One of the more enjoyable aspects of a major wine competition, for me at least, is the discovery of affordable wines that were impressive in the challenging environment of a professional wine judging.
Whether I am a judge, as I often am, or an official, as I was at the third annual Winemaker Challenge, where I am the director, I am keen to know which of the wines priced at $20 or less stood out. Although I occasionally splurge on an expensive bottle of wine, my everyday wines must fit within my budget.
The cutoff for me is about $20. So with that in mind, I went through the results of Winemaker Challenge III, staged in early January, and compiled a list of the 20 wines for $20 or less that I would buy. I restricted my selections to wines that earned gold medal or better. What's better than gold? Wines sent forward to be tasted in the championship round and voted upon for Best of Show and Wine or the Year are awarded platinum medals. And the top vote-getters in each category are given best-of-class awards.
While many on the list, such as the Eberle Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, are old favorites, there were a few pleasant surprises.
Here, then, are my 20 selections for $20 or less.
Estancia 2010 Pinot Grigio, California ($11.99) — Estancia has had a roller-coaster ride down through the years, but recently quality has been surging and the pinot grigio is consistently one of its best wines. This is a grape variety that typically does much better in northern Italy, but Estancia's version is one that can stand up to the Italians. It was voted Best Pinot Grigio at Winemaker Challenge.
Milbrandt 2010 Riesling, Traditions, Columbia Valley ($12.99) — Suffice it to say Washington is the hot spot for riesling production in the U.S. Milbrandt has been scoring with this wine big-time in recent years, but winning Best of Show white wine at Winemaker Challenge easily tops the list of recent accolades. The Milbrandt 2010 Pinot Gris scored another huge hit for the winery by winning the Winemaker Challenge vote for Best Pinot Gris.
Peter Lehmann 2009 Clancy's Shiraz-Cabernet-Merlot, Australia ($17) — This well-balanced red from Australia earned honors as the top Bordeaux-Rhone blend, prevailing narrowly over the Eberle Winery Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blend. The combination of quality and price will make this wine a serious contender this year for best "value" red.
Blackstone 2009 Pinot Noir, Reserve, Sonoma County ($19.99) — My favorite domestic pinot noir last year was a $75 wine from Sonoma County, so when I find an impressive Sonoma pinot in this price range I tend to stand up and take notice. Blackstone also happens to be one of the better "value" brands in the market, so the quality for the money is hardly a surprise.
Cameron Hughes 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 287, Napa Valley ($20) — Cameron Hughes (a real person) purchases expendable "wine lots" from outstanding producers in the finest appellations and bottles them under his own label at a price that is much lower than it would be if the wines were bottled and released by the producer. These are lots of very fine wine that for one reason or another didn't find their way into the producer's final blend. Cameron Hughes doesn't reveal the names of the wineries that sell him the wines, but you can bet the average price for a Napa Valley Cab is north of $50.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2010 Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley ($9) — This beautiful wine (from a different vintage) was named Wine of the Year at the Critics Challenge a couple of years back. This riesling is produced in volume, so it's a triumph for Chateau Ste. Michelle that the quality is so high and the wine so consistent year after year.
Clos du Bois 2010 Pinot Noir, North Coast ($14) — Bargain hunters should be aware that the price says little about this gold-medal pinot. Clos du Bois produces large quantities of very good wine, and the volume is what keeps the price low. As we head into the spring and summer months, and wine enthusiasts are looking for lighter reds to serve at barbecues and picnics, the Clos du Bois merlot should be on everyone's shopping list.
Concannon Vineyard 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve, Monterey County ($20) — I must confess, I love this winery that's located in the so un-chic Livermore Valley. It may not be a fancy address, but Concannon has great history on its side and beautiful vineyard sources throughout California's Central Coast. This is a lovely Monterey County Sauvignon that could easily be my house white, and often is.
Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Rose, Columbia Valley ($13) — The bubblies from Chateau Ste. Michelle were once upon a time fairly simple and uninspiring. That's no longer the case. This brut rose would make a fine aperitif on Valentine's Day. Or any other day, for that matter!
Eberle Winery 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vineyard Selection, Paso Robles ($19) — Year after year, I see this Eberle cab win gold at various wine competitions and I wonder how much longer the winery will hold the line on the price. So far, so good. It's probably among the top 10 cabs in California at less than $20 a bottle.
Franciscan Estate 2010 Chardonnay, Estate, Napa Valley ($17.99) — This is one of those "you've got to be kidding me" wines. An estate-grown Napa Valley chardonnay from a terrific producer wins a gold medal, and it's only $18? You've got to be kidding me.
Mouton Cadet Rouge 2009 Bordeaux, France ($10) — In the world of $10 Bordeaux (true, that's a very small world), this has to be one of the best. And that's not damning it with faint praise. This one's very delicious.
Navarro 2010 Chardonnay, Mendocino ($17) — Navarro is a great story because it's a family winery that's still owned and run by the family. The wines are outstanding and always have been. So if the menu calls for chardonnay and you want to impress without spending too much, this Navarro chard will not disappoint.
Pietra Santa 2009 Pinot Noir, Estate, Cienega Valley ($18) — This small, obscure appellation in San Benito County, Calif., truly produces outstanding wines (Calera is the star of the region), and Pietra Santa is one of the major players. This estate pinot may not be in the same league with a Calera at three times the price, but you'll have to look under every rock in California before you will find a better pinot at this price.
Rapaura Springs 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Single Vineyard, Marlborough, New Zealand ($11.99) — I had never heard of this winery until the 2012 Winemaker Challenge. They only won the vote for Best Pinot Noir and a gold for this sauvignon. At this price, I would buy it by the case, and then I would buy some more!
Re Del Castello 2007 Chianti Classico DOCG, Italy ($9.99) — A gold-medal Chianti Classico DOCG for $10? You've got to be kidding me. Well, actually, it's true, and the wine is very, very tasty.
Rodney Strong 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($17) — Rodney Strong never gets enough credit for its cabernet. That's probably because the chardonnays have been so good for so long. But RS does cabernet, and very well at that.
Sherwood House Vineyards 2010 Chardonnay, Oregon Road Estate, North Fork of Long Island ($18) — This wine is a mouthful, whether you're sipping it or saying it. The North Fork of Long Island is best known for its cabernet franc and merlot, but Sherwood House has a long tradition of fine, beautifully balanced chardonnay.
South Coast Winery 2008 GSM, Temecula Valley ($14) — Southern California was well represented when this grenache-syrah-Mourvedre blend from Riverside County's Temecula Valley won the vote at Winemaker Challenge for Best Rhone Blend. It's yummy stuff from an area that is underappreciated for the quality of the wines it makes from the Mediterranean grape varieties.
Vilarnau 2008 Cava, Brut Nature Reserva, Spain ($17.99) — This is without a doubt my finest discovery in Spanish cava in the past five years. It's a complex, lovely sparkling wine that may well alter any negative thoughts you might have about cava.
Wakefield 2011 Riesling, Clare Valley, Australia ($16.99) — The Clare Valley is probably the new world's sweet spot for riesling. The structure and flavor profile likely won't bring to mind a European riesling, but the quality is there, and the Wakefield Clare has been one of my favorite dry rieslings for a number of years.