An inexpensive wine should have the same attributes as a pricey one: It should be balanced (meaning that no one characteristic like sweetness or acidity overwhelms everything else); it should suit the food you're serving; and, last but not least, the fifth sip should taste as good as the first. A wine that is cloying, acidic or simply bizarre is a bad buy whether it's $5 or $25. There are just too many great choices out there to settle for one that isn't delicious.
What makes a wine expensive? Some wines are expensive because they are sought after or have a track record for aging or resale value at auction. Fair enough. But plenty of wines are costly because the proprietor owes the bank big-time for his land or has a healthy ego or has simply decided that his wine will seem more appealing at $30 than at $15. It's amazing what a little blind tasting can do to assumptions about price tags.
Where can you find bargains? The hottest areas right now for high-quality, under-priced wines are Spain, southern Italy, Chile and Argentina. There are also still plenty of outstanding deals from southern France and Australia, particularly in reds.
What's your single best bet? In reds, try Côtes-du-Rhônes--food-friendly, spicy and medium-rich wines. In whites, look for Alsace Rieslings and Pinot Blancs. They are (mostly) dry, easy to pair with food and inexplicably underappreciated--hence underpriced.
10 Great Values
2001 Santa Julia Torrontés ($7) Nobody knows where the aromatic white grape Torrontés originated (best guess: Spain), but in Argentina it produces rich, exotic, jasmine-infused wines like this bargain example.
2000 Hess Select Chardonnay ($11) Hess makes a Napa Chard of all-out exuberance--immensely rich and juicy, brimming with tropical-fruit and just a touch of oak.
2000 Chappellet Dry Chenin Blanc ($12) The neglected Chenin Blanc grape is given star treatment at this well-known Napa winery: Barrel-fermentation shows off luscious fruit and a dry finish.
2001 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc ($13) New Zealand has gained a passionate following for crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blancs such as this.
2001 Louis Jadot Saint-Véran Domaine De La Chapelle Aux Loups ($15) This firmly structured single-vineyard wine from the Mâcon region of France is a subdued, elegant, mineral-infused Chardonnay.
1999 Fetzer Valley Oaks Syrah ($9) This Mendocino bottling captures the lush, supple side of California Syrah, with a wonderfully seductive aroma of ripe blackberry-raspberry fruit.
2000 Feudo Monaci Primitivo ($9) A new winery in southern Italy turns out this fruity, lively, medium-bodied Primitivo (a.k.a. Zinfandel).
1998 E. Guigal Côtes-Du-Rhône ($10) Though Guigal is famous for its pricey Côte-Rôties, this well-priced, medium-rich selection warrants a cult following as well.
1999 Vega Sindoa Merlot ($10) Low yields are one of the secrets to this sensationally succulent, very Merlot-y Merlot from Spain's Navarra region.2000 Marquis Philips Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) This inky and immense wine was created by American importer (and F&W contributing editor) Dan Philips and top Australian winemakers Sarah and Sparky Marquis.