Not everybody wants to spend $15 or more for a bottle of wine. I heard that refrain loud and clear following a "Mouth of the Columbia" column about purchasing Oregon pinot noirs (Coast Weekend, Nov. 18, 2004). Even though all the wines mentioned were relatively inexpensive - an Oregon pinot typically costs $20 or more - only two retailed for less than $15.

So what's a person to do who resists spending more than that for quality vino? Don't buy Oregon pinot noir, for starters. But also, don't despair. In the wine world, there's no consistent correlation between quality and price, and bargains abound. Such as the wines mentioned below - all sell for $10 or less and are widely available in our area.

During the last few weeks, my friend Arlene and I tasted these wines, pairing them with food and sipping them solo. Arlene's an avid wine drinker, but she's hardly an aficionado and certainly not a wine snob. Her comments and opinions actually are understandable, instead of the pretentious and sometimes mystifying "tasting notes" wine writers typically spout.

All the wines Arlene and I sampled are from the 2001 through 2003 vintages, what you're most likely to find on retailers' shelves. We searched for the best local values, and the prices we paid are listed after every wine, all of them 750-milliliter bottles. What you pay may vary, depending on where you buy your wines.

The un-chardonnay

Chardonnays have, literally, flooded the market. Bottles from California, Washington and Australia can be purchased pretty much everywhere wine is sold. Not surprisingly, chardonnay is America's best selling white wine.

These days, most chardonnays are based on a formula involving lots of fruit and lots of oak (i.e., aging in oak barrels), resulting in "big" wines that are difficult to pair with food because they're so overpowering. For a pleasant alternative, try sauvignon blanc, a crisp white wine that 's an easy sipper, yet goes well with numerous culinary preparations.

For about the same price as a micro-brew six pack, Washington mega-producer Columbia Crest makes a fine version ($5.50) that affords the herbaceous, new-mown-grass aromas that usually characterize sauvignon blanc. Arlene thought this one lively and easy to drink, especially with a turkey and havarti sandwich on toasted ciabatta.

"It's not my favorite wine," Arlene said between bites, "but it has a mellow aftertaste."

Other notable bottles: Snoqualmie Columbia Valley (Wash.) Sauvignon Blanc ($7)

The real deal, on the cheap

So you like chardonnay. Nothing wrong with that. California is known for chardonnay, but many of the less expensive versions are insipid and uninspired goop. Look for Washington and Australian chardonnays instead; many are good values and taste swell. Washington's Bernard Griffin produces a fine sipper ($9.59) showcasing plenty of fruit but not an overabundance of oak, so the wine doesn't go down like a buttered piece of toast. If you're after that kind of taste sensation, try Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay ($6.98) or Rosemont Estate Chardonnay ($9.49), both from Australia and better buys than anything you'll find hailing from California. Arlene preferred the Bernard Griffin to the Lindemans. "The Washington wine is lighter and fruitier," she noted. "I might try this sometime with Chinese food."

Other notable bottles: Hogue Columbia Valley (Wash.) Chardonnay ($6.98), Eola Hills (Ore.) Chardonnay ($8.98)

Malbec's mysterious allure

For a grape first cultivated in France, malbec has a decidedly mysterious New World aura. That's no doubt because most malbec wines now originate in Argentina's Mendoza Valley, apparently an ideal growing area for this varietal. Trapiche Malbec ($8.69) from Argentina is a bargain rendition showcasing the smoky plum flavors this wine is renowned for. It's far more subtle than, say, a cabernet sauvignon and should appeal to wine novices who might otherwise be averse to trying something new. "This is so smooth, I really like it," Arlene exclaimed after her initial sip. "It's light for a red wine, and it has a tangy taste to it."

Other notable bottles: High Altitude (Argentina) Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend ($8.99)

Syrah or shiraz

Syrah is the new darling of red wine drinkers. The grape has a long history of success in France's Rhone Valley; during the past decade or so, syrah also has taken root in California and Washington. Australia too, except "Down Under" it's called shiraz. If you've perused the wine shelves at almost any wine retailer lately, you've seem umpteen bottles of Australian shiraz. A good one, redolent of spice and berries, can be had from Rosemont Estate ($7.99). "I can smell all those red grapes that went into making this wine," Arlene said after her first whiff. She thought the wine "paired perfectly" with take-out pizza.

Other notable bottles: Columbia Crest (Wash.) Shiraz ($6.98)

A sea of merlot

Anybody who watched the movie "Sideways" remembers the wine snob Miles ranting about mediocre California merlot and why he refuses to drink it. Fine, forget merlot made in the Golden State and opt instead for Washington's version. The Covey Run ($6.98) has distinctive blackberry and other fruit flavors, with just enough spiciness to make the wine drinkable with or without food. "I don't dislike this, but I prefer a softer wine," Arlene said. "I can really taste the earth in this wine." Even better, in my opinion, is the Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot ($8.89), perhaps the premier less-than-$10 merlot I've tasted. "Wine Spectator" recently named this merlot the best-value red wine from around the globe.

Other notable bottles: Sagelands Columbia Valley (Wash.) Merlot ($9.99), Smoking Loon (Calif.) Merlot ($8.48)

Pinot possibilities

Because pinot noir is the wine world's most finicky and hardest-to-grow grape, worthwhile bottles costing less than $10 are almost as rare as vineyards on the Northwest coast. There aren't any of the latter, of course, but we found a couple pinots worth considering. Duck Pond is a Dundee, Ore. producer, and the winery's pinot is light and fruity, just the ticket for a reluctant red wine drinker such as Arlene, who usually prefers lighter whites. "Drinking this wine is like sucking on a piece of red candy," she said. "It's not sweet, but it's not bitter, either. I could drink this wine with a lot of different foods." Apparently it matched well with the homemade chocolate-chip cookies she was enjoying.

Other notable bottles: Meridian (Calif.) Central Coast Pinot Noir ($6.99)

Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail mouth@dailyastorian.com

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