Affordable weeknight wonders in the wine world

and Andrew Dornenburg

Although we agree with Robert Louis Stevenson that when it's great, "wine is bottled poetry," on a typical weeknight most of us are not expecting a revelation. We're just hoping for a pleasant end to the day with something that enhances dinner at a price point that's easy on the wallet.

That's the mind-set we maintained when researching for this column on under-$15 wines. Besides price, the criteria we used to hone our picks were deliciousness, food friendliness with a range of common weeknight dishes (from simple home-cooked fare to takeout) and availability (no fabulous-but-obscure bottles with very limited production).

Given its status as the single most food-friendly white wine around, Riesling is something you'll always want to have on hand. It can tame spicy ethnic foods and is a go-to choice for other tough matches. Case in point: the 2006 Columbia Winery Cellarmaster's Riesling ($9). Thanks to a sun-filled summer and a cool, dry autumn, the 2006 vintage features a beautiful balance of intense, ripe peach and pear fruitiness and refreshing acidity that would go as nicely with Alsatian choucroute as with spicy Ethiopian stews.

Pinot noir is the single most food-friendly red wine, but conventional wisdom says that to find one worth drinking, you've got to pay top dollar. When we've been asked for tips for "a nice, really inexpensive California pinot noir," we've sometimes tried to steer the questioner toward another fruity red in their price range. So we were happy to discover the pleasant, gently spiced, plum- and cherry-noted 2006 Cartlidge Browne Pinot Noir ($13) and will recommend it the next time we're asked. Match it with mushroom lasagna, salmon, tuna or lamb.

The same winery offers other terrific values. The 2005 Cartlidge Browne Merlot ($12) is a blend of grapes from three vineyards in Lake County and single vineyards in Mendocino County, Carneros, Paso Robles and Sonoma County, which contributes to its complexity. This is a wine ripe with black cherries and blackberries, with a surprisingly long and interesting mochalike finish. It's full-bodied enough to stand up to grilled meats or poultry, or even the spiced lamb in a gyro. The 2006 Cartlidge Browne Chardonnay ($12) is a fruit-forward, lightly oaked California chardonnay whose ripe-pear flavors and hint of smokiness make it an ideal pairing with grilled fish, chicken, pork or shrimp.

We were surprised by the zingy grapefruit and pineapple fruitiness of the 2006 Meridian Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($10) from California. With just a touch of oak, this wine has a creamy character that provoked a "Wow!" upon our realization that it tasted just like key lime pie. Our reaction was no less enthusiastic when we tasted it with sauteed scallops. "This is not a shy chardonnay," winemaker Lee Miyamura has noted. Indeed.

We're happy we didn't write off the 2005 Rosenblum Cellars Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Roan ($14) simply because of its cutesy name, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Cote du Beaune and Rhone. It's a nod to winemaker Kent Rosenblum's four-decade career as a veterinarian and his commitment to supporting various animal-related charities. This fruit-forward syrah blend (70 percent syrah, plus zinfandel, mourvedre and carignane) started out soft but increased in complexity as it breathed for a half-hour, bringing out notes of bacon. We paired it with a bacon cheeseburger, but this straightforward red also would match well with other simple fare, such as grilled chicken.

Two delicious malbecs illustrate the diversity of Argentina's prized grape. Karen loved the debut release of the 2006 DiSeno Malbec ($13), with sweet cherry and plum fruitiness well balanced by acidity and tannic structure. Andrew preferred the even fuller-bodied 2006 Don Miguel Gascon Malbec ($12), from the oldest winery in continuous operation in Mendoza, for its black cherry flavors accented by smoky, chocolaty notes. Both go beautifully with meaty dishes such as chili, roast lamb, grilled steak or sausage pizza.

"When in doubt, serve bubbly" is the maxim that always has us keep a bottle of champagne or other sparkling wine on hand to pair with virtually everything but red meat. Mionetto "IL" Prosecco ($10) is a lively, easy-drinking sparkler with fresh-pear fruitiness balanced by lemony acidity. From Italy's largest producer of prosecco, it shows that quality can go hand in hand with quantity.

So does the crisp Freixenet Brut de Noirs Cava ($10), made in the champagne method by one of the largest and most renowned houses in Spain. It employs a blend of Spanish garnacha and monastrell grapes, resulting in robust strawberry, raspberry and cherry flavors with a long, dry finish. We enjoyed it with Chinese food: fried spring rolls, pork "lion's head" meatballs and stir-fried beef.

It wasn't poetry, but it was exactly what we wanted: a cheap weeknight thrill.

Andrew Dornenburg and are authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat."

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