With income tax season behind us, the outlook is clear: Either your wine budget will soon be flush with proceeds from a refund check or diminished by the check you've sent to Uncle Sam.
I suppose I'm happy for those of you receiving refunds, but I confess (at the risk of disclosing my personal tax profile) that I sympathize more with the payers than the payees. Accordingly, the larger portion of this annual feature offers directions toward some exceptionally delicious but moderately priced wines for those confronting a period of penury.
Like the tax-time bargain reds mentioned in this column two weeks ago, the whites recommended below will ring up for $12 or less. All of them are standouts from my recent tastings of more than 1,500 wines in this price range, and all would probably outperform many $20 wines picked off store shelves at random.
I've also got a few recommendations for refund recipients. I hope you'll consider using a portion of your check to taste an extraordinary bottle that will expand your vinous horizon, either by introducing you to a new type of wine or by letting you experience a truly exalted expression of a type you've tried before. Additionally, in keeping with the trickle-down theory, I'd advise those of you now flush with funds to share your bottle.
The wines recommended in both categories are too dissimilar to be evaluated fairly relative to one another, so I've listed them randomly rather than in the qualitative order I usually use. Regions of origin, approximate prices and importer names are included in parentheses. The importers' names are intended to help retailers locate wines to order on your behalf:
Babich (Marlborough, New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($12, Select Brokers): Sauvignon blanc from this region may well be the world's most refreshing wine. This features classic notes of crisp citrus fruit and dried herbs, with superb balance between ripe fruit flavors and zesty acidity.
Bellingham (Coastal Region, South Africa) "Our Founder's" Chardonnay 2003 ($11, Cape Wine Ventures): A remarkably complete and complex chardonnay for the price, with notes of vanilla, spices and smoke accenting a core of ripe pear fruit.
Domaine de Bernier (Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France) 2003 ($10, Vineyard Brands): This medium-bodied wine from France's Loire Valley shows juicy, fresh fruit with excellent balance and classy mineral notes in the finish.
Chateau Coustaut (Graves, Bordeaux, France) 2003 ($12, Henry): A blend of 45 percent sauvignon, 45 percent semillon and 10 percent muscadelle, this is an impressively complex wine. The sauvignon component lends crisp citrus flavors that are rounded and deepened by ripe melon notes from the semillon. Refreshing but substantial, this is delicious as a stand-alone sipper but also as a promising partner for seafood dishes.
Hugel (Alsace, France) Pinot Blanc "Cuvee Les Amours" 2003 ($12, Wildman): Pinot blanc from Alsace is arguably the most food-friendly of all white wines, and this lovely bottling offers strong support for that argument. With medium body and subtle aromas and flavors of baked apples, it will pair beautifully with almost any moderately robust dish based on chicken or fish.
Hugues Beaulieu (Coteaux du Languedoc, France) Picpoul de Pinet 2004 ($8, Kysela): One of my favorite signs of spring -- always generous and ripe, with uncomplicated flavors of melons, a faintly floral aroma and a bright, refreshing finish.
Peter Lehmann (Barossa Valley, Australia) Semillon 2002 ($12, Hess Collection): Although the vintage date on the bottle might make you wonder if it is past its prime, this is actually just now hitting its stride. With expressive notes of figs and green melons, it is deeply flavored and perfectly suited to grilled salmon.
Chateau Menaut (Graves, Bordeaux, France) Sauvignon 2003 ($12, W.J. Deutsch): Atypically ripe for a sauvignon blanc-based wine from Bordeaux, yet it doesn't come off as plump or ponderous, thanks to herbal aromatics and fresh acidity that provides definition in aftertaste. A great partner for grilled fish.