Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Blend Chardonnay

Charles Shaw WinesPrice: $3
Maker: Charles Shaw Winery, Napa County, California
Varietal: Chardonnay
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 12.5%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Blend Chardonnay (aka Two Buck Chuck) has a nice pear aroma, and flavor notes of pear and oak. It was medium bodied, and had good clarity. We’re not regular Chardonnay tasters, but this one was better than its $3 price tag would suggest.

Based on this wine, along with today’s tasting of the low-priced Golden Gate Pinot Grigio, it seems that it’s easier to turn out a decent cheap white than a good but really cheap red. We haven’t had much luck with low-priced reds from Charles Shaw, Crane Lake, and similar brands. The Charles Shaw Chardonnay, though, could be passed off as a wine that might sell for $5, if not $10. Opinions on this wine vary, but trend to the positive. The Sydey Morning Herald commented, “The cheapie chardonnay (christened early in the tasting as “Two-Buck Chuck”) wasn’t awful. While it didn’t really taste like a chardonnay, it certainly didn’t taste like rocket fuel. ” And Wine Sediments lists some kudos for the Charles Shaw Chardonnay, noting that it outscored far more costly wines in various competitions. Unspun thinks it’s “decent”, noting, “If you’re stuck drinking cheap wines, the nice thing is that it goes down fairly smooth — definitely smoother than a Vendage! — and doesn’t have an aftertaste that lingers beyond what you’d want.”

Golden Gate Pinot Grigio

Price: $3
Maker: Golden State Vineyards, American Canyon, Napa County, California
Varietal: Pinot Grigio
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 12%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Golden Gate Pinot Grigio is a non-vintage California wine priced in the Two Buck Chuck range. Surprisingly, it’s not all bad. The mild nose has weak notes of spicy apple. The wine is light bodied, with grapefruit/citrus predominating with a bit of apple and pear. There’s a bit of acidity in the finish, but not a lot. It’s a light, refreshing wine that would go well with fruit or mild fish dishes.

Golden State Vineyards is a major wine maker, but the vast majority of their production is sold in bulk to other companies. For the price, this wine is quite drinkable. If your budget is severely limited, or if you have to serve a lot of wine without spending a lot of money, give Golden Gate Pinot Grigio a try.

Wine Flights at the Wine Down Bistro

We spent a pleasant couple of hours at the Wine Down Bistro and Bar in Granger, Indiana. This is a tapas-style restaurant with an interesting wine list and a great selection of unusual beers, too. We tried both red and white wine flights that were offered, and found the mix to be quite interesting.

Red Wine Flight. The first was Morrow Bay Merlot 2004, which had a smoky aroma and an oaky flavor with a long, spicy finish. The St. Francis Sonoma Red 2003 had aromas of oak and spice. It had a nice structure, with balanced tannins and oak with somewhat subdued berry flavors. The Bridlewood Syrah 2003 was a repeat of a wine we first encountered last month at a wine pairing dinner. On this tasting, we found it to have smooth, ripe blackberry flavors with some acidity and not much spice; last month, we found more spice in the finish. The last selection in the flight was from Spain, Vega Del Rio Crianza 2003. Like the other choices, it wasn’t overly fruity, but had a balance of berry and oak with medium tannins. Overall, these were all interesting reds. All leaned toward the less fruity end of the spectrum, but they were all relatively complex and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.

White Wine Flight. My notes on these are a bit more sparse, as I didn’t order them but cadged a sip of each. The St. Francis Chardonnay was light and mild with pear and a bit of citrus. The Rock Rabbit Sauvignon Blanc had a powerful nose of apple and mown grass, with the apple continuing onto the palate. The Pierre Spar Pinot Gris also had an apple nose, with a sweet pear flavor; this was the sweetest of the group. There was a fourth, but somehow that one didn’t get recorded.

Butterfield Station Merlot. The big hit of the night at our table was the Butterfield Station Merlot. This was a big, bold merlot with a rounded, plummy flavor. There was lots of spice in the finish. This is a very inexpensive wine that is widely available, but its 2003 vintage won gold medals from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the Dallas Morning News. Its fruit-forward character contrasted with the reds in the wine flight, but it retained enough complexity to be interesting.

On the beer front, we tried a Belhaven Scottish Draft. This is an amber beer that was surprisingly light with a creamy, hoppy flavor. Half the fun of this brew is watching the head form – if properly poured, waves of fine bubbles cascade upwards to form a thick, creamy head. I usually prefer a more robust beer, but this was a refreshing and enjoyable choice.

Wine Tasting at the Vine & Spirits

We love to attend wine tastings, as they let us sample a range of wines in the space of an hour or two, without having to commit to buying and consuming a bottle of something that turns out to be not to our liking. The Vine & Spirits hosted one the other night, with a slightly unusual approach. While normally such tastings showcase the range of wines from one or several vineyards, this tasting night contrasted the offerings of different brands in four varietals: Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. With three wines in each category, the taster could compare and contrast the different characters of each wine. This wonderfully practical approach is often superseded by the necessity of meeting the needs of a sponsor, but in this case it was an enjoyable change from the ordinary.

These included a Yalumba “Y” Series Riesling from Murray River, Australia, a Kiona White Riesling form Washington, and a Black Star Farms Late Harvest Riesling from Michigan. We didn’t keep notes on these, but the Kiona White was easily the sweetest, almost a dessert wine in character.

Pinot Grigios
These were Cantina Torlano Pino Grigio from Alto Adige, Italy; Torre Di Luna Pinot Grigio from Trentino, Italy, and Cantina Lavis Pinot Grigio IGT (Trentino, Italy). The Torre Di Luna wine seemed a bit more acidic, but not in a bad way.

Pinot Noirs
The Castle Rock Pinot Noir from Mendocino, California had a mild plummy flavor with a little spice. The first wine from Tasmania that I can recall tasting was Tamar Ridge Pinot Noir Devil’s Corner; this wine was rather thin, with quite a bit of pepper and acidity, but more mineral than fruit. My favorite of the group was the Babich Pinot Noir from New Zealand; it had quite a bit of body with a good mix of cherry/berry notes and pepper.

The most unusually named wine of the night was Gravity Hills Tumbling Tractor Zinfandel (Paso Robles), supposedly named for an incident in which a tractor slid down the steep hillside of the vineyard. This zin had a plummy start, and a dry, peppery finish. The Graziano Zinfandel from Mendocino, California had a big, bold flavor; it was fruity, almost slightly sweet as it hit the palate, but complexity and spice increased quickly, leading into a woody finish. My favorite from the group was Schuetz Oles So Zin, a California wine that was full bodied and showed a nice balance of cherry and spice from start to finish.

At the end of the evening, I ended up taking home some of the Babich Pinot Noir and the Schuetz Oles So Zin, my two favorites of the night. Kudos to The Vine and Spirits for hosting an interesting tasting event organized by varietal rather than the more typical brand arrangement.

Golden Gate Chardonnay

Maker: Golden State Vineyards, American Canyon, Napa County, California
Varietal: Chardonnay
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Golden Gate Chardonnay (non-vintage) is an innoffensive little wine that will gain a bit of flavor once the chill is off the bottle. Chilled, we found little aroma and thin flavor. We let the bottle warm a bit, though, and the wine aroma resolved into pear, melon, and oak. The flavor wasn’t quite as lacking, with spicy oak notes a bit stronger than the fruit. This isn’t an awful wine… it might actually be refreshing if gulped with a fruit-heavy brunch on a warm patio. Overall, though, it’s unlikely to make many “big chards” lists.

Meridian Chardonnay 2004

Meridian ChardonnayPrice: $8
Maker: Meridian Vineyards, Santa Barbara County
Varietal: Chardonnay
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.4%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Meridian’s motto is that life can be complicated, and that wine doesn’t have to be. Their Meridian Chardonnay 2004 fits the motto well. It’s nose hints at pear and cantaloupe, and these same notes continue onto the palate, along with a bit of grapefruit. The texture is a bit syrupy, and the finish has a nice twinge of acidity that makes this a refreshing and pleasant wine. Like the slogan, it’s uncomplicated… but it’s also quite good.

The Meridian website suggests pairing it with “a seaside picnic lunch of turkey burgers, a Sunday brunch omelet, or a lazy afternoon sitting on the patio with friend.” We’d forego the turkey burgers (blech!), but the other two suggestions sound fine. This is indeed an accessible and fun wine that would be fine for hot weather entertaining or serving with lighter dishes at any time of the year.

One interesting recipe on the Meridian site is for Chicken Caesar Pizza. (Not to be confused with Little Caesar’s Pizza. ;)) Though devoid of anchovies (we expect anchovies in any recipe claiming to relate to Caesar), the combination of a tangy Caesar sauce and Fontina cheese sounds tasty, and a fine pairing with this Chardonnay. We didn’t try the recipe, but the Meridian Chardonnay worked well with a Chicken Alfredo pizza from a local pizzeria.

July Wine Pairing Dinner

Last night, I was able to attend a wine pairing dinner at my club. It was an interesting evening, and I’ll share the highlights:

Frei Brothers Sonoma County Chardonnay, 2003. This Chardonnay began with aromas of melon and apple. The flavor was smooth, featuring green apple and pear. The finish was crisp and a bit spicy. There was a hint of acidity. Supposedly, Frei has cut back the oak aging from 12 months to just 8 to reduce the oak in this wine. The pairing was with Lobster Risotto in a Cold Gazpacho Sauce. The combination worked well, although this easy to enjoy Chardonnay would pair with many foods and be suitable on its own as well. The best part of this course was the crispy cup molded from slightly browned cheddar cheese.

Bridlewood Estate Winery Viognier, Central Coast, 2004. You won’t find much Viognier on your grocer’s shelf, although over time more vines are being planted around the world. The Bridlewood Viognier seemed a bit like a Chardonnay but tasted of peach and created a pleasing tingle on the tongue. The effect was due to light carbonation – not like a champagne, of course, and no bubbling was evident in the glass. All in all, it was an interesting and fun wine. The Viognier was paired with a Spiced Thai Chicken Roll with Roasted Heirloom Tomato. The slightly bubbly wine worked well with the spicy chicken roll and the sweeter, seasoned roast tomato. (Pairing the Thai chicken roll with a roas tomato was an interesting and unusual choice itself.)

Red Rock Merlot 2004, California. This merlot was the highlight of the evening. A currant aroma led to a mix of berry, oak, chocolate, and spice. This full-bodied wine is one of those less common wines that seems to light up all parts of one’s tongue. There’s a lot going on in that wine, and it’s unfortunate that it currently is being distributed only through the restaurant channel. If you find in on a wine list, it shouldn’t be too expensive – give it a try. The food pairing was equally robust – Veal Osso Bucco and Grilled Jumbo Prawns. The merlot held its own with the meaty gravy, flavorful veal, and smoky grilled prawns. Certainly, this was a fine combination of wine and food.

Bridlewood Estate Winery Syrah 2003, Central Coast. This Syrah was fine, though following the robust Merlot it seemed slightly diminshed. Blackberry, oak, and pepper led to a strong, even more peppery, finish. It was paired with an Organic Martini featuring Fresh Michigan Organic Greens Flavored with Tart Apple. The “martini” was indeed served in a martini glass, but seemed to be a well-chopped mix of slightly bitter salad greens and apple. Rather an odd dish, perhaps, that did little to improve the adequate Syrah.

Nachtgold Eiswien, 2004. This ice wine from Prestige Wine Group offered sweet pear and melon flavors. It has a mere 8.5% alcohol, and its texture is lightly syrupy. Paired with Bananas Foster, the ice wine was sweet enough to maintain its flavor. I don’t drink ice wine often, and the Nachtgold Eiswein reminded me of the simple, sweet pleasure of this kind of dessert wine.

Summary. This was a pleasant evening, with the best wines of the night being the Red Rock Merlot and the Nachtgold Eiswein. I’d encourage readers to look for these events at local fine restaurants, dining and country clubs, etc. While wine tasting events at a local retailer are both fun and a great opportunity to sample a diverse selection of wines, they can’t quite compare to a full set of food pairings in a formal dinner setting. If you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy not only a set of dishes that have been chosen with uncommon care for their unique flavors, but also a set of wines that have been selected by the chef and sommelier to work well together.

Voga Pinot Grigio 2004

Voga Pinot GrigioPrice: $9
Maker: Voga I.C.R.F, Calmasino, Italy
Varietal: Pinot Grigio
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 12%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

The packaging of Voga Pinot Grigio 2004 caught our attention. Unlike virtually every other wine bottle on the shelf, Voga’s 2004 bottle is a perfect cylinder, with a large vertical logo imprinted on the bottle. Even the closure, which is a bottle neck that accepts a standard cork, is camouflaged by a black plastic cover that matches the diameter of the bottle to extend the cylindrical appearance. The black top on the clear, golden bottle makes a dramatic statement. In this Voga bottle, Italy once again shows why it is a leading source of product design expertise.

The Pinot Grigio itself is a pleasant enough wine. Its aroma has strong apple and melon notes, augmented by mint and citrus. The flavor is a mild mix of lemon and cantaloupe. The finish is brief and refreshing.

As one might expect, the unique Voga bottle has attracted some attention, not to mention the wine itself. WineWaves scored it at 87.5, and said “The mouthfeel is light and quite tart. Lemony, minerally (almost salty) flavors lead to a crisp palate cleansing finish.” The same blog also found the 2005 vintage, and found the packaging improved and the wine still likable.

The Voga website features attractive (but not overdressed) models and an amusing history of the wine bottle (culminating, of course, with Voga’s present design.)

Yellow Tail Chardonnay 2004

Price: $8
Maker: Casella Wines
Variety: Chardonnay
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Yellow Tail ChardonnayMost of our sampling here is in the red wine category, but after experience with a few crowd-pleasing Yellow Tail reds we decided to try Yellow Tail Chardonnay 2004. Like their reds, this Yellow Tail product is an approachable wine. The nose wasn’t particularly strong, but yielded apple and peach. The flavor included peach, apple, melon, and spice, balanced with modest acidity. Perhaps it’s not a transcendent experience, but it’s at least as good as you’d expect for a high volume wine.

Other opinions on this wine run the gamut. LogDriver gave it four stars, noting, “this affordable Chardonnay was buttery and rich. Sweeter than usual, I even got hints of chocolate and caramel if I exhaled deeply.” April said it “exhibits a golden straw colour with ripe peach and melon aromas and sweet oak nuances. The palate is fresh and approachable with balanced acidity and a lingering finish of delicious peach, melon and tropical flavours.” CorkReview was a bit more reserved, noting, “Yellow Tail, the ford or chevy of Australian wines so it is allowed to disappoint once in a while… The nose was rather weak but did display peachy vanilla an coconut aromas, as claimed on the bottle. I just would not use the phrase ‘leaps from the glass.'” April’s experience was closest to mine, though I have to agree with CorkReview on the relatively weak nose not doing much leaping.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay 2002

Price: $9
Maker: Columbia Crest Winery
Variety: Chardonnay
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Washington-based Columbia Crest Winery offers this wine as a slightly upscale offering. Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay 2002 fills the glass with clear, golden light. Its primary note is apple, which suffuses both the aroma and flavor. Though not quite green apple, the flavor is a bit puckery. The flavor is robust and reasonably complex. A hint of melon softens the finish.

I’m not a huge Chardonnay fan, but this is a reasonable choice for a wine a bit more expensive than ultra-budget bottles and with sufficient character to satisfy a reasonably discriminating drinker. Its low sugar level may reduce its appeal to those who prefer a slightly sweeter wine.