Bargains and surprises from the Critics Challenge competition

I was among the judges earlier this month at the Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition in San Diego. As the name indicates, the competition includes wines from all over the world, although it’s dominated by U.S. wines, especially from California.

These types of tastings, where all wines are sampled blind and judges motor through a lot of glasses, are imperfect, of course. At best, they provide a snapshot of the wine at a particular point in time. But there were wines that clearly stood out for me. And when I saw the results, I was pleased to see some really good bargains, so that’s what I’ll focus on.

When you can find a pinot noir that actually tastes like pinot for $25 or less, that’s a good deal. I loved the savory nuances of the 2016 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir ($25), a Russian River Valley wine with notes of graphite and forest floor accenting the dark berry fruit. The 2017 Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection Golden Tier Oregon Pinot Noir ($21) is also a good buy, with its lively, pretty cherry and raspberry fruit, hint of bay leaf and a long, lingering finish. A standout from New Zealand’s Marlborough area was the 2018 Stoneleigh Wild Valley Pinot Noir ($17), which is structured and fresh, with berry fruit, a hint of berry compote and a stony note.

Wente Vineyards entered an exceptional $20 cab, the 2016 Wente Vineyards Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon from Livermore Valley. It displays lively, dark fruit, a hint of dried cherry and polished tannins. The winery website currently lists the 2017, but some stores should still have the 2016. (I also liked Wente’s 2016 Charles Wetmore cab, but it’s $10 more.)

The malbec category had a couple of good but expensive ($40-plus) wines and an excellent bargain: the 2017 The Seeker Malbec ($14) from Argentina, a wine with racy red fruit and an anise note.

Among the whites, the 2017 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc ($14) from Marlborough is a good value, with its lively pink grapefruit flavors and note of tomato stem. And the 2018 Baron Herzog Pinot Grigio ($10) from California is light but refreshing, with the typical flavors of citrus and almond paste.

Moving to something a little sweeter, there’s the off-dry 2018 Navarro Edelzwicker ($17), a blend that’s about third each pinot gris, gewürztraminer and riesling, with a little muscat. It offers refreshing, spicy lychee and lime flavors. I tasted a number of other excellent Navarro wines, including the intensely floral 2018 Dry Muscat Blanc ($22) and two exceptional and luscious dessert wines: the 2018 Late Harvest Cluster Select Riesling and the 2018 Late Harvest Cluster Select Gewurztraminer (each priced at $35 for a half-bottle).

Also on the sweet side (though not as sweet as the Navarro dessert wines) was the non-vintage Barefoot Moscato ($7), which is light, pretty and floral, with candied orange flavors. It’s a refreshing wine for a summer afternoon or with a light fruit dessert.

Now for a couple of surprises. Nebbiolo is a grape that achieves its best expression in Italy’s Piedmont region, and I’ve tasted only a handful of California nebbiolos that are worth drinking again. But one that I would wholeheartedly recommend is the 2015 Orsi Family Nebbiolo ($38) from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. It shows good varietal character, with flavors and aromas of lively red cherry, rose petals and tea, supported by fine tannins.

In some years at this competition, I’ve judged a lot of entries from places that don’t get much national attention for their wines. Not so many this year, but one wine that intrigued me was the 2018 Grape Creek Vineyards Cuvée Blanc ($25) from Fredericksburg, Texas. It’s mostly viognier and pinot grigio, with some muscat, sauvignon blanc and trebbiano. The result is a very floral, pretty wine, with bright citrus and lychee flavors. Delicious, and a real find.