“Be thankful I don’t take it all,” the late George Harrison sang sarcastically in the Beatles’ 1969 hit, Taxman. Though few of us feel thankful this time of year, wine lovers can take comfort in the fact that high quality need not carry a high price tag. No matter how much the taxman takes on April 15th, you should still be able to drink good wine.
An extensive series of recent tastings with wines priced at or below $15 a bottle leads me to suggest that you look outside the United States when searching for after tax bargains this year. Production costs tend to be high on the American west coast, so wines of quality made there don’t come cheap. And while some superb wines are being made east of the Rockies, quantities are limited and prices tend to exceed the $15 threshold.
By contrast, the improved exchange rate between the dollar and the Euro means that more delicious bargains are coming from Europe than was true even a couple of years ago. So too, the combination of relatively low real estate prices and inexpensive labor renders the price-quality ration for wines from the Southern Hemisphere particularly attractive. Sticker shock is never fun, but it’s especially disheartening this week, so turn your attention to imports.
A few years ago, top-notch Côtes du Rhônes often sported price tags above $15. Prices have now dropped, a development that may not help French vignerons, but that definitely benefits American consumers. Of the many excellent wines from this region that I tasted, these three stand out: Famille Perrin Côtes du Rhône Villages 2012 ($13), Ferraton “Samorens “Côtes du Rhône 2013 ($12), and the always reliable and sometimes (as in this vintage) spectacular Guigal Côtes du Rhône 2010 ($15). I also tasted some excellent reds from Mediterranean regions further west. Château Grande Cassagne Costiere de Nimes 2013 ($11) offers great quality for not much money, as do Hecht & Bannier Languedoc 2011 ($15) and Penya Côtes Catalanes 2013 ($13).
As a number of commentators on Wine Review Online have pointed out recently, Spain is chock full of excellent red wines with often surprisingly low price stickers. Some of the best come from regions or D.O.s that are not all that well known. For example, Borsao Garnacha Campo de Borja 2013 ($9) from Zaragoza, Aragón in the northeast is a veritable steal. Slightly more expensive but still very much a bargain are two wines from Costers del Segre in Catalonia, Petit Siós 2013 ($13) and Raimat Tempranillo 2011 ($11).
While it’s harder to find bargains from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, or other more recognizable regions, the strong dollar certainly helps. Try Acón Joven Tempranillo Ribera del Duero 2013 ($13), Pingao Rioja 2013 ($12), or Torres Atos Ibéricos Rioja Crianza 2011 ($13).
The red wine pickings are thinner across the sea in Italy. Perhaps because Italian wine, much like the country’s fashion sense, remains so chic in many people’s eyes, prices don’t seem to have fallen as noticeably. Still, bargains can be found. You need to forget Chianti and the trendier appellations in Piedmont and the Veneto, and focus instead on more southern D.O.C.s. From Abruzzo, look for Farnese “Fantini” Montepulciano 2013 ($12). From even farther south, in the heel of the boot, try Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva 2010 ($13) or Castello Monici Pilùna Primitivo 2012 ($14).
White wine European bargains are significantly harder to find. Most northern Italian whites with more than one-dimensional flavors cost more than $15. So too with whites from the Loire Valley in France, as well as Burgundy. (Good Mâcon or Pouilly-Fuisse doesn’t come cheap these days.) But northern Spain, which was home a generation ago to harsh-tasting, often oxydixed whites, has modernized production and so offers many wines worth trying. Some of my favorites are made with the Verdejo grape in Rueda. Try Emma 2013 ($13) and Valdebainos 2013 ($14), both of which taste vibrant. Two other Spanish whites in this price category also proved impressive--the light but zesty Can Feixes Seleccío Penedès 2013 ($15) and the richer Las Colinas del Ebro Garnatxa Blanc Terra Alta 2013 ($12).
The white options get more plentiful in the Southern Hemisphere. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tends to be a love it or leave it wine, with some people entranced by its piquant acidity and citrus zest character while others find it too aggressive, even domineering. I’m in the first category, and happily found many exciting Kiwi Sauvignons at or under $15. Favorites from my tastings include Kono Marlborough 2014 ($14), Sea Pearl Marlborough 2014 ($11), and Old Coach Road Nelson 2014 ($15).
South Africa is another place to look when searching for white wine values. Some lovely Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays are made there--Beyond Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($12), for example, or the absurdly cheap MAN Family Chardonnay 2014 ($9). But the best South African white wine bargains tend to made with Chenin Blanc or “Steen.” They taste dry but have a floral note in the bouquet, and are blessed with a cornucopia of autumn fruit flavors. My personal favorite in this price category is Badenhorst “Secateurs” 2014 ($15), but for sheer pleasure, three others nip at its heels: Graham Beck “The Game Reserve” 2014 ($15), Remboogte 2013 ($13), and Ken Forrester “Petit” 2014 ($12).
Unfortunately too many South African reds costing less than $15 have an unpleasant rubbery flavor. For safer bets, look across the Atlantic to Argentina and Chile. Malbec, with its full flavors but soft texture, is of course an Argentinean specialty. Many, however, taste sappy and simple, so finding wines with real distinction takes some legwork. Alta Vista “Classic” 2013 ($12) has real character and never tastes excessive. Richer, but not quite as compelling, are La Flor 2013 ($15) and Michel Torino 2013 ($12).
For my money, though (and every cent counts this week), even better values can be found in Argentinean and especially Chilean Cabernet Sauvignons. Perhaps Cab is just an inherently more compelling grape variety, but the top renditions from these two South American wine growing countries offer better value than you can find just about anywhere else. From Mendoza in Argentina, try Doña Paula 2011 ($15), a wine that blows away any California Cab in the price category. Almost as exciting are Toneles “Tonel 22” 2012 ($13) and Maipe Reserve 2013 ($14). From across the Andes mountains, three Chileans to try are Hacienda Araucano Reserva 2013 ($12), Santa Carolina Reserva 2013 ($12), and Vino de Eyzaguirre 2012 ($11).
Last but certainly not least is Chilean Carmenere. This grape was first imported from France in the mid-nineteenth century, and it yields forceful wines with plenty of tannin and a slightly weedy undertone--not unlike cabernet franc in Bordeaux. They can be great choices with grilled meats and other hearty fare. Casa del Bosque 2012 ($13) would be a fine introduction to the varietal, as would Casa del Toqui 2012 ($11). Both offer uncommon complexity, with nuanced bouquets and multi-layered flavors. Like all the wines recommended in this column, they seem almost underpriced--just what you need once the taxman has taken his inevitable bite.