Wine Review Online reader Mike McGowan recently sent me a nice note indicating that he’d benefitted from a column I posted a while back, including four of the wines in his catering offerings from Artemis Foods in Portland. The column was a rundown of some top choices from an insane selection process that I conduct every year for the Clyde’s Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C., and Mike asked if another set of winners might be published soon.
Last year, I tasted more than 3,000 wines during the first quarter of the year for this program, which is a pretty heavy lift. But then, the Clyde’s Group sells nearly $15 million in wine annually, so, in that context, that 3,000+ number is somewhat less insane than it first appears. In any case, I’ve already cut through more than 1,700 sparkers and reds during 2020, and am cringing in anticipation of delivery this week of the white and rosé entries.
So, Mike, here you go with a few for starters, and hopefully some other readers will also be glad to see some outstanding and affordable wines during income tax season. Each of the wines appearing below won its placement after competing against dozens and dozens of contenders in my preliminary round tastings, as well as a blind tasting conducted by 40 employees of the Clyde’s Group (which includes the Old Ebbitt Grill and The Hamilton, which rank as the #5 and #16 highest revenue earning restaurants in the entire USA).
By the way, that final round blind tasting involved each wine flight being shown with food, so these can be counted on whether you’re trying them table-side or just for sipping during tax season:
Prosecco Brut, Tenuta Sant’Anna, Veneto, Italy, NV ($15): This wine beat the daylights out of dozens of other Prosecco bottlings in my recent tastings, and hundreds (that’s right—hundreds) of other sparklers priced below $12 retail. Delicate, classy floral aromas lead to fresh flavors in this wine, recalling white peaches, with energetic but fine-grained effervescence. Tenuta Sant’Anna also makes an excellent Extra Dry Prosecco at this same price, and at this cost level, that sweeter style often covers minor flaws and makes for a stronger performance. However, the Brut is so good that no cosmetic sugar is needed, and this was my pick of the two. Our source for this in the mid-Atlantic region is Lanterna. You might not choose this if The Queen stops by, but for having more bubbles in your life to celebrate life’s smaller-caliber, everyday victories, you can’t beat this. 92
Chianti, Morli Neri, Tuscany, Italy, 2018 ($11, imported by Siema): Few wine types are as versatile and useful for weeknight enjoyment with dinner than Chianti, with fresh acidity helping it work with fish or white meats (or pasta, obviously), as well as savory notes that help with work with more robust fare. This rendition displays fruit flavors recalling plums and dried cherries, along with intriguingly earthy undertones. It isn’t too pushy in any respect to cause trouble for anything on your dinner table, but neither is it simple nor innocuous. Well done! 90
Toscana Rosso, Poggio Badiola, Tuscany, Italy, 2016 ($12, imported by Palm Bay International): A relatively affordable but still striking example of the “Super Tuscan” category, this is a blend of 65% Sangiovese, 30% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. The bright Sangiovese flavors meld perfectly with darker plum tones from Merlot and the even darker notes derived from the Petit Verdot component, yet all of these tones are in tune. That’s no doubt due to skillful winemaking, but also to the beautifully harmonious character of the 2016 vintage in northern Italy. This is amazingly good…period…but especially in relation to its price. 93
Côtes du Rhône, La Renjardière, Rhône Valley, France, 2017 ($19, imported by Cape Classics): This superb wine is an offering within a set of new imports from Cape Classics, which has long specialized in wines from South Africa but is now working with French wines as well. The blend is Grenache 50%, Syrah 40% and a final 10% comprised of Mourvèdre and Cinsault. 2017 was a fairly hot year in the Southern Rhône, and this wine really benefitted from all that Syrah as well as the especially late-ripening Mourvèdre. It is a terrific Rhône perfectly poised between fresh fruitiness and subtly savory notes, with a long, soft finish. Cape Classics is working pretty aggressively to establish these new imports to the USA, so you might be able to beat the $19 price indicated here, but even if you can’t, you’ll still be getting a great value. 93
Malbec Reserve, Domaine Bousquet, Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina, 2018 ($15, imported by WISD from Miami; distributed in many markets by Opici): Domaine Bousquet is making astonishingly strong, high-value reds these days, and everything I tasted from them was a star in its category: The very best sparkler priced under $13 from outside of Europe; fantastic $12 Cabernet and Malbec, and a phenomenal $18 red blend called “Gaia.” With those wines acknowledged, however, the single best value in the lot is this remarkably over-achieving Reserva Malbec, which blows up its competition in its price category on grounds of purity of fruit as well as complexity, which almost never happens (you can get nice, pure Malbec, or you can get more complex examples with oaky spice and toast notes, but getting both in a single wine priced in the mid-teens is almost impossible). This is marvelous Malbec regardless of price, with pure fruit layered over savory and mineral undertones with a lovely saline streak. Damn! 93
Cabernet Sauvignon, Black’s Station, Yolo County, CA, 2018 ($12): I confess that I’ve never been to Yolo County to know how outstanding this may be in its native context, but that’s seems to have little importance, as it is absolutely outstanding in the much broader context of affordable Cabs made in the USA. The category is actually pretty embarrassing, being filled with wines that are either overtly sweet, juked up with cellar tricks like Mega Purple, or smothered in cheap-seeming notes of fake vanilla and oak char from wood chips. Ouch. By (sharp) contrast, this shows lots of natural-seeming, dark-toned muscle in the fruit, firmed in the finish by fine-grained tannins. Pardon my French, but within its category, it brings to mind a description I once heard of Austin within Texas: "A diamond in a goat's ass." (You Texans can fight this out on your own; I'm just using a memorable simile for a critical point about the sad state of inexpensive American Cabs, and to credit this wine by contrast.) A diamond indeed, and not just in this vintage: This is exceptional almost every year, and they make very good Malbec at this price, too. 90