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Wine of the week: Pillar Box Red 2012

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Pillar Box RedWant to dissect the sad, recent history of the Australian wine business? Then look at the blog’s reviews for Pillar Box Red ($10, sample, 14.5%), which first appeared in 2009, and again in 2011. It cost $12 for the 2007 vintage, and many retailers marked it up to as much as $15. In those days, the Pillar Box Red was an affordable and more accessible alternative to the inky and overpriced Aussie reds that got high scores and glowing reviews.

These days, the wine costs $10, and you can find older wines for as little as $8. Meanwhile, the release of new Pillar Box Red vintages has been irregular — another sign that the market has dried up for Australian wine at almost any price. Which is good news for wine drinkers, because this an exceptional red blend worth $12, a steal at $10, and even worth buying in older vintages.

Look for powerful, rich black fruit, which remains a signature of this kind of Australian wine. But the Pillar Box Red doesn’t taste cheap, hot, or ashy, and there is more than fruit here. The cabernet sauvignon and merlot in the blend take the edge of the shiraz, and it’s a more enjoyable wine because of it. This is red meat wine, and don’t overlook sausages. Nicely done, and a candidate for the 2016 $10 Hall of Fame.

Wine of the week: Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2012

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Cusumano Nero d'Avola Two years ago, I wrote: “One day, perhaps, Sicily will take its place as one of the world’s great wine regions…” and then listed all the horrible things that would happen when it did. Which is mostly what has happened, and the Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2012 ($10, purchased, 14%) demonstrates just that.

Six years ago, when I first tasted Cusumano, few people who weren’t the Italian Wine Guy knew about Sicilian wine. Today, it’s all over the wine magazines, the best Sicilian wines from the Mt. Etna region cost as much as $100, and there is even Sicilian wine made to taste like grocery store merlot.

The Cusumano Nero d’Avola, a red wine made with the nero d’avola grape, has gone down a similar path, from a wine rarely tasted in the U.S. to one imported by one of the most successful American wine marketers. Along the way, the price went up, the wine lost something that made it what it was, and I took it out of the $10 Hall of Fame. I’m not the Wine Curmudgeon for nothing.

But I’ve made my peace with these changes, and two recent tastings, this red and the white Insolia, have restored my faith in the brand. This version of the Cusumano Nero d’Avola isn’t as dark and plummy as previous vintages, but it isn’t as fruity as it was when I tasted it a year ago, either. Bottle age helped restore the balance between the red fruit and its Sicilian earthiness, and I enjoyed the wine. It’s red sauce, pizza with cheese and sausage, and maybe even chicken cacciatore.

It probably won’t return to the Hall of Fame when the 2013 vintage arrives this year, given the price increase, but I’ll buy it and no doubt enjoy it. And that will be enough.

Wine of the week: JCB No. 21 Brut Cremant NV

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 JCB No. 21The Wine Curmudgeon is not drinking Champagne for this New Year’s; the First Amendment is more important. But that doesn’t mean I can’t drink terrific French sparkling wine.

The JCB No. 21 ($15, sample, 12%) is a cremant, a sparkling wine from a part of France that isn’t Champagne. In this case, it’s Burgundy, which means it’s made with the same grapes, from a similar part of France in terms of terroir, as Champagne — and at one-third the price.

Look for a nutty aroma, lots of crisp green apple fruit mixed with something like peach, the tight, firm bubbles that I love, and even some minerality. All in all, a much better wine that it has a right to be, and perfect for this holiday. In fact, I tasted it last month at the memorial service for my friend Diane Teitelbaum, and it was a fitting wine for Diane — lots of quality at a very good price.

One note: Prices for the JCB No. 21 are all over the place, with some as high as $25. It’s not quite that good, but if you can find it around $15, it’s an excellent value.

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