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The Great Wine-Bargain Hunt

Lettie Teague develops tendonitis uncorking cheap bottles for a massive tasting that yields some shockingly good discoveries.

Opportunities abound to pay too much for a wine (Burgundies of both colors, Napa Cabernets and off-vintage Bordeaux are three that come immediately to mind for frequently poor price-to-quality ratios). But what about wines that might be underpriced? That are not just good values but downright cheap? How low is it possible to go and still get a good wine?

The time for a search seemed to be right. Importers have assumed smaller profit margins in the wake of the dollar's decline, while traditional wine retailers have been forced to compete with supermarkets and Internet sites. And then there's the wine glut occurring in just about every part of the world. In Australia, the story is excess Cabernet Sauvignon; in New Zealand, they're soon to be awash in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. In France, there's too much of everything, including several vintages' worth of unsold Bordeaux. In fact, some French vintners are stuck with such an oversupply they're thinking of turning their wines into industrial-use alcohol.

Before starting my bargain hunt, I decided to set some parameters: I'd only buy wines in regular bottles—no boxes or jugs. Nor would I buy wines with fruit additives or geographically incorrect names (i.e., California Chablis). I wanted wines that both tasted and looked like their pricier alternatives. I focused primarily on bottles that cost $10 or less, although I did go as high as $15 at times. I shopped in New York City and its suburbs, at places known for their selection of value wines. I bought some wines online, had samples sent to me from a few producers and found other wines in stores like Stew Leonard's, a small grocery chain in Connecticut and New York.

As famous for its animated produce (i.e., "Larry Lettuce") as its outsize food packaging (bargain cuts of beef big enough for a college fraternity), Stew's also has its own cost-conscious wine shops. I found half a dozen potentially good buys, though I wasn't much inspired by their accompanying descriptions: "Great with a big plate of macaroni and cheese," read the sign over one; "This wine goes down easy," announced another. Why were buyers of bargain wines assumed to be eating such plebeian fare or, for that matter, knocking Cabernet back like Coca-Cola? (No signs over the Bordeaux section suggested shoppers "wash down" their pizza with a Pauillac.)

Other stores, like the redundantly monikered Suburban Wines & Spirits in suburban New York, suggested pairing its wines with more refined food. An $11 Corbières, 2001 Château La Baronne, came accompanied by this exhortation: "Send over the cassoulet, Madame!" The Corbières was one of its many Best Buys. In fact, there were Best Buys all over the store, even in the pricey precincts of Piedmont, where it became a somewhat relative phrase: A few selections cost as much as $65. Good buys perhaps, but not the kind I had in mind.

Once I'd accumulated 100 or so bottles, I began tasting. I invited friends and colleagues to join me, though few showed much enthusiasm for the project, except Marcia Kiesel, the F&W Test Kitchen Supervisor. Marcia, it seems, spends a lot of her free time searching for good cheap wines, particularly the $5.99 kind.

She hadn't always spent her time thus. In fact, Marcia is a reformed Burgundy buyer. "I was out of control," she admitted. "I used to buy so much wine from the Burgundy Wine Company I'd have cases lined up in my living room. Then one day I had a real estate agent over to evaluate my house and she asked me, 'What's all that wine?' I think she thought I was an alcoholic."

Marcia, who showed up for almost all of my tastings, had strong opinions about value wines. For example, no Muscadet, Marcia said, was worth more than $6 a bottle. But when she tasted the 2003 Domaine de la Pépière ($10), it was so good she was willing to raise her spending limit.

In fact, Muscadet is one of my favorite wine bargains, especially when it's clean and dry with a touch of minerality, like the Pépière. While other Loire Valley wines have become fashionable (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé) and therefore expensive, Muscadet has never really developed much of a fan base and thus is still a fairly good buy. We tasted several other good deals from France, and most of them came from other overlooked regions, such as Minervois, Gascony and Entre-Deux-Mers. It was much harder to find a good cheap wine from Bordeaux. In fact, the reds I'd found were all pretty tannic and thin—no wonder so many of them went unsold.

Sometimes entire countries were a challenge when it came to finding cheap wines; I found only a few from either Austria or Germany. Grüner Veltliner may be the most-planted grape in Austria, but it's not priced for the populace by the time it gets here; most Grüners cost in the mid-20s or more. I did find some exceptions: the 2002 Grüner Veltliner Kamptaler Terrassen from Bründlmayer ($15) and the 2003 #1 Veltliner of Hirsch ($14). Both were well-made wines with the crisp acidity that's a hallmark of Grüner. From Germany, I found only one cheap wine that delivered: the dry, pear-inflected 2003 Lingenfelder "Bird Label" Riesling—though at $15 it wasn't a steal.

Chile, Argentina and Australia were, not surprisingly, good value sources, though some of my favorite wines were made from unexpected varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. From Chile, I found at least half a dozen excellent Sauvignon Blancs, all from the 2004 vintage, most notably from producers Montes and Manta. None cost more than $10.

The Viogniers that I found from Argentina and Australia had good definition and varietal character—and very fair price tags. The delicate 2003 Yalumba Y Series Viognier from Down Under cost around $11, as did the Argentine entrant, the assertive 2003 Don Miguel Gascón Viognier. I found a few other good Argentinean whites, including the juicy 2004 Falling Star Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon ($5).

Those countries produce some great value reds too, all of which "went down easy," as a Stew Leonard's sign would say. There was a soft, ripe 2004 Tierra del Fuego red ($6), an Argentine blend of Sangiovese, Bonarda and Malbec made by the Bordeaux-based Lurton family, and a lush Malbec, the 2003 Altos Las Hormigas ($8), which was made by a group of Italian friends. And from southern Australia I found several soft, rich Shirazes from the superb 2002 vintage, most notably the Wyndham Estate Bin 555 ($8) and the Ross Estate North Ridge ($15).

The most interesting reds of my tasting, however, came almost entirely from southern Italy and Spain. There were wines I was long familiar with (like the Falesco Vitiano, a $9 Umbrian red from star consultant Riccardo Cotarella, whose 2003 may be his best yet) and others I tasted for the first time: the 2002 Di Majo Norante Sangiovese from Molise and the 2002 Colosi from Sicily (both less than $10). From Spain, I found old-vine Garnacha and Merlot blends, like the 2003 Borsao Tres Picos and the lush 2003 Finca Luzón from the obscure region of Jumilla (both around $10). I found almost as many good Spanish whites. (That there are any good white wines at all is a fairly recent development; the Spanish used to make some of the world's worst whites.) There was a sprightly 2003 white Rioja from Montecillo ($5) and the crisp and citrusy 2003 Naia from Rueda ($9).

The only country that failed to deliver much in the way of distinctive cheap wine was the United States. Though I found some good deals in American wines between $10 and $15, it was clear that America's true viticultural prowess isn't found in the sub-$10 zone.

This wasn't, however, the biggest surprise of my tasting. Aside from some truly unspeakable crimes committed with oak chips, the worst shock was the corks. With a few exceptions, most of the cheap bottles were closed with even cheaper corks. Often as not made from molded plastic, occasionally in an electric shade of purple, green or blue, these corks proved almost impossible to remove. I twisted my wrist so many times trying to extract them, that by the end of my tasting I had cheap-wine tendonitis. On the other hand, I had a much better idea of how many good deals were around. And there are plenty I'd be happy to serve in my home. As long as someone else is willing to pull the cork.

Note: Wine prices can vary considerably from state to state and store to store.

Published April 2005
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