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It’s easy to find great wines made in tiny quantities that cost a fortune. What’s hard is locating amazing wines that are sold in stores across the country, that are delicious regardless of vintage, and that ring up at $20 or less per bottle. Here are our picks for the most reliable, most readily available wines in the world—50 wines that won’t let you down. Plus, there are bonus selections: five top-notch Bordeaux for less than $25, 12 foolproof pairing suggestions and 10 world-class wines from France and the United States that cost a little more but still offer disproportionate quality for the price.
Founder’s Estate California Cabernet Sauvignon ($9)
This historic winery makes arguably the broadest collection of acclaimed wines in California. Its Private Reserve has been a benchmark for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon since 1976. The much more affordable Founder’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is also impressive: a velvety, generous, cassis-driven red.
Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($18)
At La Crema, winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas makes a range of subtly expressive Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Her Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, one of La Crema’s most widely available bottlings, is also one of her best: round and rich with ripe pear and caramel-vanilla flavors.
California Merlot ($8)
Blackstone started out in 1990 producing one of California’s most succulent, affordable Merlots. These days, it makes a large range of wines (including a delicious Riesling only available at its Kenwood, California, tasting room), but the backbone of its business, and one of its best bottlings, is still talented winemaker Dennis Hill’s lightly smoky, plummy Merlot.
Old Vine California Zinfandel ($12)
The Bogle family has been farming in California’s Clarksburg region since the mid-1800s but only ventured into grape growing in 1968. The late Warren Bogle and his son Chris founded their eponymous winery about 10 years later. The family business is currently headed by Chris’s widow, Patty Bogle, and it farms more than 1,200 acres of wine grapes in the Sacramento Delta—some of which go into Bogle’s jammy, luscious Old Vine Zinfandel, one of the best Zinfandel deals on the market.
Chateau Ste. Michelle
Columbia Valley Merlot ($14)
Unquestionably the largest producer in Washington State (more than a million cases each year), Chateau Ste. Michelle is also one of the most adventurous: The winery has forged partnerships with famous European names such as Tuscany’s Piero Antinori and Ernst Loosen of Germany’s Mosel, and has developed properties in up-and-coming regions like Washington’s Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills. Its Columbia Valley Merlot—smoky, savory and rich with black cherry fruit—is one of the reasons Washington Merlot is so highly regarded.
Clos Du Bois
California Pinot Noir ($12)
Clos du Bois has been making reliable wines for years; indeed, its Marlstone proprietary red blend has been acclaimed since its first vintage in 1978. In the past few years, though, new winemaker Erik Olsen (who made his name at Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle) has lifted quality levels here another notch. That’s clear in the latest vintage of Marlstone, the 2003, and also in Clos Du Bois’s succulent Pinot Noir—one of the few under $20 Pinots that really gives a sense of the allure of this complex grape.
California Sauvignon Blanc ($10)
This Sonoma-based winery’s vivid California Sauvignon Blanc can convert even the most jaded Chardonnay drinker into a lover of zesty, unoaked whites. Mick Schroeter deliberately picks a percentage of the grapes earlier than most other producers do to retain the variety’s hallmark crispness and grassy zing, then balances the blend with riper grapes that add juicy lemon-melon fruit character.
Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
Although most of the great wines of the world come from specific vineyards, most of the great affordable wines of the world are a blend of grapes from many different sites—as is the case with Hess’s spicy, black cherry–rich Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon. Typically sourced from regions that range from Napa Valley to Paso Robles to the Sierra Foothills, it’s a reference point for modestly priced California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Columbia Valley Riesling ($10)
Hogue’s Columbia Valley Riesling helps explain why Riesling has become such a popular grape variety in the United States (sales rose about 29 percent in 2006). Hogue’s bottling, with its orange blossom scent and crisp, minerally flavors, underscores the appeal of this grape; it’s lightly off-dry (i.e., slightly sweet), but the crisp acidity provides balance and makes the wine a natural match for Asian or Indian cuisines.
Vintner’s Reserve California Chardonnay ($12)
Here are two things to know about Kendall Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay: More than two million cases are made each year, and every single grape that goes into those bottles comes from vineyards owned by Kendall Jackson. (This is why, when you take a tour of the Kendall Jackson vineyards, you do it by helicopter.) Vineyard ownership means control over viticultural practices, and that’s why this wine—despite its vast production—remains so delicious: rich but finely focused, its flavors suggesting ripe mangoes and pears.
Signature Collection Oregon Pinot Gris ($15)
It takes a certain kind of genius to envision vineyards where cattle are grazing, but that’s exactly what Ed King III did in early 1991. While he was on a hay-buying trip in Oregon’s Lorane Valley, he noticed that the hillside slopes where the cattle were standing were similar to a couple of small vineyards he already owned. The 600-acre ranch turned out to be for sale, so King bought it. Now King Estate has become one of Oregon’s largest and most reliable producers. The winery is particularly known for its Oregon Pinot Gris, a crisp white full of stone-fruit flavors that is a consistently great value.
California Merlot ($10)
Don Sebastiani’s Sonoma-based wine négociant firm, Don Sebastiani & Sons, was founded only in 2001, but its multiple brands have quickly become go-to names for high-quality, affordable wines made with grapes sourced from throughout California. Pepperwood Grove may be one of the company’s least playful brand names (compared to Smoking Loon, say, or Screw Kappa Napa), yet its juicy California Merlot, full of plum and chocolate notes, embodies the appealingly straightforward drinkability of Don Sebastiani’s wines.
Heritage Vines Sonoma County Zinfandel ($14)
Rancho Zabaco is one of many labels owned by Gallo. The company also owns a vast range of vineyards, including many long-planted to Zinfandel. Its Heritage Vines Zinfandel takes advantage of the old vines’ intensity of flavor, and while it may not be as inexpensive as Gallo Hearty Burgundy was in the 1970s, it’s still a steal.
Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel ($14)
Not so long ago, Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson remarked that when he started out, his wines were considered high-alcohol. These days, Ravenswood’s Zinfandels seem positively graceful compared to some of the galumphing Zin-monsters out there—and that’s why we still love them. Of particular note is its Lodi Zinfandel, a shade pricier than the company’s ubiquitous Vintners Blend, but with a depth of blackberry richness that’s well worth the few extra dollars.
Robert Mondavi Winery
Napa Valley Fumé Blanc ($15)
Though no longer owned by the Mondavi family, this is still one of Napa Valley’s defining estates, producing wines ranging from its age-worthy Reserve Cabernet to its citrus-scented Napa Valley Fumé Blanc. Robert Mondavi coined the term "Fumé Blanc" for his Sauvignon Blanc wines in 1968 (French Pouilly-Fumés are made from Sauvignon Blanc), and winemaker Genevieve Janssens still uses French techniques—partial fermentation in barrel, the addition of a touch of Sémillon—to add complexity to this zesty white.
Sonoma County Chardonnay ($13)
Former Broadway dancer Rodney Strong was one of Sonoma County’s earliest fine-wine pioneers, helping it make the transition from a source of grapes for mass-produced jug wines to a fine-wine region whose reputation can challenge that of neighbor and rival Napa Valley. Strong, who founded the winery in 1959 (and passed away in 2006), focused on vineyard-driven bottlings—he created the first single-vineyard Sonoma Cabernet, Alexander’s Crown, in 1974—at reasonable prices. The winery (owned by Tom Klein since 1989) still produces one of Sonoma’s greatest values, its lightly toasty Sonoma County Chardonnay.
Australia & New Zealand
Y Series South Australia Shiraz Viognier ($12)
A family-owned Australian big brand is rare today, but Barossa Valley–based Yalumba is run by Sam and Robert Smith, fifth-generation proprietors. The brothers run the business, while winemaker Kevin Glastonbury creates eminently drinkable wines, most notably the red-berried Shiraz Viognier.
South Eastern Australia Shiraz ($8)
Banrock Station is well known in Australia for its efforts to preserve that country’s endangered wetlands. (It has also awarded grants to environmental agencies around the world.) But Banrock, located on the Murray River in South Australia, is best known in America for its deliciously smoky, berry-flavored Shiraz.
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($12)
While Cloudy Bay is still the most famous Sauvignon Blanc made in New Zealand, the much larger producer Brancott Vineyards deserves recognition, too. With properties in regions on both the North Island (Gisborne and Hawkes Bay) and the South Island (Marlborough), Brancott turns out a broad range of wines, including this compulsively drinkable Sauvignon Blanc.
South Eastern Australia Shiraz ($8)
Long before there was Yellow Tail, there was Jacob’s Creek, one of Australia’s largest value labels for more than 30 years. Its wines have won a raft of medals (800 in the past three years), and its voluptuous, blackberry-rich Shiraz is consistently one of its best bottlings.
Koonunga Hill South Australia Cabernet Sauvignon ($12)
Once upon a time, only one Australian wine was considered first-rate: Penfolds Grange, a Shiraz and (sometimes) Cabernet blend. While Grange remains the country’s standard-bearer, Penfolds also makes many other excellent wines, especially its cassis-scented, fruit- forward Koonunga Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most reliable Cabernets from Down Under.
Diamond Label South Eastern Australia Shiraz ($10)
Rosemount Estate founder Bob Oatley made his fortune in the coffee fields of Papua New Guinea before turning his attention to the vineyards of Australia in the late ’60s, making him one of the country’s modern wine pioneers. Rosemount’s best known wine is probably the Show Reserve Chardonnay, which debuted in 1982, but its reasonably priced, robust Shiraz has helped make Rosemount Estate a household name.
Yellow Label South Australia Riesling ($10)
Although Wolf Blass makes many notable reds (it has won Australia’s most prestigious wine prize, the Jimmy Watson Trophy, for its $70 Black Label Cabernet-Shiraz blend a record four times), the winery is also focused on high-quality whites, including a wonderfully zippy Yellow Label Riesling that’s clean, bright and dry, marked by refreshing flavors of lemon and lime.
Chile & Argentina
Reserva Lujan de Cuyo Malbec ($19)
Though founded by an Englishman (Sir Edmund James Palmer Norton) and now owned by an Austrian (Gernot Langes-Swarovski of Swarovski crystal), Norton is deeply Argentine—as is clear from its spicy, black-fruited Reserva Malbec.
Mendoza Malbec ($9)
Nicolás Catena is probably the vintner most responsible for helping Americans realize that Argentina has the capacity to produce world-class red wines, not just affordable everyday bottles. So it’s a bit ironic that Catena’s surprisingly inexpensive second label, Alamos, is so good—as evidenced by the remarkably consistent Alamos Malbec, with its velvety raspberry fruit and toasty oak notes.
Rapel Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($9)
Most people may be familiar with the name Marnier (as in Grand Marnier), less so with Lapostolle. But that’s been changing in recent years thanks to the high-quality wines of Casa Lapostolle, the Chilean winery co-founded by Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, great-granddaughter of Grand Marnier’s founder. Consulting top enologist Michel Rolland oversees the winery’s production, including a crisp and lively Sauvignon Blanc that’s consistently one of the best in Chile.
Concha y Toro
Casillero del Diablo Rapel Velley Carmenère ($10)
Odds are that if you’re drinking a Chilean wine, it’s Concha y Toro, which is not only that country’s largest producer (15 million cases a year) but also its largest exporter, accounting for almost a third of all Chile’s international wine sales. The blackberry-rich Casillero del Diablo Carmenère, made from vineyards all over Chile’s Central Valley (including those in Maipo, Rapel and Maule), is Concha y Toro’s affordable star.
Antiguas Reservas Maipo Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
The Cousiño family has been producing wine at the Cousiño-Macul winery for more than 150 years. But this doesn’t mean the Chilean company is stuck in the past: It still turns out attractive, well-made wines, most notably the Cousiño-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon, a fruit-forward, accessibly styled red.
120 Central Valley Chardonnay ($8)
Although Santa Rita is practically within the city limits of Santiago, in the Maipo region, the winery owns vineyards all over Chile, including the Aconcagua Valley, the source of the fruit for its soft, citrusy 120 Chardonnay. Made mostly in stainless steel vats (only 10 percent of the grapes are aged in oak), it’s a clean, bright white with just a touch of oak-derived richness.
Oak Cask Mendoza Malbec ($10)
At the base of the Andes in the Mendoza region, Trapiche has become one of Argentina’s most ambitious wineries. Two years ago, it released an impressive collection of single-vineyard Malbecs; even so, Trapiche’s peppery Oak Cask Malbec offers equal insight into winemaker Daniel Pi’s skill with this variety.
Paul Jaboulet Aîné
Parallèle "45" Côtes-du-Rhône ($10)
Jaboulet’s large portfolio ranges from the stunning Hermitage La Chapelle, one of the Rhône’s greatest wines, to more modest offerings such as the peppery Parallèle "45," but the firm’s laserlike focus on quality carries across the whole line.
Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge ($14)
While Guigal’s greatest acclaim derives from its extraordinary single-vineyard Côte-Rôties, which Rhône wine fanatics refer to as the "La Las"—La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque—this family-owned firm makes top-notch wines at every price. Its typically Syrah-based Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge is full-bodied and compellingly aromatic.
"Flower Label" Moulin-à-Vent ($17)
Georges Duboeuf’s name is synonymous with Beaujolais, and for good reason: He makes consistently appealing wines, from his ubiquitous delivered-in-November Beaujolais Nouveau (Duboeuf is credited for creating that particular mania in the United States) to single-estate wines produced in limited amounts. Many are good, but his ageworthy, blackberry- rich Moulin-à-Vent "Flower Label," from Beaujolais’s most distinguished village, may be the star of the portfolio.
Hugel et Fils
Gentil Alsace ($14)
This venerable Alsace producer makes a wide range of white wines, yet its best-known wine is also its most affordable. Hugel’s Gentil revives a reportedly ancient Alsatian tradition in which wines blended from the region’s noble grape varieties were known generically as gentil. Hugel’s modern version, introduced in 1992, combines Sylvaner with Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat to create a lithe, dry white with stone-fruit and floral aromas.
Crémant de Loire Brut NV ($19)
It’s sparkling, it’s from France, it’s delicious—and it isn’t Champagne. Langlois-Chateau, founded in 1885, makes a variety of wines, but its shortbread-scented, pear-inflected Crémant is the one that rises above the rest. A blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, it ages for 24 months on its lees (the yeast cells left over after fermentation) rather than the nine months typical of most Crémants, which helps give it unusual lushness and depth.
The firm of Louis Jadot is a rare thing: a large-scale Burgundy négociant whose reputation nevertheless hovers at the same level as many smaller, more rarefied domaines. This is in part thanks to the sure hand of Jacques Lardière, technical director at Jadot for 27 years, but partly it’s because of the inarguable quality of the company’s fruit—found even in basic bottlings like Jadot’s crisp, floral, lime-inflected Mâcon-Villages.
Les Deux Moulins St-Véran ($18)
Since its founding in 1797, Latour has been one of the defining white wine houses of Burgundy. (It produces fine reds as well.) It’s particularly known for its extraordinary grand cru Corton-Charlemagne, one of the benchmarks of the region. Still family-owned, Latour is now run by the seventh-generation Louis-Fabrice Latour, from the company’s original mansions in the city of Beaune. While its wines generally cost more than $20—the Corton-Charlemagne sells for around $80, actually a good deal for grand cru Burgundy of its quality—its marzipan-and-apple-scented St-Véran Les Deux Moulins, from the more affordable Mâconnais region, is a superb introduction to the Latour style.
Belleruche Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge ($12)
In 1990, at age 26, Michel Chapoutier took over his family’s firm and lifted it back to its former status as one of the Rhône’s most significant producers. Since then he’s ventured into new territories, first to lesser-known French regions such as Roussillon and Collioure, and more recently (both on his own and in a joint venture with the wine-importing Terlato family) to southern Australia. Yet his basic Côtes-du-Rhône Belleruche Rouge, with its Grenache-based spicy, cherry flavors, remains one of his most impressively consistent bottlings.
Puglia Primitivo ($10)
It took a winemaker from California, Mark Shannon, to put Primitivo from Puglia on supermarket shelves in the United States. His bright cherry-flavored A-Mano Primitivo (an Italian grape that’s genetically identical to Zinfandel) is made from ancient vines in this up-and-coming region of Southern Italy.
Santa Cristina Toscana ($12)
There is no more famous name in Italian winemaking than Antinori. Under patriarch Piero Antinori, this noble family makes an enormous range of wines all over Italy, but one of its year-in, year-out values is the berry-bright, straightforward Santa Cristina Sangiovese from Tuscany.
Centine Toscana ($12)
Importing Italian wine to America wasn’t enough for John and Harry Mariani (though their family has been doing so for over 70 years); they wanted to make Italian wine as well. Now, with 2,400 acres of vineyards in Montalcino, the brothers produce excellent Tuscan reds under the Castello Banfi brand, including Centine, an earthy blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot.
Veneto Pinot Grigio ($5)
Though Folonari first became famous for Soave back in the 1970s (and set the reputation of that wine back several decades by producing a mediocre, characterless wine), the company also produces a truly delicious Pinot Grigio that’s marked by mouthwatering acidity and bright green-apple flavors. And a note on that Folonari Soave: It’s gotten a lot better.
Castiglioni Chianti ($13)
The Frescobaldis are nearly as famous as the Antinoris in their native Florence (the family also has a palazzo there) and in all of Tuscany, too. The Frescobaldi clan currently claims nine Tuscan estates, including Castiglioni, where the label’s basic Chianti offers a taste of ripe Frescobaldi fruit for a very small price.
Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Frizzante ($11)
The one place in the world truly suited to the persnickety Prosecco grape is the small town of Valdobbiadene, just north of Venice. The Mionetto family, which is based there, makes a consistently good Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Frizzante, a softly sparkling wine with a bright lime flavor.
Ruffino’s Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico is a restaurant-list perennial; there are few Chiantis more widely poured than this wine. The winery also turns out a simple Chianti that delivers the earthy notes of a good Tuscan red.
Cordon Negro Brut Cava ($10)
Freixenet’s ultrapopular, black-bottled Cordon Negro Brut is probably the only sparkling wine in the world that’s as famous as Moët & Chandon Champagne. And it’s a lot less expensive but also very good. A crisp, dry sparkling wine with charming citrus notes and a touch of classic cava earthiness, it’s always reliable and a pleasure to drink.
Cristalino Brut Cava ($9)
Though it’s not quite as ubiquitous as Freixenet’s Cordon Negro, the lemon-and-lime-scented Cristalino Brut cava is equally delicious, with tart green-apple flavors and fine, appealing bubbles. The company, founded in 1943 by winemaker Jaume Serra Guell, is now owned by the Carrión family, but it still makes wine in the caves under its winery in the coastal town of Villanueva y Geltrú.
Marqués de Cáceres
Rioja Crianza ($14)
This groundbreaking winery was founded in 1970 by Enrique Forner, with help from legendary Bordeaux winemaker Émile Peynaud. Today, though it may be more stalwart than upstart, Cáceres walks a graceful line between modern and traditional. For instance, its ruby-colored crianza (in Rioja, a term for reds that are aged at least a year in barrel and not sold for a minimum of three years after the vintage) is aged in French oak rather than the traditional American but still has all the balance and elegance of old-style Rioja crianzas.
Marqués de Riscal
Rioja Reserva ($19)
There’s the much-ballyhooed new Frank Gehry–designed hospitality center, not to mention the new restaurant from Francis Paniego, Rioja’s most famous chef, but there are also great wines made at Marqués de Riscal. Among them are the luxurious Barón de Chirel blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, a long-aging Gran Reserva and this focused Reserva, with its classically Riojan notes of red cherries and vanilla.
Solaz Tierra de Castilla Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon ($9)
Osborne has been best known for its Riojas, ports and sherries—unsurprisingly, as the company has been in those businesses for the past 235 years. But a few years ago, the family (led by sixth-generation Tomás Osborne Gamero-Cívico) branched out into the Tierra de Castilla region near Toledo to produce some of Spain’s most appealing and inexpensive wines under its Solaz label. A brilliant example of its success is its fruit-driven, spicy Osborne Solaz Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon.
—Additonal reporting by Megan Krigbaum
Under $25 Bordeaux
Most Americans associate Bordeaux with the powerful, complex and very expensive wines of great châteaus such as Lafite-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. But the region has many châteaus that produce reliable values, too. Here are five to look for:
Château Bonnet Rouge ($14)
Usually a 50-50 blend of Cabernet and Merlot, it’s firm and flavorful.
Château Greysac Mèdoc ($25)
This medium-bodied, Merlot-dominated wine is graceful and aromatic.
Château Cap de Faugères Côtes de Castillon ($15)
From the up-and-coming Côtes de Castillon, this is velvety and lush.
Château Charmail Haut-Médoc ($19)
Intense and ageworthy, this is a star of the often dull Haut-Médoc appellation.
Château Gigault Cuvée Viva Blaye Côtes-de-Bordeaux ($18)
Consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt makes this luscious red from the Blaye Côtes-de-Bordeaux sub-region.
U.S. Luxury Values
Ridge Geyserville Alexander Valley Zinfandel ($40)
An old-vines blend of Zinfandel and a variety of other grapes, Geyserville is full of ripe blackberry and black pepper notes, no matter the vintage.
Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($63)
It’s a mystery why Mount Eden isn’t better known, since its spicy, pear-inflected white is one of the few California Chardonnays able to age gracefully for more than a decade.
Merry Edwards Klopp Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($74)
Edwards is one of California’s finest interpreters of the fickle Pinot Noir grape, and this violet-scented bottling (from a vineyard she helped plant 17 years ago) shows why.
Andrew Will Sorella Horse Heaven Hills ($74)
Washington winemaker Chris Camarda produces a number of thrilling wines, but this floral Cabernet blend may be his best.
Altamura Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($101)
Each year, this cocoa-scented, complex red from winemaker Frank Altamura is a sublime example of how good Napa Cabernet can be.
French Luxury Values
Many top French wines are reliably great no matter the vintage, but they’re produced in miniscule amounts—a taste of Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne might make you mortgage your house to buy a case, but first you’d have to find one. Here are five consistently well-made, high-end French wines that are possible to find:
William Fevre Montmains Chablis Premier Cru ($48)
This premier cru bottling is stunning: full of Chablisienne chalky minerality, it’s complex and delicious all at once.
Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches Rouge ($103)
This velvety, subtle red Burgundy from a famous premier cru vineyard (largely owned by Drouhin) can age for a decade or more.
Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($66)
This extravagantly aromatic, savory Rhône red is a reference point for great Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Château Léoville Las Cases Saint-Julien ($190)
Las Cases’ reputation now (as it has been for many years) is essentially "the second growth that ought to be a first." This wine is profoundly complex and powerful and can age for decades.
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut Champagne ($192)
This tête-de-cuvée Champagne is luscious and intense, with dried-apricot, brioche and honey notes.