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Posted by Robert Whitley on December 8, 2014 at 5:53 PM

Stocking Stuffers: 20 Under $20

 The gift of wine is always appreciated in these quarters, and now 'tis the season.

My Creators Syndicate Wine Talk wish list of liquid stocking stuffers this year was culled from my tastings of medal-winning wines over the past six months, from the Critics Challenge wine competition in June and the Sommelier Challenge wine competition in September.

I've chosen an assortment of wines that won either a gold or platinum medal and thus earned a rating of 90 points or higher, and all retail for $20 or less, which will make the period of wine gifting a bit easier on the wallet. I've tasted all of the wines and can enthusiastically endorse the decision of the judges in each case.

A by Acacia 2012 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($15) — Stunning pinot noir for the money and a welcome respite from the high-priced blockbusters that are too often overripe and clunky. The sommeliers awarded it gold.

Amalaya 2012 Malbec Blend, Salta, Argentina ($16) — This smooth red took a gold from the critics and a platinum from the sommeliers. This is that increasingly rare inexpensive Argentine malbec that consistently shines.

Banfi 2011 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($13) — Though best known for its Brunello from the Montalcino district of Tuscany, Banfi has expanded its expertise into the Chianti district and is making remarkable wine for the price. Gold from both the critics and the somms.

Baron Herzog 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($13) — This gold-medal winner at Critics Challenge is both kosher and a tremendous bang for the buck.

Beaulieu Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($19) — We don't often associate the Napa Valley with great bang-for-the-buck cabernet, but BV's 2012 just might change some hearts and minds as well as turn a few heads. The somms gave it gold.

Bonterra 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino County ($15) — More often than not Bonterra gets my nod as the winery with the most undervalued wines. They're first and foremost delicious across the board as well as organic and inexpensive. The somms gave this Bonterra cabernet a well-deserved gold.

Cote Mas 2013 Pezenas, Coteaux du Languedoc, France ($19)
— Domaines Paul Mas is a rising star in the South of France, and this inexpensive Rhone-style blend is one of the reasons for Jean-Claude Mas' growing fame. A platinum-winner at Sommelier Challenge.

D'Arenberg 2012 The Hermit Crab Viognier-Marsanne, McLaren Vale, Australia ($17) — You probably know d'Arenberg best for its superb reds, especially the iconic Dead Arm Shiraz, but the whites aren't too shabby. This white Rhone-style blend impressed the somms enough to bad a platinum medal.

Dr. Konstantin Frank 2012 Gruner Veltliner, Finger Lakes ($15)
— This steely, crisp, mineral-driven white is the real deal, a close replica of the fresh, clean gruners you will find in Austria. If the Zocker gruner isn't the finest in America, Dr. Frank's is. Platinum at the Critics Challenge.

Erath 2012 Pinot Noir, Oregon ($19) — The improvement in pinot noir at this price point is nothing less than astonishing. A gold medal from the critics sends a powerful message.

Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection 2012 Claret Black Label, California ($18) — This Bordeaux-style blend is a beauty. Coppola's wines are on fire, and this is just one of the many Coppola wines that took gold at the Critics Challenge.

Giesen 2013 Riesling, New Zealand ($15) — It might surprise some, but this top-notch sauvignon blanc producer makes a mighty fine dry riesling. Good enough to earn a platinum award from the critics.

Navarro 2013 Muscat Blanc, Anderson Valley ($19.50) — This wine was one of my favorite whites over the past year. It's a dry muscat, which is a challenge to make because they so often turn bitter when fermented to dryness. Not so here. A platinum winner at the Critics Challenge.

Parducci 2012 Chardonnay, Small Lot Blend, Mendocino County ($13)
— This family-run winery has long made outstanding wine at modest prices. Nothing's changed. Gold at the Critics Challenge.

Renwood 2011 Premier Old Vine Zinfandel, Amador County ($19) — This winery is on the comeback trail, and the old vine zin is proof positive. The critics lavished it with gold.

Ruffino 2011 Il Ducale, Toscana IGT, Italy ($18) — An inexpensive "Super Tuscan" is a rare and beautiful thing, especially when it tastes this good. The somms gave it gold.

Sterling Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($19)
— One of the things you might notice about less expensive chardonnay is that it is seldom overdone. This one's a well-balanced gem from one of Napa's top producers, and it got gold at the Sommelier Challenge.

Terra d'Oro 2012 Barbera, Amador County ($18) — The barbera grape does exceedingly well in the Sierra Foothills, and Terra d'Oro takes full advantage. This is a lush red with solid backbone. The critics gave it gold.

Wild Horse 2012 Chardonnay, Central Coast ($18)
— Very impressive chardonnay for the price. The critics gave it platinum. It was perhaps the finest chardonnay I tasted all year in this price range.

Zocker 2012 Gruner Veltliner, Paragon Vineyard, Edna Valley ($20)
— The finest gruner in California and perhaps all of the United States (though Dr. Konstantin Frank in New York's Finger Lakes might have an argument there). Critics loved it to the point of platinum.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.


Fox Run Vineyards, Finger Lakes (New York) Riesling Hanging Delta Vineyard 2011 ($40)
The cooler winegrowing regions of the United States are proving to be a great source of high quality Rieslings.  The Fox Run Hanging Delta Riesling shows the beautiful complexity and racy appeal of the world’s best Rieslings.  The bouquet reveals lovely scents of white flowers, green apple, lemon zest, honey and guava.  The flavors are deliciously pure and complex with the citrus and apple fruits underscored by honey and spicy tones.  The razor’s edge of Riesling acidity makes the multivariate flavors all the more vivid and appealing.  If you love good Riesling, do not miss the chance to sample the best bottlings from the Finger Lakes.  You will be impressed. 93 Wayne Belding

Dr. Michael
This Issue's Reviews
Eight Killer Champagnes to Finish Off the Year
Michael Franz

I don't know more than a handful of people who don't love Champagne, yet I'm often surprised by how few people really appreciate its greatness as a wine. Indeed, many casual consumers don't think of Champagne as wine at all, regarding it rather as a top-shelf rendition of a distinct beverage category including everything with bubbles…including Mimosas. For my part, I think that Champagne may be the best of all wines, with great renditions offering levels of complexity and age-worthiness that top bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux can match--but rarely surpass. If you've yet to taste a wine that has led you to think of Champagne as playing in that league, here are eight examples that might do the trick.
Getting More from Loess
Wayne Belding

Loess soils are found throughout the world, comprising nearly ten percent of the earth's soil surface. These widely distributed soils are of interest to winelovers because they are the underpinning of several famous and highly desired wines. We find references to loess and wine most commonly in Austria, Germany, Hungary and the western United States. Loess (Löß in its native German) means 'loose' -- a reference to the poorly compacted nature of the soil. Loess is, in geologic terms, a recent deposit of windblown silt. Silt particles are very small -- 0.002 to 0.063 millimeters in diameter. That's 100 times smaller than your average beach sand grain size, so it's easy to see how silt particles can be transported by strong winds.
Wine With

Posole has been associated with holidays and celebration since the pre-Columbian days of human sacrifice. In our own era, posole (the name of the dish itself and of the soft, chubby kernels of white corn that play a starring role in it) is linked to feasting on Christmas Eve in both New and Old Mexico. No human sacrifice is involved, and pork and chicken have become the traditional ingredients. Chicken or pork, pork or chicken? We were making posole recently and couldn't decide between the chicken breasts or the pork belly that were tucked away in our freezer. Then we realized the obvious answer was to use both. We made most of the dish a day ahead, first rubbing the pork belly with a mixture of ground fennel seed, salt and pepper. You can get posole (also known as hominy) in two forms: dried or canned. While the dried option is somewhat superior, with a firmer texture and more overt flavor, it does have to be reconstituted via an overnight soak and a longish simmer. We took the lazier, quicker route, opened a couple of cans, and the result was just fine.
On My Table
A Barolo Producer Worth Knowing
Mary Ewing-Mulligan

Such are the riches of the Barolo wine zone that even those of us who visit the area regularly can be delighted by the discovery of a producer with whom we are not already familiar. I discovered Attilio Ghisolfi's Barolos thanks to Kerin O'Keefe's comments in her new book, 'Barolo and Barbaresco' (University of California Press). This winery had not been anywhere on my personal list of top Barolo producers, but in that, I apparently was not alone: O'Keefe describes Attilio Ghisolfi as 'Yet another of Monforte d'Alba's little-known treasures that flies under the radar of the media…'. Tasting the three Ghisolfi Barolo wines that are currently available in the U.S., I found much to like.