Nerd tasting lineup

Shameful confession: Every August, I meet a few dozen of my closest friends for a weekend of geekery at a sci-fi convention. Some people actually participate in the convention, but we also have our own track of seminars on topics of interest to us. Last year I led a wine tasting for the first time. I way overplanned, but it was a hit, so this year I did another one with a tighter focus: Wines Liz Likes That Cost Less Than $20 And Are Reasonably Easy To Find. This tasting was designed for people who don’t know much about wine and are interested in a general introduction. Here’s the list:

Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay 2007 (Napa County, Calif.; $15-$20) – I rarely have anything nice to say about California Chardonnay, but I quite like this one. It’s organic, which is trickier than it sounds; the winery also takes steps to control runoff and recycle water. The nose offers rich pear, pineapple and melon; on the palate, expect a creamy mouthfeel with lemon meringue, pineapple, custard, vanilla, pear, green apple, butterscotch and just the right touch of oak.

I can’t really recommend any other Chardonnays from California – if you hate the typical oaky butter bombs as much as I do, look for “unoaked” or “stainless steel” on the label. Otherwise, turn to France and Chile for purer expressions of this grape.

Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2008 (Casablanca Valley, Chile; $8-$13) – Wine Spectator Best Buy (89 points). Lemon zest, lime, orange, wet stones, faint minerals and grass on the fresh, clean nose. Racy minerals, herbs, white pepper, zesty citrus and ginger are the primary flavors, with lime and grapefruit rising to prominence on the finish. One of my New World favorites – it’s hard to go wrong with Chile’s Sauvignon Blancs these days, frankly. Fermented in stainless steel.

Also try: Trader Joe’s Kiwi Cuvée (France; $4); Murphy-Goode North Coast Sauvignon Blanc “The Fumé” ($10-$12); 2008 Geyser Peak California Sauvignon Blanc ($10); Rodney Strong 2007 Charlotte’s Home Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc ($12).

Domaine de Colette Beaujolais-Villages Rosé 2008 (France; $12, Blackwell’s): This is my new favorite summer wine. The hue is a lovely salmon pink. Ripe, fresh strawberries and raspberries on the nose with a faint touch of orange. Unusual for a rosé in that it is very tart and acidic – lemon is prominent, yielding slightly to melon and peach. The acidity is crisp and bracing, though a touch of sweetness provides balance. Light and refreshing.

Also try: 2008 Gustafson Family Dry Creek Mountain Vineyard Rosé of Syrah (Sonoma County, CA; $20,; 2009 Vina Maquis Calcu Rosé (Colchagua Valley, Chile; $11,; Gundlach Bundschu Tempranillo Rosé ($20,; 2008 Chateau Routas Rosé (Provence, France; $12)

Alamos Pinot Noir 2007 (Argentina; $10-$15) – This light-bodied Argentine Pinot is always a hit when I bring it to tango class. Look for cherry and blackberry aromas mingled with spices; on the palate, expect candied cherry and vanilla up front, with pepper, cardamom and oak emerging on the long, smooth finish.

Also try: 2008 Redtree California Pinot ($10); 2008 Hangtime Pinot Noir (Burgundy, France; $3, Trader Joe’s); Tabali Reserva Especial Pinot Noir Limari Valley 2008 (Chile; $18, specialty stores)

Morgon “Les Pierres Fines” (Appellation Morgon Controlée) Red Table Wine 2007 (France; $6, Trader Joe’s) – This is a light and lively Beaujolais that doesn’t require food but gets along well with lighter fare. The nose carries spices, currants, a touch of earth and heat. In the mouth, look for playful spices, red berries, cumin, cinnamon and white pepper; uncomplicated, but very sprightly. Refrigerate for 20 minutes before drinking.

Also recommended: Waitsmast 2007 Pinot Noir, Wentzel Vineyard (Anderson Valley, Calif.; $42,; 2005 Bricco del Cucu “Bricco San Bernardo” Dogliani DOCG (Italy; $17,; 2005 Bodega Weinert Carrascal Red Lujan de Cuyo (Mendoza, Argentina; $12,

Albero Spanish Organic Red Wine (Tempranillo Barrica; $6, Trader Joe’s) – Warm, spicy and rustic aromas on the nose with a touch of cocoa and tobacco. Red currant, blackberry and plum flavors spiked with pepper and cumin wash over the palate, with the spices growing in intensity as the fruit flavors fade. Lively, with vivid tannins and insistent acidity. Great with gazpacho, paella and lighter meats, but also just fine on its own.

Also recommended: El Coto De Imaz Reserva 2001 (Rioja, Spain; $20 or so, specialty stores); Capote Velho (nonvintage; Portugal; $10, specialty stores); 2005 Vinos de Terruños “LaMilla” Monastrell Jumilla (Spain; $8,

Alexander & Fitch Winery Alexander Valley Merlot 2006 (Calif.; $8, Trader Joe’s) – My go-to Merlot. Reddish burgundy color with ruby glints. The vividly peppery nose gives way to dark berries, plum, earth and minerals. Bright, juicy blackberry flavors leap out at first, followed by pepper and light oak; brief but lively spices flare on the finish. This will stand up well to red meat and more robust sauces.

Also recommended: Finca El Portillo Merlot 2007 (Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina; $10); Teira Merlot 2006 (Sonoma County; $15); 2006 Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley Merlot (Sonoma County; $14); 2007 Santa Ema “Reserve” Merlot (Maipo Valley, Chile; $10)

Rosenblum Cellars California Zinfandel Vintner’s Cuvee XXXI ($10.99): Aromas of black cherry, red berries, black pepper and vanilla. Berry flavors follow through on the palate, accompanied by a touch of oak along with cinnamon and other baking spices. Medium-bodied with lively acidity; pairs well with pizza.

Also try: Dry Creek 2006 Heritage Zinfandel (Sonoma County; $17.99, grocery stores); La Capilla 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel Reserve (Lodi, Calif.; $20, specialty stores); So Zin 2005 Mendocino County Zinfandel (California; $15, specialty stores)

All wines available at most major grocery or liquor stores unless otherwise indicated.