Allow Tuscany and Piedmont their fanfaretheir wines deserve itbut for delicious, unfussy wines at reasonable prices, the best source by far is southern Italy.
REGIONS WORTH NOTING Long considered the birthplace of Italian wine, the southern part of the country is home to notable wine regions such as Apulia, Campania, Calabria and Sicily, all of which are turning out excellent-value alternatives to their high-priced northern counterparts. Apulia is home to flavorful reds from the Primitivo grape (said to be related to California's Zinfandel), while Calabria, in the toe of the boot, and Campania turn out modern red and white wines of great promise. Sicily, however, gets my vote for having the most potential of all. Although once infamous for turning out a sea of innocuous reds and whites, Sicily has arguably become the most exciting wine region in southern Italy. Leading vintners such as Tasca d'Almerita and Duca di Salaparuta are owed much of the credit for this exciting development.
A piece of advice regarding the wines of southern Italy: Learn the names of the top producers and track down a retailer who's keen on finding good Italian wine buys.
WINES TO LOOK FOR 1998 Tasca D'Almerita Regaleali Rosso ($11) The basic red from Tasca, one of Sicily's most dependable producers. It's a charmingly rustic winea blend of local grapes Nero d'Avola and Perriconewith earthy black cherry and cola flavors. A superlative every-day red for pizza and pasta. 1998 Sinfarosa Primitivo ($11) Primitivo has been produced in Apulia since the late 1700s, but it took the renewed popularity of Zinfandel in California to inspire winemakers to craft suppler, more balanced Primitivos. This peppery red tastes like a Zin crossed with a Chianti. 1999 Feudi di San Gregorio Albente ($11) This refreshing white blend from a relatively new Campania winery has an explosively fruity aroma of fennel, lime and peach, and crisp flavors with notes of papaya and roasted nuts.
ALSO RECOMMENDED 1997 Taurino Salice Salentino ($9).
California Central Coast
Bargain hunters gave up on Napa Valley years ago, and now even the wines of Sonoma and Mendocino counties seem priced out of the value market. In short, it looks like the Central Coast may be the last refuge for wine lovers craving a bargain from California.
REGIONS WORTH NOTING The Central Coast appellation covers a lot of territory, stretching roughly from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, and encompasses the Paso Robles area and Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. The climate is generally cool, but there are random pockets of heat that allow a wide range of grapes to thrive. Note: Make sure the label says "Central Coast." If it just says "Coastal," the wine hasn't necessarily been made with Central Coast grapes. If the label also lists a general "California" appellation, chances are the wine was made with the less desirable grapes of California's Central Valleya much hotter region that too often produces simple, coarse wines.
WINES TO LOOK FOR 1999 Seven Peaks Merlot ($15) A juice bomb of black cherry, this wine will remind you of the days when Merlot was fun to drink. You'd expect no less from a winery owned in part by Australia's Southcorp, the folks behind the consistently good value wines of Rosemount and Lindemans. 1998 Meridian Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir ($13) It's not easy to make good, inexpensive Pinot Noir, but Meridianpart of the Beringer family of wineriespulls it off year after year. This is a delicious, easy-to-love Pinot, with lots of tart cherry, cinnamon and vanilla flavors. 2000 Eberle Chardonnay ($15) Gary Eberle is a Central Coast original, and this wine shows the region (and him) at its best, balancing ripe tropical-fruit juiciness with elegance.
ALSO RECOMMENDED 1998 J. Lohr Syrah ($15), 1999 Turning Leaf Coastal Reserve Merlot ($10).
This part of France is a contradiction, in terms of the wines it produces. There are lots of charming, delicious reds, whites and rosés to be found here, but there's also a shameful number of bad bottles.
As a result, bargain hunters must tread very carefully, particularly when it comes to popular varietals like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Large producers have planted vast plains of these grapes in Languedoc-Roussillon. Not only can the wines be diluted and blandoverproduction is a problembut mostly, those grapes just aren't at home in a hot climate. I recommend sticking with traditional wines from established regions and villages.
REGIONS WORTH NOTING The red blends of Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages offer some of the best buys. (Like many red wines of southern France, they're largely blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.) Lirac, another terrific, overlooked source, produces hearty reds similar in style to nearby Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Other places to look include Corbières and Minervois, which make reliable full-flavored reds. It's a bit harder to find first-rate white-wine values in southern France. Made mostly with Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier, the whites can be spotty, although rosés seem to be produced everywhere, with the bestfrom Bandol in Provence and Tavel in the Rhôneoften getting expensive.
WINES TO LOOK FOR 1998 Château de Jau Côtes du Roussillon-Villages ($12) The Daure family are pioneers in Roussillon, turning out high-quality wines at good prices. This blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre, with a dash of Grenache and Carignan, has character to spare. The aroma of blackberry and bacon sets the bait and the spicy black cherry flavors pull you in. 2000 Domaine de Fontsainte Corbières Gris de Gris ($10) White Zinfandel gave rosés a bad rep and southern France produces its share of insipid stuff. Not so this dry rosé, which has a hint of violets in the nose and pretty strawberry flavors. 1999 Domaine de la Tour Boisée Minervois ($10) Rustic and inky dark, this brooding red blend is mostly Carignan. It's stuffed with blackberry, mocha, pine and tar. Don't open a bottle unless there's a slab of beef roasting on the grill.
ALSO RECOMMENDED 1998 Louis Bernard Côtes-du-rhône-Villages ($10), 1998 Domaine de la Grivelière Lirac ($10), 1998 Château Routas Carignan Vin de Pays du Var ($9).
How would wine bargain hunters have survived the '90s without imports from Australia? No place in the world produces more consistently good inexpensive wines than South Australia. The grapes planted there are diverse; in fact, there's a little bit of everything planted in South Australia, although Shiraza.k.a. Syrahis practically the national grape. Cabernet Sauvignon is another star among the reds. Riesling and Chardonnay, meanwhile, dominate the white grape varieties.
REGIONS WORTH NOTING South Australia is actually a large expanse that includes some of Australia's best-known wine subregions such as the Barossa and Clare valleys, Padthaway and Coonawarra. As you'd expect in such a broad territory, growing conditions vary greatlythere are both cool coastal areas and wide swaths of hot, arid terrain. The best value wines are typically labeled South Australia or South Eastern Australia, which may also include some grapes from New South Wales.
WINES TO LOOK FOR 1999 Lindemans Bin 45 South Eastern Australia Cabernet Sauvignon ($9) It's hard to beat Lindemans in the bang-for-your-buck department. Surprisingly gutsy for such a cheap Cabernet, this wine has concentrated black cherry, cocoa and spice flavors. 1999 Black Opal South Eastern Australia Shiraz ($11) A freshly baked black raspberry tart is exactly what you'll smell when you uncork this juicy little number, which tastes ripe and jammy, with lots of spice, dill and toast. 2000 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Chardonnay ($11) The cool Coonawarra has been called the Médoc of Australia. It's best known for its Cabernet and Shiraz, although it's also well suited for Chardonnay too. And if you like your Chardonnay with lots of ripe tropical-fruit flavors and toasty oak, this wine is a deal for you.
ALSO RECOMMENDED 2000 Rosemount Grenache-Shiraz ($8), 1998 Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon ($12).
Chile Central Valley
This long sliver of a country, pinched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, offers some of the best value wines in the New Worldprovided you buy wisely. Unfortunately, the quality of Chilean wines can vary considerably. You might uncork a bargain bottle that's fresh and explosively fruity or one that's bitter and diluted. On the brighter side, things have improved greatly in recent years, and growers are learning which grapes are best suited to each region. Growers are also starting to scale back on crop size, ensuring better-quality juice and riper, more intense flavors.
REGIONS WORTH NOTING Most of the Chilean wines you see on store shelves come from the Valle Central, or Central Valley, a large expanse that includes many of the country's best-known regions, such as the Maipo and Rapel valleys. The Maipo Valley, for example, makes some of Chile's best reds, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, while Rapel Valley, with its moderate climate, produces a wider range of good wines. Maule Valley, on the other hand, is cooler and fares better with Chardonnay, as does the Casablanca region to the north of the Central Valley.
WINES TO LOOK FOR 1999 Calina Cabernet Sauvignon ($8) This is an incredible Cabernet for the price. Kendall-Jackson, which owns the Calina brand, has invested heavily in Chile and it's paying off. This wine, a blend of grapes from the Rapel, Maule and Itata valleys, is jammed with bold aromas and flavors of blackberry, mint, chocolate and spicy oak. 2000 Montes Colchagua Valley Malbec Reserva ($8) Malbec, a grape that's used in many Bordeaux blends, is widely planted in Chile. Montes is fairly new to the scene, but its wines are consistent best buys. Try the Merlot or this easy-drinking red, with rich aromas of black cherry, cedar and fresh tobacco. 2000 La Playa Sauvignon Blanc ($7) Make this your house white. It seems to vibrate in your mouth, with compelling aromas of grass and lime and crisp tropical-fruit flavors. From a Maipo Valley winery that also consistently makes a good Cabernet and Merlot.
ALSO RECOMMENDED 2000 Caliterra Merlot Valle Central ($8), 2000 Errázuriz Fumé Blanc ($10).