.

While it’s been around since Roman times, when it was called Moscatellum, Moscato today is all the rage. It’s recently seen phenomenal growth. Over the 52 weeks ending Nov. 12, according to Nielsen, sales of Muscat wines in the U.S. grew 81.4% while the wine market overall grew  4.4%. Danny Brager, vice president of Nielsen, has dubbed it one of this year’s “speeding bullets.” It’s no longer just the darling of wine connoisseurs. Hip-hop artists–Nelly, Eminem, Lil’ Kim and Kanye West–have embraced the wine in their songs and their beverage preferences, and their audience has followed. Others have too.

The versatile muscat grape, which ranges from dry to sweet, comes in four main varieties. One of the loveliest is Italy’s Moscato d’Asti, a medium-sweet wine from Piedmont. Moscato d’Asti is fizzy (aka frizzante) and light, with heady fruit and floral aromas. It’s delightful, seductive and delicate–never overpowering. One of the loveliest Moscato d’Astis is Vietti’s Cascinetta 2010 ($17 SRP, 5.5% alcohol), with aromas and flavors of peaches, apricots and rose petals. Try it as an aperitif, as well as with cookies, panettone, pastries, fruit and fruit-based desserts and blue cheese.

You may have guessed by now that every region in Italy makes its own sparkling wine. Piedmont is a leading producer of them. In addition to Moscato d’Asti, Brachetto d’Acqui, a fizzy, aromatic, light red, made from Brachetto grapes in the town of Acqui Terme, also dates back to ancient times. Legend has it that Julius Caesar and Marc Antony presented Cleopatra with several gourds of Brachetto d’Acqui as a gift when they were vying for her affections. It’s also said she believed the wine had the power to unleash the passion of her lovers. If you know anyone whose passion you’d like to inspire, you might try it.

One of the most charming Brachettos is Vigne Regali‘s semi-dry (i.e. slightly sweet) Rosa Regale ($20 SRP). It’s low in alcohol (7%), has the aroma and flavors of strawberries, raspberries and rose petals. It’s surprisingly versatile: it shines as an aperitif; it works with savory food including spicy Asian and Latino dishes, quiches, ham and other brunch foods, and some seafood dishes; and its ideal with desserts, especially those that include fresh berries and chocolate. Rosa Regale is conveniently available in many sizes, from single-serve 187-ml bottles to magnums, the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine.

At Washington’s Pacific Rim winery, Riesling rules (see www.rieslingrules.com). Formerly owned by self-described “Riesling fanatic” Randall Grahm, Riesling remains Pacific’s Rim’s focus (talented winemaker Nicolas Quillé serves as vice president of the International Riesling Foundation [drinkriesling.com)–and Pacific Rim’s wines remain excellent values.

Grapes for Pacific Rim’s Vin de Glacière 2010 ($14 SRP, 375 ml, 9% alcohol) are grown in the Wallula Vineyard, the first and only biodynamic and organic-certified vineyard in Washington, where 150 sheep roam around the vineyard eating weeds. Unlike high-priced ice wines, the grapes for this wine are frozen after they’re picked. With aromas and flavors of  apricot, pear and honey, the wine goes especially well with fruit tarts, cheesecake and blue cheese. In addition to being delightful with dessert, it’s delightful as dessert.

Port, a fortified wine with about 20% alcohol, is made in several different styles, with three–vintage, tawny and ruby–being best known. Unlike prestigious vintage Ports, ruby Ports are nonvintage (obviously), simple, fruity, inexpensive and delicious when young. One of the most popular in the U.S. is Fonseca’s Bin No. 27 ($18 SRP), technically a step up, a ruby reserve. It’s a great introduction to Port. Bin No. 27 has aromas and flavors of black fruit, especially blackberry, and cassis and is an excellent match with milk chocolate, dark chocolate, berries and cherries and desserts made with them.

Although 48 grape varieties are permitted in Port, Bin. No. 27 uses six: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão and Tinta Amarela. If you’d like to become a member of The Wine Century Club (winecentury.com), for adventurous wine lovers who’ve tasted at least 100 different wine grapes, this is a wine to try!

*The wines can usually be found for less than the SRP (suggested retail price), sometimes considerably less. To get some idea of prices in the marketplace, check out wine-searcher.com. (These wines range from about $6.50 to $16.)

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