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Battle Tested Bargains from Around the World
By Michael Franz
May 1, 2018
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I don’t know anyone who isn’t constantly on the lookout for wines that are both excellent and affordable.  I certainly do know people who are prepared to purchase expensive wines, but even they are bargain hunters too, so that they can enjoy wine on an everyday basis (with a fairly clean conscience) while keeping their mitts off of their best wines to let them mature.  So, this column is basically directed at everyone who loves wine, and it is based on tastings since the beginning of 2018 of more than 3,500 wines priced under $25 retail, with most of those priced under $18. 

The wines recommended below are quite probably better and more affordable than what most people are drinking, and I say that with some confidence because my tastings included most of the wines that most people are drinking.  If you are simply pulling wines off a shelf in a grocery store on the way home from work, you can do better…a lot better.

Better wine that is both better and more affordable?  That is indeed my claim, and it is not just a claim, but rather the upshot of some pretty rigorous research.

The rigor to which I allude here consists largely of tasting a truly alarming amount of wine at low price points during the first four months of the year, and doing this repeatedly for years on end.  This is my 18th straight year of tasting at this pace in this price category, with most of the wines being tasted along with Paul Lukacs, my friend and collaborator here on Wine Review Online.  The tastings are conducted annually to select wines for the “Clyde’s Core Wine Program” for the Washington, D.C.-based Clyde's Restaurant Group, for which Paul and I work as consultants.

I’ve also judged three wine competitions during 2018, and taste press samples constantly, but the bulk of affordable wine I’ve tasted has come my way through the insane consulting project.  The “Clyde’s Core” program (which we designed along with Bart Farrell and Tom Meyer from Clyde's) is devoted to finding the world's best values at affordable price levels.  The winning wines are poured at each of the 12 restaurants in the Clyde’s Group, which sells more than $10 million worth of wine each year.

The selection process has two phases.  First, every year, Paul and I sort at least 2,500 wines into peer groups so that we taste all of them in peer groups (e.g., every Chardonnay is tasted against every other Chardonnay at the same price level; all the sparkling wines are pitted against one another in a single sitting, etc.).  We choose finalists for each of the slots in the Core, looking very carefully for the best wines, scoring them individually, and re-tasting all of the top contenders.

The finalists are then tasted in a final round by a group of about 40 managers and wine-knowledgeable employees from the restaurant group.  These final round tastings are conducted over the course of two days, with all the wines tasted blind, so that preconceptions and prejudices are taken out of play.  They are also tasted with food, to better simulate the way the wines would perform in the restaurants.

I’ll list some standouts from this year’s selection process below, but first I should say a word about how this year’s wines stacked up against those from past years in terms of quality and price.  Based on 18 years of systematic, massive tastings, it is possible to highlight some clear trends and facts about the general state of affordable wine.

Regarding quality, the best wines are better than ever before, and the worst wines, defined as the bottom 25% of the pool, are nowhere near as bad as they used to be. 

Taking this last point first, the bottom of the pool has improved markedly in the sense that most of the wines comprising it have shifted from being downright flawed to being merely boring.  By comparison to past years, far fewer wines priced in the teens or below show winemaking flaws, manifest poor fruit quality, or evidence of spoilage.  Moreover, fewer wines show what we might call overt stylistic flaws, such as egregious over-oaking or excessive acidification.  Of course, such wines can still be found.  But today they are out-numbered by wines that are diluted and flavorless, or grapey and obvious, or overly sweet and lacking in structure.

I understand that you might only be marginally encouraged by this.  Few readers will jump for joy upon learning that affordable wines are now less likely to be horrible than they used to be but more likely to be boring.  Since you have elected to click your way to a wine review website, odds are that you don’t merely wish to avoid bad wines but, rather, are intent upon finding excellent wines.  However, there are two important points to be found in the improvement of lesser wines even for readers like you: 

First, if you care about wine you care about wine’s general acceptance in our culture, and the improvement of lesser wines chosen by novices is almost certain to enhance the likelihood that novices will keep trying rather than deciding that they dislike wine.  Second, when the bottom quarter or half of the wines available for sale get better, then wines in the top quarter or half need to get better as well in order to maintain their edge.

I can’t be sure that this is the key reason why the best wines priced at, say, $12 are now even better than they used to be, but I strongly suspect that this is part of a general intensification of competition that has indeed heightened quality at the top of the pyramid.  The competitive environment has intensified for several reasons, including the diffusion of technology and expertise around the world, as well as the expansion of wine industries in nations with relatively low land and labor costs.  These factors have translated directly into the improvement of the juice in your $12 bottle, and have indirectly forced many wine producers in established countries like France and Italy to accept lower profit margins to compete with $12 wines from countries like Chile and Argentina.

Here are some standouts from the 2018 Core Project, along with brief tasting notes.  If you need still more encouragement to try them, I’d recall that all of them were tasted at least twice and were highly regarded both by me and by Paul Lukacs, and were then picked as the best of the best in a blind tasting by 40 other tasters.  Prices will differ a little across North America, but should rarely vary by more than a buck or two.  Recommended wines are listed in order of “robustness,” starting with the lightest and most delicate, and working down to those that are more weighty and assertive:

Sparkling:

Prosecco Brut Spumante DOC, Primaterra, Veneto, Italy, NV ($12):  The best Prosecco is designated as DOCG from Valdobbiadene rather than just straight DOC, but this is a delicious exception to the rule.  And, of course, finding exceptions to the rule is what it means to find affordable, standout wines.  Delicate floral aromas and fresh flavors recalling white peaches, with energetic effervescence.  88

Whites:

Pinot Grigio, Tenuta Sant’Anna, Venezia, Italy, 2017 ($12):  Rarely does anyone have a “religious experience” over a glass of inexpensive Pinot Grigio, but with that acknowledged, there’s a reason why this whole product category has boomed over the past dozen years:  These wines are clean and refreshing, as opposed to all those butterball Chardonnays that tasted like soup during summer and led to an anti-oak, anti-malolactic backlash.  This shows citrus and green apple fruit flavors with a crisp, dry finish.  88

Pecorino, Niro, Terre di Chieti, Abruzzo, Italy, 2016 ($16):  Pecorino is a variety that was nearly extinct as recently as 15 years ago, but is now roaring back in the southern portion of the Marche and northern Abruzzo, both located on the Adriatic below Venice in Central Italy.  The variety can also make very fine sparkling wine, but this dry table rendition is terrific, with restrained citrus and white melon fruit that leads to an intriguing nutty, mineral finish.  Don’t let the word, “restrained” put you off:  The key to this wine’s success is that the subtlety of the fruit lets its other nuances hold their own.  92

Sauvignon Blanc, Kono, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2017 ($14):  My personal preference is for Kiwi Sauvignons that are a little less sweet than this one, but there’s plenty of market research indicating that this is New Zealand’s most popular style.  It is still quite notably acidic, but there’s just enough residual sugar to keep this from being too “screechy” for most people to enjoy as a stand-alone sipper.  It displays vibrant grapefruit and green herb flavors that linger on the palate.  90

Pinot Grigio, Nals Margreid, Alto Adige, Italy, 2016 ($20):  Twenty bucks is still in the range of an “affordable” wine if the quality is excellent, and though you might think $20 for Pinot Grigio is actually expensive, this is the bottle to show you how good this grape can be when carefully crafted in Alto Adige.  Fresh pear and stone fruit flavors are totally captivating, with smoky, musky accents lending impressive complexity.  92

Grüner Veltliner, Stadt Krems, Kremstal, Austria, 2016 ($16):  This is simply marvelous Grüner that does everything well:  It is wonderfully refreshing and even still almost “crackly” on the palat, yet it has the substance to work well with moderately robust food…no roast chicken is going to push this baby around.  It features expressive aromas and flavors reminiscent of pears, tangerines, and green lentils, with a strikingly lively texture.  92

Chenin Blanc “Secateurs,” Badenhorst, Swartland, South Africa, 2017 ($15):  This wine is always terrific, and the new 2017 release is as good as any vintage I can recall.  Supremely versatile with food but damned delicious on its own, this is an object lesson in South Africa’s ability to send us eye-popping bargains.  Floral and faintly honeyed fruit aromas, it shows forward flavors reminiscent of crisp green apples.  92

Albariño, Nessa, Rias Baixas, Galicia, Spain, 2017 ($16):  Albariño is becoming increasingly popular, and with good reason, but one consequence is that it is becoming more difficult to find complete, convincing renditions priced in the mid-teens.  But here you go:  A terrific rendition with subtle floral aromas leading to ripe peach flavors edged with citrus acidity.  92

White Blend “The Wolftrap,” Boekenhoutskloof, Western Cape, South Africa, 2017 ($10):  Paying ten bucks for this wine borders on stealing.  A blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc, it shows generous aromas and flavors reminiscent of pears and peaches, with interesting spicy accents.  Dramatic but focused at once, which is not easy to achieve at any price.  91

Chardonnay, Fess Parker, Santa Barbara County, CA, 2016 ($18):  I don’t make a practice of asking questions in print that I can’t answer, but:  Why can’t more California wineries make wines at this superb quality level and sell them for less than $25 or $30?  This is phenomenal over-achiever that is attractively aromatic and generously flavored, with a finish enlivened by an edge of citrus acidity.  91

Rosés:

Zweigelt Rosé, Hugl, Niederösterreich, Austria, 2017 ($12):  Provence is the fashionable source for Rosé these days, and for decades in the past, but the rise in popularity for this whole category has encouraged vintners in many places to raise their game.  Austria has stepped up more dramatically than any other country, and Zweigelt (a cross of St. Laurent and Blaufrankisch) seems to be a grape that can make killer wines at very gentle prices.  This is almost crackling with freshness, featuring bright fruit recalling cranberries.  92

Rosé, St. Supéry, Napa Valley, CA, 2017 ($15):  I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but I’m critical by profession, and Rosé from the USA is chronically expensive without offering the refreshment value for which we turn to these wines in the first place.  By contrast, this offers juicy flavors recalling red cherries and strawberries that tail off to a crisp finish.  90

Reds:

Pinot Noir, Ca’Bea del Maniero, Piedmont, Italy, 2016 ($12):  Truly delicate, sophisticated Pinot Noir priced at $12 is the toughest wine in the world to find.  But here it is, with black cherry and raspberry fruit enhanced by dry, earthy notes in the finish.  This is a wine for chicken, not beef, and for those who appreciate nuance more than muscle.  89

Nebbiolo, G. D. Vajra, Langhe, Piedmont, Italy, 2016 ($25):  This is 100% Nebbiolo made by one of Barolo’s best and most consistent producers, and it is vastly better than most “Langhe Nebbiolo” wines.  Indeed, this would put a lot of bottles of Barolo or Barbaresco to shame--for half the price.  Very expressive, this shows a subtle floral bouquet and plum-like fruit flavors enriched by echoes of licorice and exotic teas.  93

Garnacha “Montaña,” Legado del Moncayo, Campo de Borja, Aragon, Spain, 2016 ($14):  If you don’t know much Spanish--or much about Spanish wines--Garnacha is the same variety as Grenache in French; Montaña translates to English as “mountain,” and these 40 year-old vines are all situated above 2,000 feet.  This terrific wine displays a fresh fruit core of red berries with spicy, smoky accents and a hint of juiciness to balance its tannic grip.  91

Barbera del Monferrato “Maraia,” Marchesi di Barolo, Piedmont, Italy, 2015 ($15):  This wine is phenomenally consistent and always a bargain, and the 2015 is at least as good as any vintage I can recall.  It delivers substantial flavors of wild berries with earthy echoes in the finish and just a hint of wood.  91

Côtes du Rhône, Domaine Berthet-Rayne, Rhône Valley, France, 2016 ($14):  The 2016 wines from the various Côtes du Rhône appellations are the best since 2010, and one would need to go back for quite a few years to find another vintage at this level.  This shows red fruit flavors with hints of black licorice and thyme.  91

Maury Sec “Serge & Nicolas,” Domaine Cabirau, Roussillon, France, 2016 ($25):  Although the Rhône is getting all the press regarding the 2016 vintage, very similar weather conditions prevailed all the way westward along the Mediterranean.  Maury is still a pretty obscure appellation in the USA, but you’ll never forget it if you taste this sensational wine.  From vineyards located just north of the Spanish border, and blended from Grenache, Carignan and Syrah, this offers generous flavors of blackberries, licorice, wild herbs, and rocky earth.  93

Carignan “T.H.,” Undurraga, Maule Valley, Chile, 2013 ($33):  At $33, I’m pushing my luck here with the “bargain” theme, but few wines can change your mind dramatically about a so-called “workhorse” grape from Southern Europe that is now producing show-stopping results in Chile.  Carignan is known as Carignane in the USA, Carignano in Italy and Cariñena in Spain, but now that we’ve got that out of the way, the real news is that this offers marvelous black raspberry and red currant fruit interwoven with a host of savory nuances.  Will it be the next Malbec?  93

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Questions or comments?  Write to me at michael@franzwine.com