Sometimes it’s embarrassing as an American to taste the incredible range of bargains available for under $15 from Europe and compare them to American wines at the same prices. The boring standardization of the American wine industry in this range is numbing. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different labels, but in the bottle you find only dozens of styles. As you stare at shelf-after-shelf of American cabernet, merlot or chardonnay in your local grocery store you can reliably just pick the one that’s on sale as they are all more-or-less the same wine. However, with just a little more work you can find an entire world of wine bargains that offer far more character than these homogenized industrial wines. It’s important to remember that these bargain reds should be served cool, 65°F or so, to bring out their freshness.
The red wines listed below are all under $15 and many of them are under $10. All of them were purchased in grocery stores, not fine wine shops, so it is possible to find them. Each has character, if not complexity, and best of all, they are great with food. Inexpensive American wines have become the elevator music of the wine world, wines like these are the original tunes.
- Château Bouissel, Fronton, Classic, 2003 - Southern French estates offer some of best bargains out of France. This wine is substantial without being heavy and with the structure coming from the negrette will improve for a year or two. Rich and warm with a dark color from the malbec the tannins in the finish make this perfect for rich stews. Cassoulet anyone? 50% negrette, 20% syrah, 20% cabernet franc, 10% cot (malbec) Imported by Normandie Imports
- Covey Run, Syrah, Columbia Valley, 2004 - What we have here is an American Côtes du Rhône and that’s a great idea. Ripe and juicy with a soft fruitiness that should please any merlot drinker. Don’t think, just drink and you’ll love it. At $6.99 a great bargain. Drink up fast and cool. (Buy online)
- Fattoria Laila, Rosso Piceno, 2005 - Marche wines continue to be ignored Italian treasures in America, but that keeps prices down. This blend of montepulciano and sangiovese is a classic Italian red with a firm acid backbone and warm earthy flavors over the bright black cherry fruit. This matched with my penne with lamb sausage ragù perfectly. Imported by North Berkeley Imports and Zancanella Importing. (Buy online)
- La Ferme de Gicon, Côtes du Rhône, Vignerons de Chusclan, 2006 - This is just an amazingly easy wine to gulp. Rich, zesty, fruity and alive this is a wine all about honest simple pleasure that is happy to leave complexity to the big boys. This is a buy by the case wine at under $10 that will match with any summer meal. A half-hour in the refrigerator is mandatory and during the dog days of summer I’d serve it out-and-out chilled. Imported by Cellar Door Selections (Buy online)
- Villa Pigna Briccaio, Marche IGT, 2003 - Briccaio - Here is a step up on the complexity meter as it not only offers easy drink-ability, but some real character. Showing the breed of montepulciano, from which it is entirely made, this wine combines classic Italian backbone with a generous personality. A great match for your best grilled steaks. Imported by Zancanella Imports (Buy online)
- Quinta da Espiga, Casa Santos Lima, Estremadura, 2006 - Portugal continues to pump out great wine bargains. This is a big, robust, deeply fruity wine and is a real mouthful. Those that like bigger wines will love this $8 steal. These dry Portuguese reds almost remind me a bit of what Port would taste like without the sugar.
- Bodegas Luzon, Jumilla, 2006 - 65% monastrell (mourvèdre) 35% syrah - A big lush, ripe modern-style Spanish wine that will seduce many a merlot lover with its soft richness. Another wine for steaks or chops at your next cookout. A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group
- Regaleali, Tasca d”Almerita, IGT Sicilia, Nero d’Avola, 2006 - I have always found the big players in the Sicilian wine scene, Regaleali and Corvo great values. They offered personality and typicity at a fair price. While these wines have modernized a bit over the years they have not gone down the road of becoming more like Australian wines than Italian wines taken by so many Sicilian producers. This wine has great backbone, good varietal character and, most wonderful of all, tastes like it comes from Sicily. Imported by Winebow
- Clos Roche Blanche, Cuvée Pif, Touraine, 2004 - I first tasted the 2004 back in September of 2006 and it keeps getting better and better. It’s hard to imagine a wine more lifting and filled with personality at this price. This wine is for those looking for grace and elegance in a wine. Originally I recommended drinking this cot (malbec) cabernet franc blend early, but obviously there was no hurry. Imported by Louis/Dressner (Buy Online)
- Protocolo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, 2005 - Usually Ordoñez selections tend towards the modern school of Spanish winemaking, but here is one with a more traditional style. Very fragrant and flashing a touch of spicy/sweet American oak its ripe red fruit flavors are held taught with just a touch of tannin. With a more classic European style and balance this is a great match for gilled lamb chops or sausages. A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group (Buy online)
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Every time I have a wine I like I put the bottle on my desk so I can write about it. When space runs out you get one of these “Wine Notes” posts. These are all wines that I have consumed with meals and have usually tasted over a period of several days. They are more often than not under $30 as I frequently find more expensive wines not enjoyable with my day-to-day cooking as they are not ready to drink or just too big and woody. These posts are a true picture of the wines that I choose to serve at home with my own meals. All the wines in these posts are recommended. In fact, you’ll rarely find me writing about a wine I don’t like unless I think it’s an incredible rip-off or a pretentious, over-marketed wine of questionable quality like Veuve Cliquot.
- Prosecco, Montello d Colli Ascolani, Loredon Gasparini, NV - I’ve been gulping a glass of this charmer every night while cooking dinner lately and find it refreshing and uplifting after work treat. It is a lovely, creamy fruit-driven bubbly that is just barely off dry. At under $15 this is a pleasure that can be enjoyed often. I’ve been using a stopper and drinking over three or four days and the bubbles hang in there to the last glass.
- Muscadet Sèvre e Maine sur lie, Cuvée Médaillée, Le “L“‘d’Or, Pierre Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Grange, 2005 - A steely laser of a wine. Very firm and tight with that stony minerality that only Muscadet delivers. I drank this wine over a week and it just kept getting better with air. Muscadet is the clear winner when it comes to the long wine name awards. It was perfect with some pan-fried Oregon oysters. I know it will be better with age, but I just don’t have the willpower not to drink it now.
- Müller Thurgau Dry, Phalz, Weingut Ökonomierat Rebhotz, 2005 - This is one of those wines that have so much acidity you think your glass has a static charge as it touches your lips. Crisp with a zippy lemon-lime fruit, this was a great match to some Thai spring rolls. Wines like this should be used to define the usually misused term “dry” as this one is almost jarringly dry. As you know combining electric acidity with jarring dryness means that both me and my deep fryer love this wine.
- Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore, Torre di Ceparano, Fattoria Zerbina, 2003 - I’ve been a Zerbina fan for a long time. While their top expensive “Super” wines get big points, what I actually love are their least expensive wines like Ceregio and this wine. The Torre di Ceparano is consistently a great value in sangiovese. Structured with authentic, earthy sangiovese fruit and character, there are few Chiantis that can match this wine and those that do all cost a lot more. If you can’t figure out what the big deal with sangiovese is all about try this wine with some braised lamb shanks. In my opinion, Zerbina is the best producer in Romagna.
- Nebbiolo Langhe, Produttori del Barbaresco, 2005 - An very good bargain in Piemonte nebbiolo, which is something that is getting harder and harder to find. Very classic with earthy fruit, drying tannins and distinctive aromatics. You’ll find plenty of the famed “tar and roses”, which are the defining characteristics of classic nebbiolo. It is definitely worth waiting a few years before drinking this fine wine.
- Beaujolais Le Perreon, Nouveau, Domaine de la Madone, Jean Bererd et Fils, 2007 - Served lightly chilled with homemade pizza topped with lots of sweet onions and an egg, which made a perfect match and a very enjoyable dinner. Believe it or not, there are some very good Nouveau Beaujolais wines being produced by small estates. Good luck finding them though.
- Dolcetto d’Alba, Pertinace, Treiso, 2006 - With so many Dolcetto wines on steroids these days (six are named in the Mitchell Report), it’s nice to find a wine that you can actually drink without going to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned. Fresh, brightly fruity, pleasantly zesty and under $15, which makes this a great wine to buy by the case for casual meals. No it’s not profound, but sometimes deliciously easy is more enjoyable than profound.
- Cahors, Clos La Coutale, 2005 - If you ever wondered why people grow malbec after tasting yet another drab commercial grocery store wine from South America, try this rich blend of 80% malbec and 20% merlot. Robust with layers of flavors and a firm backbone that leads to a warm, earthy finish. An excellent choice for this winter’s hearty stews.
- Bourgogne, Cuvée Sylvie, Domaine Sylvie Esmonin, 2005 - A great value in fine French pinot noir. Lately I’ve been having better luck finding good pinot in this price range than with more expensive bottles. As a Burgundy lover living in Oregon, I am always ordering bottles of Burgundy to convince locals of its superior charms. Often these wines do not present convincing arguments in support of my position. However, wines like this do. This is almost picture perfect pinot noir. No, it’s not the most complex pinot you’ll ever taste, but it is delicious and purely varietal. Rich, creamy and velvety from first sniff to the last lingering essence of the finish, this wine is pure pinot pleasure. One note, by the next day the wine had faded quite a bit. Therefore, I’d suggest drinking this wine up young and pretty.
- Côte de Brouilly, Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes, Nicole Chanrion, 2005 - This is one of those rich Cru Beaujolais wines that remind you more of pinot noir than the many insipid wines that carry the name Beaujolais these days. This is a classy gamay with great depth and richness. This wine is still actually a bit closed and needs a year or two more to really strut its stuff. Mixed with the brilliant gamy fruit flavors and aromas are touches of black truffles, herbs and a touch of black pepper. This is a wine that makes you sit up and take notice.
- Château Aney, Haut Medoc, Cru Bourgeois, 2003 - Just a few decades ago Bordeaux was my go-to wine. It dominated my cellar and my table. Those days are long gone and now I taste more Bordeaux than I drink. However, when rack of lamb appears on my table my taste buds yearn for Bordeaux, or what Bordeaux used to be anyway. Now 2003 is not my favorite vintage and I had not tasted wines from the Chateau before, but with Kermit Lynch’s name on the back label I decided to give it a try and I’m glad I did. While like most 2003’s it is not the most structured Bordeaux you’ll ever taste it has enough of a tannic backbone that it reminds you it really came from the Haut Medoc. For me this wine is ready to drink now and over the next year or two and that nothing worthwhile will be gained by extended aging. It went perfectly with my lamb and cost less than $25. Now there’s a Bordeaux you can enjoy. It’s worth pointing out this wine is listed at 12.5% alcohol, that’s nice too.
- Côtes du Rhône, Les Cailloux, Domaine Rabasse Charavin, 2004 - Here’s a big, ripe chewy wine that pulls it off. It took me a glass to adjust to it, but after that I found its ripe earthy warmth comforting and enjoyable. Having a big cheeseburger dripping with extra sharp cheddar tonight? Here’s your wine.