As though things were not rough enough already on the economic front, Uncle Sam is about to stick his hand in the pocket of many millions of Americans tomorrow for 2008 income taxes.
So why, you ask, am I belaboring this painfully obvious point in a column that is supposed to be devoted to wine? The answer is that Tax Day is the one time each year when all wine lovers are focused simultaneously on a development affecting their wine budget.
Consequently, I started writing annual tax time columns 15 years ago for The Washington Post, offering pointers to great bargain wines for readers compelled to write checks to the IRS, as well as splurge suggestions for those receiving refunds.
Given the current economic crisis, it seems appropriate to take a year off on the splurge front, devoting this year's piece solely to some of the world's best bargain wines.
Fine, you reply, but who the hell are you, Franz, to be issuing pronouncements on the subject?
I'll overlook the rudeness of your question (since you are probably just cranky on account of having to pony up on Tax Day) and answer it: I'm very well qualified to issue pronouncements on the world's best bargain wines because I've just completed a forced march through 1,400 contenders.
That's right: 1,400 wines in 8 nights, along with my friend and WRO colleague Paul Lukacs. This wasn't quite as alarming as it might sound initially, since these weren't consecutive nights; we took four nights off during the 12-day span in deference to our teeth. And our livers.
Still, it wasn't pretty. Lots of spitting. Lots of cursing over nasty wines. A recycling nightmare. Some biting personal insults, though we agreed in our assessments of about 95% of the wines.
Why, you ask, would we do such a thing? Mostly because we need the money, but we've also found this to be a remarkable (if painful) learning experience during the 10 years we've been doing it as consultants for the D.C.-based Clyde's Restaurant Group.
I'll list this year's winning wines below, along with brief tasting notes for them, but first I should explain the Clyde's Core Program and its elaborate selection process.
Each year, we taste over 1,400 samples to select 37 wines that form the "Core" (as we call it) of the wine lists in the Group's 13 restaurants. Any distributor or importer is free to submit wines, but no wine can cost more than $15 at the wholesale level. The vast majority are targeted toward a special segment of the program, and are priced at under $8 wholesale.
The program (which we designed along with Bart Farrell and Tom Meyer from Clyde's) is to find the world's best values at affordable price levels. The restaurants in the Clyde's Group sell lots of wines other than the 37 selected for the "Core Program" (total wine sales topped $10 million during 2007), but the Core Program assures a foundation of low-price, high-value wines that are selected competitively.
The competitive aspect has two phases. First, Paul and I break those 1,400 wines into peer groups so that we taste all the Chardonnays or Malbecs, for example, against one another. We choose finalists for each of the 37 slots, 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 30 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.
Here are the winners, broken down into 'progressive' categories as they appear on restaurant wine lists (which progress from lighter to fuller-bodied wines. Prices will differ a little across North America, but I'll provide my best guess on the rough retail price you're likely to find, along with names of importers):
Cava Extra Dry, Poema, Penedes, Spain, NV ($12, Kobrand)
Rich and frothy, with delicate effervescence and subtle fruit notes
Pinot Grigio, Benvolio, Grave, Friuli, Italy, 2007 ($11, Sovereign)
Vivid fruit recalling fresh figs and green apples, with a smoky accent
Sancerre 'Moulin des Vrillères,' Christian Lauverjat, Loire Valley, France, 2007 ($20, Elite Wines Imports)
Subtle aromas and flavors of citrus backed by notes of smoke and minerals
Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Rita '120,' Lontue Valley, Chile, 2008 ($9, Palm Bay)
Bright and expressive, with citrus fruit flavors and subtle herbal aromas
Sauvignon Blanc 'Private Bin,' Villa Maria, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2008 ($16, Vineyard Brands)
Zesty and intensely refreshing, with notes of grapefruit and freshly cut grass
Riesling 'Essence,' S. A. Prüm, Mosel, Germany, 2007 ($12, Palm Bay)
Ripe peach and pear flavors show a fruity sweetness and fresh acidity
Grüner Veltliner 'Hugo,' Huber, Traisental, Austria, 2007 ($12, Boutique Wine Collection)
A spicy bouquet and flavors of apples and Asian pears, with a peppery undercurrent
Rueda Blanco, Basa, Castilla y Leon, Spain, 2007 ($12, Vintus)
Subtle and interesting, with delicate notes of melon, pear and dried herbs
Sauvignon Blanc 'Santa Digna,' Miguel Torres, Central Valley, Chile, 2008 ($12, Dreyfus Ashby)
Generously rounded but fresh, with vivid citrus, fig and melon flavors.
Unoaked Chardonnay, Clos LaChance, Monterey County, CA, 2008 ($12)
Golden apple and pear flavors combine with lingering hints of sweet spice
Chenin Blanc, Simonsig, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2007 ($12, Quintessential)
Soft and smooth, with stone fruit flavors and a subtle scent of honey
Pinot Bianco, Cantina Terlan, Alto Adige, Italy, 2007 ($22, Banville & Jones)
Round and soft in texture, with notes of baked apples, ripe pears, and minerals
Pinot Gris, Kim Crawford, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2007 ($16.50, Icon Estates)
Rich but clean and refreshing, with ripe pear fruit showing a bright citrus edge
Viognier, Las Perdices, Mendoza, Argentina, 2008 ($11.25, Elite Wines Imports)
Floral aromas and ripe peach fruit, with crisp balancing acidity
Chenin Blanc, Dry Creek Vineyard, Clarksburg, CA, 2007 ($11)
Fruit notes of melon and pear, with a backnote of wild honey
Chardonnay, Hess, Monterey County, CA, 2007 ($11)
Baked apple fruit notes accented with a whiff of woodsmoke
Chardonnay, Grayson Cellars, California, 2007 ($10)
Ripe fruit recalling peaches and pears, framed by a touch of spicy oak
Gewurztraminer, Cono Sur 'Vision,' Casablanca Valley, Chile, 2008 ($14, Vineyard Brands)
Expressive floral aromatics and rich fruit leading to a fresh, focused finish
Chardonnay, Catena, Mendoza, Argentina, 2007 ($20, Billington)
Rich and complex, with ripe pear fruit and accents of vanilla and toasty oak
Pinot Noir, Reflection, Vin de Pays d'Oc, France, 2007 ($10, Vignobles)
Bright fruit recalling red cherries, with a subtly spicy finish
Chianti, Morli Neri, Tuscany, Italy, 2007 ($10, Siema)
Pleasantly tangy and bright, with bright fruit and a hint of wild mushrooms
Rioja Crianza, Montecillo, Spain, 2005 ($10.50, Underdog)
Complex aromas and flavors of dried cherries, tobacco leaves and leather
Barbera, Tati, Piedmont, Italy, 2007 ($7.50, Siema)
Dark cherry fruit enhanced by hints of mushrooms and dried herbs
Pinot Noir, Kenwood, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, CA, 2006 ($14)
Fresh and lightly spicy, with a core of fruit recalling dark cherries and strawberries
Rioja Reserva, Beronia, Spain, 2001 ($20, San Francisco Wine Exchange)
Complex and highly expressive, with dried cherry fruit and toasty, smoky accents
Tempranillo, Tapeña, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Spain, 2007 ($9, Freixenet)
Juicy and fresh, with flavors of dark cherries and an edge of sweet oak
Merlot, Tilia, Mendoza, Argentina, 2008 ($9, Billington)
Soft and rounded in texture, with fruit recalling plums and red berries
Red Blend 'Ruris,' Col Santo, Umbria, 2006 ($11, Siema)
Intense aromas and flavors of dried black cherries with a spicy backnote
Malbec, Dolium, Mendoza, Argentina, 2007 ($12, Elite Wines Imports)
Soft and succulent, with fruit recalling black plums and dark berries
Mencia, Luna Beberide, Bierzo, Castilla y Leon, Spain, 2007 ($18, Grapes of Spain)
Delicate and balanced but deeply flavored with black cherries and woodsmoke
Malbec, Decero, Remolinos Vineyard, Mendoza, Argentina, 2006 ($20, Vintus)
Ripe and rich, with very flavorful dark berry fruit backed by soft tannins
Merlot 'Winemaker's Selection,' Andeluna, Mendoza, Argentina, 2006 ($12, San Francisco Wine Exchange)
Black plum and dark cherry fruit intertwined with subtly spicy oak
Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Finca el Origen, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina, 2007 ($11, Carolina Wine Brands)
Classic Cabernet notes of blackberries and cocoa in a firm but flavorful, fruity wine
Shiraz Reserve, 'Santa Digna,' Miguel Torres, Central Valley, Chile, 2006 ($12, Dreyfus Ashby)
Red and black berry fruit is ripe but framed by spicy oak and fine-grained tannins
Zinfandel, Rosenblum, California, Cuvée XXX, NV ($12)
Lush, ripe flavors of berry and black cherry with a judicious touch of wood
Malbec, Familia Mayol, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina, 2007 ($18, Elite Wines Imports)
Dark berry fruit is rich and concentrated, but exceptionally smooth in texture
Cabernet Sauvignon, Decero, Remolinos Vineyard, Mendoza, Argentina, 2006 ($20, Vintus)
Sturdy flavors of blackberry fruit are ripe and appealingly soft, with rounded tannins
These are wines that really deserve your attention if you are looking for high performance, high-value options these days--and I would guess that that is true of just about everybody, given current conditions.
I don't want to make too much of these results in analytical terms. However, since we look at a hell of a lot of wine during this systematic process, and since these results are roughly in line with those from the past few years, I also don't want to make too little of the results.
Argentina's performance is especially impressive with 9 winners. It has been clear to me for five years running that the world's best red wines priced in the $10 - $12 range are coming from Argentina. Personally, I prefer reds from Chile and Spain once the price level creeps up into the mid- and upper-teens, but if you've only got ten bucks to spend, you'd be very well advised to spend it on an Argentine red. This is explained by a combination of brilliant sunshine (in the rain shadow of the Andes), cool nighttime temperatures thanks to elevated altitudes, and relatively low costs for land and labor.
The next-most-impressive performance is surely that of Spain, with 6 winners. It is worth remembering that all European wines work at a cost disadvantage because of the strength of the euro relative to the U.S. dollar, which makes the result even more remarkable. Spain and Italy (with 5 winners) are by far the strongest players from Europe in the lower price brackets of global competition. Both are flush with excellent affordable reds, but whites from both countries are very strong as well. Italy is the stronger of the two with white table wines, whereas Spain continually trounces the rest of the world with its affordable sparklers.
Two conspicuously weak performances this year came from France and Australia. France had only two winners, and one of them was one of the 6 wines that could cost as much as $15 wholesale. One bright spot for France is affordable Pinot Noir, which is a very popular category filled with very poor wines. Five of the 6 top Pinots that Paul and I tasted in the preliminary rounds were from the Languedoc. So, if you are a Pinot lover looking to get by on the cheap, the most promising appellation in the world right now is Vin de Pays d'Oc.
Two winners for France doesn't look good, but the number is mitigated when looking beyond the 37 winners from the final round to see what were the top 3 finishers from the preliminary round. Of those 111 wines, France accounted for 16, which is a very respectable result. Chile did better with 4 winners and 16 wines in the top 111, and Italy did better still with 5 winners and 18 in the top 111. The really stunning result was that from Australia, with no winners at all and only four wines in the top 111.
On the brighter side, wines from the USA performed better than they have in years, when they've taken one drubbing after another. I've written on WRO before about the American industry's chronic inability to turn out distinctive, delicious wines at lower price points, but I'm now prepared to hold my fire--at least for the moment.
It isn't quite time for the industry to run a flag-draped victory lap, as there were only 6 winners and half of those were Chardonnays (which have been the only bright spot for the home team in recent years). Nevertheless, fully 20 of the top 111 were sourced from the USA, which was the single highest total for any producing country.
On this basis, I'd say in closing that even though it is still hard to see a turnaround in the American economy as a whole, we may be seeing the start of an era in which the American wine industry will do a better job of giving us good juice at affordable prices.