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Good wines for tough times

By Bill Daley
Chicago Tribune

With the economy nose-diving and costs rising, what we all really need is a good, cheap, drink. Try an inexpensive white wine. Cool, crisp and refreshing, white wine may be the one thing that gets you through those hot nights when you've cut back on the air conditioning and swapped out steak and sushi for wienies and baked beans.

Consumers are buying more wine in the $9 to $12 price bracket, reports The Nielsen Co., a consumer market research firm. Sales in this range are up more than 12 percent from last year. The only other price range showing that sort of growth is, ironically perhaps, the category of wines costing more than $15.

What should you expect in an inexpensive wine, especially a white? Freshness, I think, plus a certain sense of liveliness and balance. You also want a wine with high enough acidity to pair well with foods. These whites are nothing you'll want to age; drink as you buy them.

How to choose an inexpensive white wine? There are a few strategies you can use:

First, try to talk to your wine store owner or clerk about what sort of wine style you want and at what price. They know their stock and can guide you to what they think will work best. Who knows, they may even crack open a bottle and give you a complimentary sip.

Many wineries make wine in various price tiers. If you liked so-and-so's sauvignon blanc at $25, see if they make something similar for $10.

Go exploring. Check out whites from less-familiar regions or countries. Spanish wines are often affordable, as are many from Eastern Europe and South America.

Don't be afraid of box wines. You can get a lot for relatively little and today's airtight packaging means the wine will stay fresh for weeks.

Just as you do with groceries, look for advertised specials on wine. Do use some caution, though, before buying. Some wine merchants sharply reduce prices to get rid of old stock. You don't want to buy a wine that's over-the-hill. Generally choose an inexpensive white wine that's only one or two years old.

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5 FOR UNDER $10

Here are five white wines that, barely, squeak in under the $10 limit. Taxes aren't included.

2007 White Truck Chardonnay: This unoaked white from California's Santa Barbara wine region was the popular favorite in the informal blind tasting. The wine, produced by Cline's Red Truck Winery, had a floral nose and was enlivened with a spritz of lime. The flavor managed to balance citrusy tang with lush melon notes and an appealingly sweet finish. Pair with barbecued shrimp, grilled salmon, pasta salad. 2 corks. $9.99

2007 Torres Sangre de Toro Blanco: This wine was made in Penedes, a region in northeastern Spain from the parellada grape; Torres is famed for its work with this variety. The wine had a lovely citrusy spritz and plenty of green apple tartness. A creamy finish provides balance. Pair with chicken Caesar salad, soy-glazed chicken wings, tuna salad sandwiches. 2 corks. $7.99.

2007 Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris: A white from Washington's Columbia Valley, this wine almost tied with the Torres. Fairly spritzy with an oily, grapey nose, the wine had a pearlike tartness balanced by a sweet finish. Serve with fried chicken, empanadas, grilled chicken kebabs. 2 corks. $9.99

2007 Francis Ford Coppola Presents Pinot Grigio Bianco: Not one of the famed filmmaker's better releases. A simple—some tasters would say too simple—white wine without much acidity or zip. Serve with cucumber salad, pesto pasta. 2 corks. $8.99

2006 Ajello Majus Bianco: A golden blend of grillo and catarratto grapes, this Sicilian white smelled buttery but tasted rather bland and oily. Serve with white pizza, grilled hot dogs. 1 cork. $9.99

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