It's not just wine writers and sommeliers who are always on the lookout for the new and unusual. Many wine lovers rave enthusiastically about everything from assyrtiko and arinto to zweigelt and zibibbo.

I love esoteric, surprising wines as much as anyone. But I, too, can be guilty of giving them disproportionate attention. After all, such wines aren't even part of the vocabulary of most wine drinkers.

Chardonnay is by far this country's best-selling varietal wine, followed by cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio/gris, according to wine sales data from Nielsen. (Red blends slot in between cab and pinot grigio.) The vast majority of sales are for bottles costing less than $15. But if you're a regular consumer of moderately priced chardonnay or cabernet, you've probably come across some pretty ordinary wines. There are fewer truly bad or defective wines these days, but a lot of bottles fail the deliciousness test.

So let me offer some suggestions for good, reasonably priced bottles in the most popular categories -- and because I like to see wine drinkers expand their horizons, I'm including some alternatives with flavor profiles similar to those of the usual suspects.

Chardonnay

A lot of inexpensive California chardonnay is simply too sweet, with very little varietal character. I often have better luck with imports. For example, the 2012 Laroche Chardonnay de la Chevaliere ($13), a wine from the south of France produced by a vintner based in Chablis, offers bright lemon and green apple flavors with some fleshiness. The 2012 Neil Ellis "Sincerely" Chardonnay ($15) from South Africa has similar fruit flavors and a touch of oak. The 2012 Hardy's "Nottage Hill" Chardonnay ($14) from Australia is on the citrusy side.


Advertisement

Alternatives: A white Rhone-style blend can offer the weight of chardonnay, and some from France are quite affordable, including the 2012 La Vieille Ferme Luberon Blanc ($9), with its racy peach and citrus flavors.

Cabernet sauvignon

Attention, merlot fans. Inexpensive cabernet is often more palatable than similarly priced merlot, which can be terribly astringent. Three to consider are the 2010 Grove Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ($10), with its lively, dark fruit and hint of anise; the 2012 Trinity Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon ($8), a savory wine with red fruit, cracked pepper and a hint of olive; and the 2011 Edna Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15), which displays lively black currant and plum and a hint of black olive.

Alternatives: Dare I suggest it? Syrah, which has fallen out of favor, can offer a lot of flavor for a modest price. For example, the 2011 J. Lohr "South Ridge" Syrah ($15) is lively and spicy, with a note of white pepper. From Australia, there's the 2010 d'Arenberg "The Stump Jump" Shiraz ($13), which is a little jammier, with roasted berry and some spicy notes.

California is producing a lot of kitchen-sink red blends. Some are pretty pedestrian, but a good one is the 2010 Bogle Essential Red ($10), which is spicy and lively, with berry, mocha and fine tannins.

And the 2011 Altano ($9) is a red table wine from the Portuguese region that produces Port; it's a great value, with lively blackberry fruit, a peppery note and firm tannins.

Pinot gris and grigio

My two chief complaints about cheap pinot grigio (the Italian name for pinot gris) are that it can be insipid or very bitter on the finish. These two are a bit more expensive, but they're worth it. From Italy, the 2012 Da Vinci Pinot Grigio ($15) is racy and a little spritzy, with citrusy fruit, while its California counterpart, the 2012 J Vineyards California Pinot Gris ($15), is fleshier and more tropical.

Alternatives: Sauvignon blanc has a similar fresh, unoaked profile. For example, the 2012 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc ($10) from New Zealand is fresh and pungent, with pink grapefruit and some herbal notes, but it's not overly grassy. From California, the 2012 Benziger Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc ($15) is a little riper, with melon and citrus. Another choice would be chenin blanc, like the zippy, refreshing 2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc ($12), a perennial favorite. South Africa is another good source of well-priced chenin blanc; try the 2012 Tormentoso ($13).

Contact Laurie Daniel at ladaniel@earthlink.net.