With current vintages of first-growth Bordeaux commanding prices in excess of $300 a bottle and boutique California bottles both scarce and exorbitantly expensive, one might well wonder whether wine has been priced out of the reach of mere mortals. I'm happy to report that this just is not the case. In fact, during my recent extensive tastings for Food & Wine Magazine's Official Wine Guide 1999, I uncorked more satisfying and affordable bottles than I could possibly cram into a pocket-size book. And best of all, every one listed here can actually be found on retailers' shelves.
I have included tasting notes for 25 wines, each made from one of five of the most popular French (now international) grape varieties and selling for $15 or less. You can buy between two and four cases of each for what you'd spend on a single bottle of 1995 Château Latour. And best of all, every one of them is ready to drink now.
Wines marked $ cost $12 or less; those marked $$ range from $13 to $15.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the foundation for all the great wines made in the Médoc region of Bordeaux.
1996 BACKSBERG PAARL(South Africa) $$. Super-ripe aromas of cassis, black cherry and maple syrup. Rich and mouth-filling with compelling flavors of chocolate and mocha and a ripeness that's just short of raisiny.
1995 CALITERRA RESERVA VALLE CENTRAL(Chile) $. Notes of blackberry, raspberry and strawberry, plus a minty nuance on the nose. Supple, smooth and concentrated, with a layered texture and further notes of berries, bitter chocolate and herbs in the finish.
1995 COUSINO-MACUL ANTIGUAS RESERVAS MAIPO VALLEY (Chile) $. Tangy cherry, spice and mint on the nose. Suave, claret-like texture; flavors of cherry and tobacco. Firm but harmonious acidity. The wine's gentle tannins give shape to its smoky red fruit. The finish is impressively long and clean.
1995 J. P. VINHOS QUINTA DA BACALHOA(Portugal) $$. Multifaceted nose of black raspberry, plum, tar, coffee and cinnamon. Lush, rich and full in the mouth, with assertive flavors of cassis, spice and game. Very long, very ripe finish.
1996 ST. FRANCIS SONOMA COUNTY (California) $. Aromas of red currant, tar, loam and meat. Silky and generous in the mouth with red currant flavors.
Chardonnay is the noble white grape of Burgundy and of Champagne.
1997 HAMILTON RUSSELL WALKER BAY (South Africa) $$. Complex, exotic aromas of mandarin orange and smoke. Rich, round and harmonious yet crisp, with notes of tangerine in the finish. Still quite youthful.
1997 KENDALL-JACKSON VINTNER'S RESERVE (California) $$. Smoky and spicy oak and tropical fruit aromas. Smooth and silky in the mouth, with the slightly sweet flavor of an orange Creamsicle. Good weight and just enough balancing acidity. The finish is ripe, sweet and persistent.
1997 MERIDIAN VINEYARDS SANTA BARBARA COUNTY (California) $. Ripe aromas of earth and truffle. Clean, assertive lemon-lime flavors, with a hint of orange peel. Round and creamy, but with a refreshing acidity.
1996 QUINTA DE PANCAS ESTREMADURA(Portugal) $. Musky, gingery aromas. Fat and rich, spicy and bright. Impressive weight and palate presence. The finish is firm, with pleasantly mouth-filling apple-tinged flavors.
1997 UNDURRAGA COLCHAGUA VALLEY (Chile) $. Exotic aromas of melon and peach. Clean and brisk in the mouth, with flamboyant cantaloupe and pineapple flavors enlivened by bright acidity. Has good concentration and a slightly dusty finish.
Merlot is the preeminent grape of Bordeaux's so-called right bank, reaching its zenith in Pomerol.
1996 BODEGAS NEKEAS VEGA SINDOA (Spain) $. Aromatic nose of plum, raspberry and spicy oak. Lush and soft, with a restrained sweetness, modest complexity and good concentration. Soft tannins in the finish.
1995 BODEGAS OCHOA NAVARRA (Spain) $. Aromas of raspberry and woodsmoke--even a pungent whiff of grapefruit. Lush, sweet, mouth-filling flavors of raspberry, currant and tobacco, with a hint of pepper in the finish.
1996 CASA LAPOSTOLLE RAPEL VALLEY (Chile) $. Rich black raspberry and dark chocolate aromas. Round and creamy in the mouth, with blackberry and tobacco notes. Bordeaux-like, with firm, slightly dry tannins framing persistent fruit.
1997 CHATEAU DE CAMPUGET VIN DE PAYS DU GARD (France) $. A nose of currants and cherries with just a whiff of meat. Lush and fruity in the mouth; easygoing and harmonious in the finish.
1997 FETZER EAGLE PEAK (California) $. Candied red fruit nose; similarly fruity on the palate, with crisp acidity. A soft, easy-to-drink Merlot.
Sauvignon Blanc is the primary white grape of the Loire and one of the most important white grapes of Bordeaux.
1997 BRANCOTT MARLBOROUGH (New Zealand) $$. Bright gooseberry, pear, bay leaf and mint aromas. Ripe, supple and dense flavors. The lively acidity intensifies the rich fruit, and the fairly long, firm finish bears tantalizing hints of citrus and mint.
1997 GEYSER PEAK SONOMA COUNTY (California) $. Crisp lemon-peel nose. Bright, focused flavors of lemon, melon and fresh herbs. Offers good texture and body and a finish that is fairly long and intense, with a repeating note of lemon peel.
1997 JACQUES & FRANCOIS LURTON LES FUMEES BLANCHES VIN DE PAYS D'OC (France) $. Aromas of melon, peach, lemon oil, smoke and spice. Supple and melony in the mouth, with good flavor intensity and an almost Chardonnay-like texture.
1997 LINDEMANS BIN 95 SOUTH EASTERN AUSTRALIA (Australia) $. Grassy, lemony nose, with a hint of ripe apricot. Similar grassy and citric flavors; a bit hard-edged, with a brisk, lemony finish.
1997 STONELEIGH MARLBOROUGH (New Zealand) $. Complex grassy and spicy nose; a slightly candied quality and notes of smoke. Soft and easygoing, with a faintly herbaceous quality and moderate concentration.
Syrah is the noble red grape of France's northern Rhône Valley.
1997 CHATEAU GRANDE CASSAGNE COSTIERES DE NIMES (France) $. Spicy blackberry and woodsmoke aromas. Rich, sweet and concentrated, with velvety dark berry flavors and a distinct note of violet pastille. Finishes with fine tannins and strong black fruit flavors.
1997 DEAKIN ESTATE VICTORIA (Australia) $. Distinctive aromas of blackberry and smoked meat--even root beer and cola. Sweet, lush and pliant in the mouth, with fairly deep flavors of red currant, pepper, leather and meat. A rather gentle style of Syrah.
1997 DOMAINE BORIE DE MAUREL SYRAH MINERVOIS (France) $. Expressive aromas of raspberry, black olive, black pepper and garigue herbs. Lush and smooth, with harmonious acidity and a gentle, persistent finish.
1995 DOMAINE DE ROCHEVINE ST-JOSEPH (France) $$. Perfumed aromas of raspberry and violet as well as bacon fat and sandalwood. Sweet, fruity and peppery in the mouth, though not quite as rich as the nose suggests. Good length to its finish.
1995 PENFOLDS BIN 128 COONAWARRA (Australia) $$. Black raspberry, coffee and chocolate on the nose, with notes of framboise and fresh herbs. Juicy, spicy and supple, with an enticing perfume; nuances of mineral and a bright, firm finish.
These tasting notes are from Food & Wine Magazine's Official Wine Guide 1999. The guide is available to F&W readers for a special price of $9.95 (regularly priced $10.95). Call 800-333-6569 to order.