Just as rich people so often resemble each other—the same clothes, the same haircuts, the same Botoxed non-lines—so can some of the priciest wines taste much the same. Made from the same grapes, by the same globe-trotting winemaking consultants; the terroir of the place can be lost in expensive technique. The question when tasting these wines might be: Is it a fancy Bordeaux or a Napa Cabernet? The answer might be: Who knows? The good news, for both purists and cheapskates (so often the two seem to be synonymous: How many free-spending vegetarians, for example, do you know?), is that cheap wines can sometimes give a true(r) taste of a place than a pricey "designed" wine.
I decided to seek out as many wines as I could find that actually manage to convey a sense of terroir. I limited my search for authentic bottlings to long-established, though still obscure, parts of the world—places like southern Italy and Bierzo, Yecla and Rías Baixas in Spain, as well as certain parts of France, Greece and the Douro Valley in Portugal. I chose these places because they have three things in common: a long viticultural history, sometimes dating back thousands of years; distinctive varietals that have recently been rediscovered or markedly improved; and an ambitious new generation of talented producers who are employing modern winemaking and viticultural techniques to indigenous grapes.
Some winemakers in these regions are on a quest to create something authentic, while others may have a more pragmatic motive—to make money by selling lots of inexpensive wine. But whatever their reasons, they are making something that never really existed before: good cheap wines with terroir—wines that don't come from a marketing concept but a particular place on the map.
I started my search in Italy. After all, Italy was once famous for wines born of a marketing scheme. (Riunite Lambrusco is one good example.) Today, it's almost alarmingly the opposite: Seemingly every Italian wine sporting a grape or a regional name is "authentic" (even Riunite lists the grapes that go into it and the places where they're grown). Sometimes there's so much information, it's hard to tell the names of Italian grapes and regions apart. I wonder if even the natives know, for example, whether Falanghina is a region or a grape. Or, for that matter, Greco di Tufo (it's actually both). In any case, these grapes and these regions are producing some of the best wine bargains anywhere in the world, which convey a terrific sense of terroir.
One of my favorite Italian grapes is Aglianico, once called "the wine that time forgot" and now nicknamed "the King of the South." A dense, powerful red grown in various regions of southern Italy, it's what I suggest when my friends ask for a wine that "tastes like something." And a good Aglianico tastes like a lot of things—black fruit, dark chocolate, not to mention spice and even smoke. It's also a wine with lots of structure—like the 2003 Di Majo Norante Contado, one of the best Aglianicos made in the tiny region of Molise. Or the 2005 Vinosia Irpinia Aglianico, made in nearby Campania, an impressively big, almost tarry red. They're both only about $15 a bottle.
I'm also a fan of Primitivo (the Italian counterpart to American Zinfandel). Primitivo is the chief red grape of Puglia, where it has been grown for hundreds of years. It's big and juicy like a Zinfandel, but a little more "wild" —not unlike the place it's made. It's also generally much cheaper. The 2005 A-Mano Primitivo is a brambly red made by an American, Mark Shannon, who calls still-rustic Puglia his home and prices his wine like a Puglian, at $11 a bottle.
Good cheap Italian whites with character were even easier to find—something I wouldn't have been able to say 10 years ago. But with grapes like Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino enjoying a surge of popularity in Campania (where they have actually been grown for hundreds of years), I found much to choose from, though two wines in particular stood out: the 2005 Cantina del Taburno Greco and the 2005 Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino; the former rather delicate and lemony, the latter a bit more intense, both around $16.
Spain doesn't have nearly as many grape varieties as Italy (600 vs. 2,000), but it still has lots of wine to sell: The country has the largest amount of land under vine anywhere in the world, thanks in part to former dictator General Francisco Franco, who directed a prodigious number of vineyards to be planted many decades ago. Franco considered vineyards to be "permanent"—thereby proving that the generalissimo was wrong about any number of things, from a Spanish desire for democracy to the faddish nature of certain grapes.
There are a lot of old vineyards in Spain, and some of the most interesting wines I tasted came from the regions with the oldest vines. Like Bierzo, a small western region where the red grape Mencía is the star. Or Priorato on the country's opposite side, where old-vine Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) have been grown for hundreds of years and are still affordably priced. (Though there are a lot of luxury-priced Prioratos as well; it's one of Spain's trendiest regions right now.)
The two American importers who get a lot of the credit for finding many of these wines are Eric Solomon and Jorge Ordoñez. Both championed and, in some cases, bankrolled the vintners trying to recover these old vines. Solomon, for example, convinced a cooperative in Calatayud to bottle the grapes from a hundred-year-old Garnacha vineyard separately, resulting in the deliciously ripe 2003 Las Rocas Viñas Viejas that sells for about $12. Other Spanish importers make their own wine: Patrick Mata of Olé Imports is a partner in Bellum, a Yecla-based project producing reds from old-vine Monastrell. The 2004 Bellum Providencia costs a mere $15 and is a wonderfully rich and nuanced wine.
I didn't find many characterful cheap whites in Spain. In fact, there is only one region where they're consistently made: Rías Baixas. This is an appellation within Galicia that has become almost as famous for its minerally, high-acid Albariño grape as it is for the tomb of a saint buried there. (Galicia is on a pilgrimage route, and the corpse of St. James the Apostle is the big local draw.) And yet Albariño almost disappeared 20 years ago (a common occurrence with indigenous grapes). In fact, there were only about five Albariño producers back then, making mostly commercial stuff. But when the grape's potential was realized, many more Albariño winemakers appeared. There are now more than 100 wineries making Albariño. My three favorite bottlings are the 2006 Pazo de Señorans (the best of all, about $20) and the 2006 wines from Morgadío and Martín Códax, which are almost as good and about $5 less.
One nonRías Baixas Spanish white that I especially liked was a little oddity from Catalonia called Nerola, produced by the well-known Torres winery. A half- barrel-fermented white made from the ancient Xarel-lo grape and a bit of Garnacha Blanca, the 2005 Nerola has a wonderful tropical note, a clean mineral finish, an impressive balance of richness and acidity and a very fair price of $12 a bottle.
When I went looking for cheap French wines with terroir, I found a lot of interesting choices, though none made by importers, as in Spain. (However, one importer does have his very own "personal statement" on what constitutes terroir.) There were also none from once-abandoned vineyards, as in both Italy and Spain (though most of the vines were pretty old). They were, instead, mostly from undervalued regions like Provence, where brilliant rosés like those of Commanderie de la Bargemone and Commanderie de Peyrassol are still incredibly cheap (less than $15) for the quality and complexity of the wines, some even made from hundred-year-old Grenache and Syrah vines.
I found more great deals in Languedoc-Roussillon—another undervalued wine-growing region (which is becoming less and less undervalued each day as winemakers from other pricey parts of France—not to mention bankers from London—migrate there). I was particularly impressed with the wines from Bruno Lafon, whose family in Burgundy produces tiny quantities of four-figure Montrachet at Domaine Comtes Lafon while Bruno himself makes bargain-priced old-vine Syrah and Grenache. His 2004 Domaine Magellan Grenache-Carignane is a lively, bright red, and at $16 a bottle, it's one-quarter the price of a simple village Burgundy.
A much smaller though equally obscure region, Savoie, is the source of one of my favorite cheap and interesting white wines in the world: the Apremont of Pierre Boniface, a remarkably pure, almost crystalline white that is a vinous reflection of its Alpine home. It's made from the ancient Jacquère grape, which is grown only in the Savoie region (Apremont is a cru designation—even in tiny Savoie there are special cru wines; it is France, after all). But even the crus in Savoie are affordably priced; the Boniface is about $12 a bottle.
And finally, I have to mention Muscadet, possibly the least appreciated wine in all of France, as for many people, it simply screams "cheap." And yet there are Muscadets from the Sèvre et Maine district of the western Loire, made by producers Domaine de la Pépière and Domaine Luneau-Papin, that are worthy only of praise. A telltale note of crushed seashells reveals the region's proximity to the ocean. Both are about $12 a bottle.
I had a few wines from Greece recently that were just as good as those Muscadets. And almost as cheap. In fact, there are a lot of good Greek whites around nowadays. Some that I liked best were from Santorini, the island that is a staple of travel photography (white buildings set against an azure sky). Santorini's vineyards are equally photogenic: vines trained in basket-shaped coils on the ground. (It's not for the tourists; it's for protection from the wind.) The most important grape is Assyrtiko, an ancient and noble varietal grown in various regions of Greece; those from Santorini are particularly good. Boutari makes a classic example of this mineral-rich white ($18) that echoes the mineral notes of the soil.
Other distinctive white grapes that the Greeks have been just as busy recovering from near-extinction include Moscophilero (an intensely aromatic white reminiscent of Gewürztraminer) and Malagousia, which is now much prized in many places, though it's particularly good in the Peloponnese, where it produces concentrated wines. The 2006 Moscophilero from Antonopoulos ($16) is a voluptuous wine, with penetrating citrus notes.
In the world of wine, Portugal seems to be a perpetual afterthought, an addendum on most wine lists and in stores. I'm not sure why. After all, it's the home of one of the greatest wines in the world, vintage port. And some of its best deals are actually table wines made by those very same port houses, using the very same indigenous grape varietals (i.e., Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz) that have been grown in the rocky soil of the Douro River Valley for hundreds of years. In fact, the table wines cost a fraction of the price of vintage port. Two of my favorites are the 2004 Prazo de Roriz, a plush, ripe red blend ($14), and the 2004 Churchill Estate red, a more concentrated, well-structured wine ($15).
Of course, every rave must be accompanied by a disclaimer of sorts. For every interesting Apremont or minerally Muscadet, I tasted plenty of boring, characterless wines, the sort that might as well be turned into industrial alcohol—as was done recently with some cheap Bordeaux. There were some downright funky examples too, wines made from grapes that really should have disappeared long ago. (I'm still waiting for the end of South Africa's Pinotage.) But I did find an amazing confluence of cheap and terroir, and the wines that I've mentioned here are only a small sampling of what can be found. So the next time my friend says, "I want a wine that tastes like something!" in her cheap wine cri de coeur, I'll give her this list and explain that what she really wants is a wine that tastes like somewhere.
Comments? E-mail Lettie Teague at email@example.com.