Along with my friend and Wine Review Online colleague, Michael Franz, I recently finished tasting some 2,400 wines in my capacity as a wine consultant for the Washington, D.C. based Clyde’s restaurant group. Michael and I have been doing this for 17 years now (though we didn’t taste as many wines in the early days), and nothing that I do gives me a clearer sense of the marketplace. What regions and varieties are outperforming others? Which are underperforming? Which producers have become complacent? Which have raised their game? And for the purpose of this column, what are the best values?
Now we don’t taste really expensive wines, the top retail price point being around $25, with many wines costing significantly less. These, then, aren’t special occasion wines. The best, however, taste like they could be. In the 1961 hit song, Connie Francis sang about finding “Where the Boys Are.” I’ve changed only a couple of words to indicate that you can find where the values are:
In the crowd of a million wines
I'll find my valentine,
Then I'll climb to the highest steeple
And tell the world it’s mine.
First, though, here’s where NOT to look --three places that consumers regularly go to when buying or ordering wine but that disappoint very frequently. The first, I’m sad to say, is California. There undoubtedly are many excellent wines grown and made in the Golden State, but very few sell for less than $25. California Pinots at this price point tend to taste candied and sappy, as increasingly do the state’s Cabernets. Despite talk from “experts” about vintners practicing restraint, the Chardonnays remain excessively oaky and sweet, and few Sauvignon Blancs taste varietally true. This is a gross generalization to be sure, but when buying wines for everyday drinking, I’d advise staying away from California.
I’d also stay away from Tuscany. Americans love Chianti and other Tuscan reds, but the exciting ones tend to cost $30, $40 or more. Most value-priced ones taste shrill and dusty. They lack both primary fruit flavors and secondary earthy ones. Finally, and not surprisingly, I’d ignore Bordeaux. The finest wines I’ve ever tasted came from Bordeaux, but the era in which classy, complex reds could be purchased without robbing a bank are long gone. And generic red Bordeaux “Superieur” almost always proves disappointing.
So where should you look? Here are eight places with eight different kinds of wine--four white, then four red. Given my recent experience, they are where many of the world’s best values are.
Chenin Blanc from South Africa
No place in the world is making more exciting value-priced wines these days than South Africa, and no variety performs as consistently well there as Chenin Blanc. The country’s reds often contain off-putting rubbery flavors, but the whites tend to taste clean and precise. Chenin in particular yields dry, focused wines that are chock-full of often surprisingly complex flavors. They usually see little if any oak, so are dominated by fruit (think pears) and an evocative minerality. Given the quality in the bottle, they also are remarkably cheap.
Favorite producers include Badenhorst, Ken Forester, Raats, Simonsig, and at the under $10 level, both Indaba and Man. If you don’t know these wines, rush out and try a few. They’ll be eye-opening.
Verdejo from Rueda in Spain
Ten years ago, few people outside of the region knew where Rueda is or what sort of wine Verdejo makes. Just for the record, the region is in northwestern Spain, not far from the Portuguese border, and this grape yields succulent white wines. They tend to smell light and floral, but taste substantial, with an almost waxy texture. Though sometimes blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Viura, Verdejo remains Rueda’s brightest star.
Look for wines from producers such as Egeo, Isabelino, Martinsancho, Menadé, and Jose Pariente.
Riesling from the Finger Lakes in New York
When I first visited the Finger Lakes some twenty years ago, quality was very uneven. There were some stellar wines, but also many disappointing one. Today, however, it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about the wines, especially the Rieslings. They are likely America’s best expressions of the variety.
This is a cold region (vines will only survive if planted close to the lakes themselves). The low temperatures give the wines high levels of acidity, guaranteeing both that they will taste refreshing and that they can enjoy a long life.
As with Rieslings from most places in the world, these wines can range from dry to sweet. Finger Lakes producers have widely adopted the International Riesling Foundation’s sweetness scale. It’s on most back labels, and can prevent unwanted surprises.
Favorite producers include Anthony Road, Dr. Frank (the region’s great pioneer), Lamoreaux Landing, Ravines, Red Newt and Red Tail Ridge.
Pinot Blanc from Alto Adige
It baffles me why this grape doesn’t get more respect--from consumers and producers alike. When well-made and not overoaked, the wines can be fantastic! They have weight but never seem heavy, and they offer a plethora of fruit and mineral-like flavors.
Excellent Pinot Blancs come from Alsace, Germany, and Oregon, but the wines that turned my head in this year’s tasting hailed from Alto Adige in northern Italy. The best proved riveting on account of being wonderfully complete and complex. Three producers stood out: Catina Kaltern, Nals Margreid (especially the “Sirmian” bottling), and the always extremely reliable Cantina Tramin.
Garancha from Northern Spain
Tempranillo is hot these days, and I tasted some wonderful wines from both Ribera del Duero and Rioja made with it. But the surprise to me was how good reds made from Garnacha (Grenache in French) can be.
Except for the work of a few producers elsewhere (most notably Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape), this grape often has been considered a second-class one--good for blending, but not all that interesting on its own. How things have changed. More and more vintners in both southern France and northern Spain are treating Grenache/ Garnacha with new-found respect. When looking for value, the Spaniards have the advantage because their wines tend to be cheaper.
This are lithe wines, especially if they see little if any oak, with flavors that echo red fruits as well as dried herbs. Because they are not heavyweights, they will pair well with a wide variety of foods. Producers that impressed me include Altés, Anciaro, Evodia, Legado del Moncayo, Terrai OVG and Val Major.
Bordeaux Varieties from Chile
Chile’s central valleys remain some of the best places in the world to grow red Bordeaux grapes--Cabernet to be sure, but also Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and of course Carmenere. Savvy consumers have long recognized Chile as a good source of solid, cheap reds, and connoisseurs wax rhapsodic about the country’s iconic wines--Almaviva, Don Melchior, and the like.
Few people seem to realize, though, that superlative Chilean Bordeaux-styled wines abound in the $15 to $30 price range. They consistently outperform wines from elsewhere that cost three or four times as much.
There are many such wines on the market nowadays, and I urge you to experiment to find your favorites. Especially impressive in my tastings were Cousino Macul “Antiguas Reservas Cabernet (which seems to have lost its excessively herbal edge from years past), Mont Gras “Antú” and Santa Carolina “Reserva de Familia” Cabernet.
Red Blends from Roussillon
Whether coming from appellations like Corbieres or Banyuls, or sporting the less prestigious Côtes du Roussillon designation, red wines from this southern corner of France consistently surprise and delight with their deep, satisfying flavors. Located just north of the Pyrenees mountains so not far from Spain, they are meaty, usually full-bodied wines. At the same time, they’re not particularly astringent, so can provide satisfying drinking in both the near and long terms.
Look for wines from Château de Caladroy, Hecht & Bannier, Tessellae and the quite inexpensive Penya (labeled as Cotes Catalanes).
Barbera from Piedmont
No surprise here. Piedmontese Barbera proves impressive year after year. The wines are softly textured but serious in terms of flavor, and they continue to offer exceptional value. Apparently consumers’ new found love for Barolo/ Barbaresco has not filtered down to Barbera.
In northern Italy, these are definitely everyday wines, something to drink and enjoy while you wait (sometimes years) for the more prestigious wines to mature. But make no mistake; there is nothing simple about them. If we all could drink wines of this quality everyday, we all would be very happy.
Producers to look for from my tastings include Damilano, Marchesi di Barolo, Mauro Molino, Pico Gonzaga and Rocche Costamagna.