APRIL 17, 2007: The deadline for filing income tax returns is upon us today, so your financial forecast should be clear: Either you're about to send a check to Uncle Sam or he's about to send one to you. This will also clarify your vinous forecast: Either you'll be shopping for bargain wines for a while, or you should be ready for a celebratory splurge.
If you're the one who'll be licking the stamp rather than Uncle Sam, you'll need to get a better taste into your mouth as quickly as possible, and I can help with some delicious wines priced to fit your suddenly shrunken wine budget. I've also got vinous advice for those about to receive refund checks--provided that you promise not to bug the rest of us with gloating about your riches.
Those who must pay up can at least take some consolation in the fact that some truly delicious wines can be found these days for $12 or less. This is not mere hype. I've tasted over 1,000 wines priced between $9 and $12 since late January, and I'd have the purple teeth to prove it if not for my turbo-charged rotary toothbrush. There are more excellent wines at this sweet-spot price point than ever before, and the best bottlings are clearly better than ever.
Why? The advent of truly global competition has required vintners around the world to improve vineyard practices and reduce yields to produce pure, ripe, concentrated fruit. Competition has also obliged wineries to invest in modern technology and clean barrels to render that fruit into consistent, technically flawless wines.
Arguably, there are downsides to this. The working interiors of wineries have become virtually identical from country to country, and standardized processes and equipment are inevitably reflected in a narrower range of difference among the wines now available to us. Many of the quirky local wines that travelers recall romantically from decades past have been shouldered aside, and the rise of a so-called 'international style' is cause for concern among those of us who find more fun than frustration in wine's amazing multiplicity. Nevertheless, many of those quirky wines from yester-year were really just dirty or otherwise flawed, and though some quirks arising from haphazard winemaking can be pleasant, they are very hard to control or replicate.
Today, budget-conscious wine lovers need not be concerned about finding clean wines, since they've become the rule. The challenge now is to find wines with real distinctiveness and character, and I've got recommendations on a dozen whites and reds below to prove that facing the challenge can yield remarkable rewards.
Wine lovers with refund checks on the way have a special opportunity to spring for something truly profound. If you fall into that category, you should know that the rest of us will resent you much less if we think you are learning from your splurge. So, in addition to a few tried-and-true wines like Napa Cabs, my half-dozen recommendations of splurge wines include some wines enabling you to explore emerging greatness from a newer region or a new benchmark from an established one.
If you are too frugal to shell out serious bucks on a special wine for yourself, remember that you could put the trickle-down theory into practice by sharing a sip with the rest of us. Also, since the season for graduations and weddings is approaching, you might want to buy a great wine as a gift to recruit a family member into the ranks of wine lovers.
Anton Bauer, Donauland (Austria) Grüner Veltliner 2006 ($9, Select Wines): Very fresh and clean but still with notable depth of flavor and palate weight, this wine shows fruit notes of pear and apple, with nice accents of white pepper and garden fresh green beans. It finishes with excellent acidity that is very well integrated with the fruit. 86
Aylés, Cariñena (Spain) Garnacha 2004 ($11, Grapes of Spain): This unusually complex rendition of Garnacha melds the soft red cherry fruit of the grape with interesting accents of saddle leather, tobacco leaves, spices and smoke. Soft in texture but deeply flavored, this is a delicious sipping wine that can also work beautifully with more robust preparations of fish or chicken as well as white meats like pork or veal. 87
Caldora, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (Abruzzo, Italy) 2005 ($10, Vin DiVino): Very nicely balanced and very broadly useful, this wine shows interesting fruit notes suggesting both fresh and dried cherries (of both the red and bing varieties). Bright and fresh as befits an Italian wine but still generously ripe, it hits just the right balance point between structure and softness to permit stand-alone sipping or pleasing pairing with a wide range of moderately robust foods. 87
Cono Sur, Central Valley (Chile) Chardonnay 2006 ($9, Vineyard Brands): This is a simple but very, very tasty Chardonnay that delivers lots of pure fruit flavor without a lot of extraneous bells and whistles. Fruit notes of peach and pineapple are vivid and fresh, with crisp citric edge that freshens and lifts the rich, ripe fruit. Any influence from oak is virtually indiscernible, making this a very promising partner for a wide array of fish or chicken dishes. 86
Dolium, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec 2004 ($10, Elite Wines Imports): This wine provides everything that stereotypical Merlot promised but often failed to deliver: deep, dark color and very rich, dark berry flavored fruit that is soft and supple from the first impression right through the finish. There's not a hard edge or a sharp corner to be found anywhere in this wine, and yet it somehow manages to seem energetic and structured despite its remarkable smoothness. 88
Hazard Hill, Western Australia (Australia) Semillon - Sauvignon Blanc 2006 ($12, Robert Whale Selections): Crisp and refreshing but also deeply flavorful, this features fruit notes recalling apples and white melons, with a shot of lime enlivening the bright finish. Blends of these two grapes from the cool climate of Western Australia are very popular Down Under, and this supremely consistent wine will convincingly demonstrate why that is the case. 88
Louis M. Martini, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($12): This stylish Cabernet shows uncommon elegance and versatility with food. Moderate in ripeness and weight but quite expressive in flavor, it shows fresh fruit notes of dark berries and black cherries, along with restrained oak accents and very soft, fine tannins that fortify the finish but leave it soft and supple. 87
S. A. Prüm, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (Germany) Riesling 'Essence' 2005 ($12, Palm Bay): Remarkably affordable and undeniably delicious, this is the sort of wine that Germany needs to re-endear itself to the palates of casual consumers around the world. Floral aromas are intertwined with scents of nectarines and baked apples, and these same notes reappear on the palate with a refreshing splash of lime and a lovely little mineral note that adds complexity to the finish. Lightly sweet but still fresh and quite refreshing, this is a great sipping wine and a promising partner for spicy Asian dishes. 85
Miguel Torres, Central Valley (Chile) Shiraz 'Santa Digna' Reserve 2004 ($11, Dreyfus Ashby & Co.): Working with Chilean fruit, Miguel Torres, who is among the most famous Spaniard vintners, could have opted for either the French 'Syrah' or the Australian 'Shiraz' when designating this wine. Aside from whatever commercial considerations were involved in the decision, it must have been a fairly difficult one in aesthetic terms, as this impressive wine weds the deeply ripe, assertively flavored Aussie profile with a notable measure of the more earthy, complex side of the grape in its French incarnations. Blackberries and black cherries are the lead fruit notes, with a healthy dose of spicy oak lending complexity and backbone, but still leaving space on the stage for nice little nuances of wild mushrooms, hay, and tobacco leaves. 90
Veramonte, Casablanca Valley (Chile) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2006 ($10, Franciscan Estates Selections): It is not quite rocket science to look at Chile on a map and figure that there must be someplace along one of its many latitudes that one could grow almost any wine grape to near perfection. Naturally, you'd also need to hit the right altitude, but Chile has as much freedom of maneuver with this variable as it does with latitude, and in my view it is only a matter of time before Chile challenges all the world's top wine producing countries with most major grapes. It is already getting into the big leagues with Sauvignon Blancs like this, which, with a selling price of $10, will undercut many offerings from more famous Sauvignon sources. This shows very nice varietal character, with notes of grapefruit and ripe honeydew melon backed by accents of fresh limes, cut grass and capsicum. The acidity is refreshing but not overly tart, and the balance of structure to fruit is excellent. 88
Wagtail, Yarra Valley (Victoria, Australia) Pinot Noir 2005 ($10, Country Vintner): As a wine category, ten dollar Pinot Noir is not just iffy or problematic, but a downright train wreck, with each wine in the category seeming worse than the last. These are the wages of success, as the Pinot Boom has led demand to far outstrip supply at all approachable price levels, leading producers to bump substandard juice up into most bottlings and then, frequently, bump up prices as well. This wine offers welcome relief from the dreary status quo, with nice aromas of red and black cherries and a bright, fresh profile that also shows some nice spicy, earthy complexities. 83
Zenato, Delle Venezie (Italy) Pinot Grigio 2005 ($12, Winebow): Truth be told, the affordable Pinot Grigio category is full of wines that are pretty watery and boring, which only makes this lovely wine stand out all the more. Crisp and fresh, it also shows good depth of flavor with notes of green apples and fresh figs, with subtle accents of smoke and straw. 86
Cape Mentelle, Margaret River (Western Australia, Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 ($50, Moet Hennessy USA): This is a pretty wild ride, but if you are looking for a Cabernet that is loaded with flavor and character and distinctiveness based on point of origin, you are going to have a hard time topping this wine. Ultra-intense in every respect, it starts with alarmingly dark color and viscosity for a wine that is over five years old. Things only get more remarkable when you get a nose in the glass, as the wine roars with notes of blackberries, blackcurrants, eucalyptus and saddle leather. The flavors replicate these notes and add a layer of cocoa. Any influence of wood is so subtle as to be negligible, as the phenomenally expressive fruit has simply annexed it and absorbed it into itself. I'm not big on macho muscle wines on principle, but this is so delicious that it cannot be denied. 93
Faustino, Rioja (Spain) "Faustino de Autor Riserva Especial" 1995 ($56, Palm Bay): You won't see a lot of current release wines from the 1995 vintage around, and we wouldn't blame you for wondering if this one is still fresh enough to justify its hefty price tag. Actually, however, the wine is still very youthful, and will likely get better every year for the next decade. Although this blend of 86% Tempranillo and 14% Graciano was matured entirely in new French oak for a full three years, the concentrated fruit has effectively counterbalanced the wood and actually retained some primary sweetness after this rigorous regimen. Now bottled for more than eight years, it is just unwinding to show some secondary aromas, and though it is certainly enjoyable now, it would best be aged until about 2010. 92
Marchesi Pancrazi, Toscano IGT (Tuscany, Italy) Pinot Noir "Vigna Baragazza" 2001 ($79, Empson): Yes, I know, $79 is a lot to ask for a Pinot sourced from a place hardly known for Pinot. But as it turns out, this is a damned convincing wine, and a fascinating one to boot. If you read a bit about Pinot Noir, you'll see wine experts tout this variety as being peerlessly 'transparent,' meaning that one can 'see' through the grape's inherent character to the special characteristics of the place in which it was grown. There's certainly truth to this, and I can't think of a single glass of Pinot that I've tasted (out of a set including many thousands) that proves the point more dramatically than this one. It is, at once, totally believable as Pinot and totally Tuscan, though the two have--historically--nothing to do with one another. The Pinot component shows in the form of a slightly sweet, red and black cherry fruit core, and also in a slightly spicy accent note. The Tuscan dimension shows itself forcefully in the form of a very particular complex of leathery, smoky, dusty notes that shows up routinely in very fine Chianti Classicos. High class oak has a notable role in this wine as well, and yet it was wisely left in a supporting role. I cannot honestly say whether I'd be more likely to guess Pinot or Tuscany if presented this wine in a blind tasting, which is a great testament to its amazing properties--as well as a thinly-veiled request to my friends to present me a glass at some point in the future. 94
Nickel & Nickel, Napa Valley (California) Dragonfly Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($100): If you plunk down $100 for a Napa Cab, you can get a massive, goopy, ultra-concentrated monster of a wine, and if that is what you want, you are welcome to it. For my money, I'd much prefer wine like this one: stylish, balanced, and intricate, with a versatile character that can permit it to be enjoyed now or laid down to develop additional dimensions for another decade. With bright blackberry notes forming a solid fruit core and subtle framing from oak lending additional complexity, this is a beauty. 92
Paixar, Bierzo (Spain) 2002 ($80, Grapes of Spain): If you've never heard of the Mencia grape, and are resistant to the notion that anything this obscure could make truly great wine, this wine will prove a revelation to you. It is very dark and densely concentrated, yet it has real grace as well. The fruit shows intense dark berry notes, and these are coupled with a significant but well-measured dose of smoky, spicy oak. A graphite aromatic note provides an accent that gets the wine off to a great start, and lovely mineral notes in the finish bring it to a brilliant conclusion. 93
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley (California) S.L.V. 2003 ($110): This gorgeous wine sourced from particular blocks within a famous single vineyard is remarkably complex at this early age. The core of fruit is deeply flavored and very expressive in both aroma and flavor, and yet the fruit notes never seem chunky or obvious. They show dark berry and black cherry notes that seem pure and fresh, but every sniff and sip seems to show several other fascinating accents (fresh meat, chocolate, smoke, mushrooms and cedar) that I'd be more accustomed to finding in a much older wine. 94
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