I am not a wine snob or connoisseur by any means, but I do like a good glass of wine now and then. Since I have a pretty strict budget I am not likely to pay more than $5 on a single bottle, either. No, I don't buy boxes of Franzia White Zin- the thought of that makes me nauseas (memories of college days...). However, there are a number of good cheap wines out there these days for people like me who have some taste but don't necessarily collect fine vintages or anything like that.
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Let me just preface this segment with a disclaimer that I have no grasp of the wine tasting vernacular that some readers may expect. In fact, I resist the jargon on the grounds that everyday folks like me have no idea what that crap means. I read on another blog that a certain variety ages to taste like "pencil box" and one has a flavor of "mowed grass". Pencil Box? Mowed Grass? !!? Who the hell wants to taste that and how do they know?
Anyway, in my humble opinion, Sauvignon Blanc was a bit abrasive, to put it bluntly, but my preferences run more sweet. The Blanc is dry and crisp, which some people may enjoy. I put a splash of apple juice in it to suit my palate. I know, classy huh? But it tasted pretty good after that.
The "Sweet Red" is a light red wine- not the thick blood-red of a Merlot. It is my favorite of this brand so far, and I have bought a couple more bottles of it for the Holidays. It is not a heavy sweet dessert wine, and not as light as a blush (as with White Zinfadel).
OK, the Shiraz- I was uneasy about it because I have tasted Shiraz varieties by other vintners before and did not enjoy them. Oak Leaf's Shiraz is not bad. I really wanted some sharp cheese with it- definitely a cheese or savory food wine. It is similar to a Merlot- very deep, dark red, very dry, drier than Merlot, maybe. Shiraz is supposed to have "blackberry and currant tones" according to a lot of wine sites, and I definitely noticed the currant.
I enjoyed the Chardonnay as well. It is just the right blend of sweet and dry, but not as sweet as, say, a semi-sweet Riesling- at least the ones I have tried. I prefer this balance since I enjoyed the local "half-sweet" white wines when I lived in Germany, and I tend to look for similar varieties when I shop now. The apple and pear notes are definitely there (in the Chardonnay), too.
I have that bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon chilling right now. I will have to update this post once I tried it, but I have a feeling I will like it. I have yet to try the Merlot, "Sweet White" or Pinot Grigio varieties, but I may do so soon and add a second review post for those. I am sorry White Zin fans, but I will not buy the Oak Leaf White Zinfadel. I personally cannot stomach that variety, so perhaps someone can comment on it here some time to be helpful.
All in all, Oak Leaf is worth a try, and you don't waste a lot of money if you find that you don't like it. I would not recommend starting out with the Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc if you are not used to drinking wine. The "Sweet Red" or Chardonnay would probably be the best starters since they are easier to drink and don't have aftertastes or "notes" of inedible objects (like grass or pencils, bleck).
One final note- these wines could be perfect last-minute gifts or items for gift baskets since they are so affordable. I would recommend the easier varieties for gifts as well, and when in doubt, pick the Chardonnay!
Update 9 Dec 2011: I have sampled the Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is definitely a winner! I would say it is perfect for a steak dinner or maybe spaghetti with meat sauce. I had mine with some chicken Ramen, and while it was delicious, I am sure beef Ramen would have been a better choice. I think the Cabernet is probably perfect for making Sangria as well.