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Big local flavor, small price

The holidays are coming and that means more sumptuous meals with friends and family – meals that call for some good wines to set off the hearty food. Good wines at amazing prices abound these days, and you need look no farther than your own home state to find them.

In the current issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, for which I am the designated reviewer of all Northwest wines, the Top 100 Best Buys of 2011 lists no fewer than 11 wines from the region – eight from Washington and three from Oregon. In comparison, there are about 20 from California – a state that produces almost ten times as much wine as this one.

The myth that Washington wines are too expensive is slow to die, but all the statistics clearly disprove it. At every price level, Washington wines offer quality that can compete with similarly-priced wines from anywhere. And at the bargain bin end of the spectrum, this state’s wines have never looked better.

The recent grape glut, the ongoing recession, the vastly increased number of wineries and the overall rise in wine quality around the world all contribute to a perfect storm for wine consumers seeking great flavor at affordable prices. Scrambling to keep cash flow up, wineries are producing more and more budget wines from grapes originally intended for much pricier bottles. And they are still dropping prices, even as quality rises.

Hogue’s red label wines have come down from around $10 to the $7 and $8 range. StoneCap, another excellent value brand, has done the same. Both of these wineries have access to very fine grapes – StoneCap wines in fact are all estate-grown. I cannot think of any California brand in this price range that can make that claim.

Here are recommended wines in a range of varietals that are widely available and will make any holiday meal more enjoyable. Suggested retail prices are listed as well.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2010 Dry Riesling; $9.

Firm Yakima valley fruit is the backbone here, tart and spicy, with bright flavors of pear and apple. A juicy, mouth-cleansing style.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2010 Riesling; $9.

Despite the off-dry style it gives a relatively dry palate impression, a mix of limes and pears, with a hint of honey in the finish.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2010 Gewurztraminer; $9.

An eminently quaffable style of gewurztraminer, this puts the fresh fruit flavors front and center, with floral highlights.

Hogue 2010 Late Harvest Riesling; $8.

Labeled late harvest, but not terribly sweet, this is lemony with both citrus rind and sweet candy flavors. It’s a useful, off-dry wine with a slightly sugary finish.

Hogue 2010 Pinot Grigio; $8.

A fine value, with fresh and crisp citrus fruit flavors, along with apples and pears. Good complexity, with added spice notes, and a well-defined finish.

Hogue 2008 Red Table Wine; $7.

Tart and juicy, it matches cranberry and plum fruit flavors to light milk chocolate and nougat highlights.

Hogue 2008 Merlot; $8.

Cherry fruit with candy highlights and a lightly herbal finish.

StoneCap 2010 Chardonnay; $8.

Slightly spritzy, with lime green and lemon yellow fruits in abundance. A slight hint of vitamin pill. Overall fresh and light, with clean fruit and engaging acidity.

StoneCap 2010 Riesling; $8.

Estate-grown, fragrant and complex, it sends up aromas of lemon oil, orange peel, fresh-brewed tea, pastry and powdered sugar. Mildly sweet, fruity and delicate, it surprises with exceptional length.

StoneCap 2010 Merlot; $8.

Dark and rich, the estate- grown fruit offers far more flavor than almost any domestic merlot in this price range. Blackberries, black cherry, smoke and espresso lead into a grainy, chocolatey, tannic finish.

StoneCap 2010 Syrah; $8.

The best of a very solid group of 2010 reds from StoneCap, this syrah draws some inspiration from the Australian wines. Spicy and ripe, with lush black fruits and a lick of citrus. Vanilla and tobacco notes highlight the finish.

Stonecap 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon; $8.

Firm and tannic, this estate-grown cabernet matches its dark fruit with a wash of vanilla and fresh tobacco. Though not as accessible as its companion reds, it has every prospect of improving over the next few years, and would be a fine match to a grilled burger.

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