In 2001, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate listed several hundred value wines, all priced for less than $16 and some for as little as $5. In those days I thought the only reason to spend $25 for a bottle was vanity, or maybe curiosity. The 2008 Advocate now defines a value wine as one under $25. This week’s Wine Spectator uses the $20 figure and lists a thousand value wines, of which exactly thirteen are under $10 (although another dozen or so are listed at exactly $10). But people in the business say that in the present mood of careful spending, many more people are asking for wines under $10. You’ll see big displays in local stores of wines in that category.
In my wine column for the February-March Bloom Magazine, I try out an idea that reflects my personal view in the so-called “wine wars.” I find the under $10 bottles from the wine conglomerates boring: they are free of flaws, technically competent and chemically correct drinks. But they don’t have any snap or surprise or charm. If you’re going to go this way, you might as well visit Trader Joe for Three Buck Chuck. I wondered, however, what would happen if I went to Sahara Mart and Big Red, asking for interesting wines from small producers for less than $10. I came home with more than two cases, so the 10% mixed case price actually made these $9 wines. The column contains my general comments but I didn’t have room for complete tasting notes, which follow, in the order I drank the wines (with much help from friends). Wines marked with an “*” were ones I thought to be very good at any price. I wasn’t bored or unhappy with any of them.
Vinum Africa, Chenin Blanc 2007 (Big Red). Rich and creamy wine from South Africa, with an appetizing bitterness. No hint of the special quince-like flavor of chenin blanc. A good match for slightly sweet vegetables like corn or winter squash.
Oxford Landing Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre (Sahara Mart). Bright red Australian, tart with clean fresh fruit flavors, not smooth. Soak some oak chips in it and it would taste like what you get in cheap steakhouse chains, but it’s much nicer with the freshness.
Cuvee de Pena 2005 (SM.). A beautiful dark glowing color, good bite and a slight oxidative note, giving it a rustic feel, straight from the heart of darkest France. I liked it but not everyone will enjoy the rough edges as I did. You can also buy this in a three-liter box for $30, which is both a good buy and kind to the environment. (I didn’t try the box and I would be a little concerned about accelerated oxidation. If you try the box, please share your opinion.)
Restoration 2007 (SM). A Portuguese wine with a reddish-black color, good body, lots of acid, and a long finish of plums and cherries. Different and for sure worth trying.
Caposaldo Pinot Grigio 2007 (BR). Tastes like Pinot Grigio but it’s short on aromatics. Inoffensive but I wouldn’t buy it again.
*Hugues Beaulieu, Picpoul de Pinet 2007 (BR). Wow. Made of an obscure grape from Languedoc, this is a soft and seductive white wine with a sense of melons and a meadow. June in a glass.
Skouras White 2007 (BR). A Greek white wine, smooth with a nose of lemon drops. Not bad but a little heavy for my taste. This is a big firm and I do like some of their pricier whites.
Black Wing Chardonnay Padthaway 2006 (BR). Made by a small Australian winery from purchased grapes. Gold color, bright pineapple flavor, pleasant but nothing special.
Jurschitsch Mozart Gruner Veltliner 2007 (BR). This is a “fun” wine made by one of the classical producers of classy G.V. in Austria. It’s spicy, a little yeasty, and fresh. It lacks the finesse and elegance of its big sisters but it would brighten any meal. Try it with fried catfish for a nice kick.
*El Ganador Malbec 2006 (BR). Absolutely everything you could ask of an Argentinian malbec. Big and purple, filling the mouth with black fruit and the nose with sweet flowers. Lingering aftertaste. If you eat red meat, you should have this wine.
Maipo Malbec 2007 (BR). Another good malbec from Argentina, refined, aromatic and full of blackberries.
Vinedos El Seque 2006 (BR). A Spanish wine from Alicante, made of Monastrell (Mourvedre) grapes. Big, fresh, purple color with lively red fruit flavors. A first-rate wine if you like some acid.
La Mano Bierzo 2006 (BR). Made from Mencia grapes, pretty much unknown elsewhere, Bierzo wines are trendy and a favorite of hip sommeliers. This version, although not outstanding, shows you exactly why, with its bright red color and subtle blueberry-like flavor.
Cellers Unio, Roureda Rubi 2007 (BR). This Spanish rose, imported by Bloomington-based Manolo’s Wines, is meatier and more substantial than most roses, based on half grenache and half merlot grapes. It is soft and floral and would be close to perfect if it had a little more acidity.
Figaro Calatayud Tinto 2005 (BR). I’m snowed in as I write this and this would be a good wine to be snowed in with. Deep red with black cherry notes and hints of spice and almonds, the long finish of this all garnacha wine leaves a warm glow, helped along by 14.5% alcohol.
*De Bortoli dB Petite Syrah 2006 (SM). Petite syrah is a mysterious grape and, so far at least, DNA testing only adds to the mystery of what is called petite syrah around the world. But this is definitely a mystery to engage and here is a sensational example. Deep plums, a long finish hinting at prunes but all moderated by real freshness. Unique and appealing.
Colombelle Rouge Cotes de Gascogne 2007 (SM). Fruity with good acid, very deep color, and a definite taste of bubble gum. Why would someone take tannat grapes and try to make Beaujolais? There is a limit to chemistry and marketing and this, for me, is that limit. I suppose it is not, objectively, a bad wine but it pissed me off.
Skouras Red 2006 (BR). An undistinguished Greek wine made mostly from cabernet grapes. Not offensive but needs more freshness and some aromatics.
Marques de Moral Valdepenas Crianza 2004 (BR). This tempranillo was fresh and pretty at first but there was a medicinal aftertaste that, well, left a bad taste in my mouth.
Raimat Tempranillo Costers del Segre 2003 (SM). A pleasant wine with no special distinction. I found it a little hard on the finish and wonder if there is too much oak.
Agricola de Borja Borsao 2007 (SM). Traditionally one of the great values in wine (I paid $7), this was a respectable wine, lively if not complex. I’d be happy to have it but I think the next wine knocks the socks off this one.
*Don Ramon Campo de Borja 2006 (SM). A blend of 75% garnacha and 25% tempranillo, this fruity eight-dollar wine is ripe, spicy and complex. Put it in a lineup with some $40 Chateauneuf du Pape and it will more than hold its own.
Crucillon Campo de Borja 2005 (SM) Balanced, almost elegant, easy to enjoy but not especially exciting.
D’Aragon Garnacha 2007 (SM). A dark and perfumed wine, international in style, smooth drinking. Everyone will like this, no one will remember it.
*Red Diamond Cabernet 2006 (SM). This Washington wine is about the best bargain there is in cabernet (given the competition, maybe I should say the only bargain). It hits all the notes – black currants, tobacco, chocolate – while remaining light and fresh. It is definitely not from Napa, not rich or velvety, and is meant to go to dinner not to a tasting.
Fattoria della Vitae, Chianti Colli Senesi 2006 (BR). Just Chianti, tart, red, fruity, appetizing and a good friend to Italian food.
Santa Martina Toscana Rosso 2005 (BR). A more ambitious Italian – smooth, international, ambitious, “don’t call me Chianti, I’m a super Tuscan.” Not bad if you go for the type.
Col des Vents Corbieres 2005 (BR). This is a lush, comforting southern French wine, with bright berry flavors mingled with herbal notes. Just delicious, not showy, for Sunday dinner with the family, if you’re lucky.