Best Buys for the Penny Wise
Our editors' favorite value wines from around the world.
Photos by Jon Van Gorder
We're all feeling the pinch this year, whether we're pulling up to the gas pump, filling our carts at the grocery store, opening a letter from the I.R.S., or all of the above. So we hope you'll find this edition of our annual Value Wines story to be more welcome than ever. The pleasant reveries you enjoy as you sip these wines will help you forget your woes, and instead revolve around ways to spend the money you've saved. We suggest eating well and traveling further, but if the garage door needs fixing, so be it.
Many of the wines found on the following pages have a quality-to-price ratio that would qualify them as Best Buys in our Buying Guide. They were reviewed by the regional specialists from our tasting panel. As always we challenge the tasters to find, sample and recommend 12 wines for $120, with no single bottle retailing for more than $15. We do allow some latitude to the editors, so that they can include sparkling wines, Pinot Noirs and other wines that are typically priced higher.
Our feeling is, any time you can drink great wine that was purchased for very little money, there is giddy pleasure to be derived long after your glass is drained.
|Joe Czerwinski, Tasting Director|
Michael Duffy, Assistant Tasting Director
Paul Gregutt, Contributing Editor
Steve Heimoff, West Coast Editor
Monica Larner. Italian Editor
Michael Schachner, Contributing Editor
Daryna Tobey, Contributor
Roger Voss, European Editor
89 Vinum Africa 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (Stellenbosch); $14. Dark red in the glass, this wine slowly reveals itself as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Hints of leather and barnyard lift to show dark berry aromas, while the entry is smooth and silky, a chocolate undercurrent leading towards more substantial cassis and mixed berry with cola and leather notes. Firm in the mouth, it has graceful tannins that will evolve over the next few years. A wine true to Stellenbosch at an affordable price. Imported by Vinnovative Imports. —M.D.
88 Andeluna 2003 Winemaker's Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza); $13. Ruby in color, with attractive mint, leather and black-fruit aromas. Like all Andeluna reds, which are made by the talented Silvio Alberto, it is ripe and lush; the black cherry, raspberry and chocolate flavors satisfy on their way to a toasted, smooth finish. Cushy and right for the times, and a bargain given that we're talking Cabernet Sauvignon. Imported by Kysela Père et Fils. —M.S.
88 Snoqualmie 2004 'Rosebud Vineyard' Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $15. Rosebud vineyard is now in its 25th vintage, and its grapes go into many of Snoqualmie's best efforts. This 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon is nicely defined, a mix of spicy berry and citrus. Flavors are set up on firm acids and the alcohol is a sensible 13.2 percent; no insane levels of sugar or extraction here. The oak flavors, a mix of new American barrels, French oak inserts and older, neutral barrels, deliver the goods. The finish is as smooth as coffee gelato, with shavings of bitter chocolate set on top. 3,000 cases produced. —P.G.
85 Bulletin Place 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (South Eastern Australia); $9. Wide, juicy plum fruit on the palate is no surprise, given the fat plum and blueberry notes that waft from the glass. It drops off a little sooner than I'd want on the finish, but it's still a good Cab pick at an attractive price. Imported by Vineyard Brands. —D.T.
85 Deakin Estate 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (Victoria); $9. Follows a cooler-climate profile, offering light fresh herb aromas and tangy black and blueberry flavors. Its sturdy, chalky mouthfeel is pretty nice, too. Imported by Freixenet USA. —D.T.
85 Fat Bastard 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release (Vin de Pays d'Oc); $12. The story is simply told. A tasting session between Thierry Boudinaud of Rhône producers Gabriel Meffre and British wine merchant Guy Anderson produced a wine that Anderson, using an affectionate British term to describe a big wine, called "a fat bastard." A range of wines and a memorable name were born. This dry, firm Cabernet is packed with black currant and wood flavors and ripe fruits. "Limited Release" refers to the rarity of releases of this wine—the previous vintage was in 1998. Imported by Click Wine Group. —R.V.
86 Hogue 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $9. Hogue's wines have been spotty of late, and the constant change in label design makes the wines difficult to track on the shelf. But this latest Merlot shows a marked improvement over recent vintages, a hopeful sign that this important producer is back on track. It's got a nice, soft entry, with black cherry candy dominating the palate. There's a slightly burnt, raisiny flavor running through the finish, as if the grapes were a bit roasted, but the tannins are smooth and for the price it drinks well and delivers an extra dollop of intensity. —P.G.
86 Villa Pillo 2004 Sant'Adele Merlot (Toscana); $13. Here's a lovely Merlot from Tuscany that boasts big, chewy cherry, leather, chocolate fudge and vanilla spice for under $15. The wine is aged in new French oak barrels for 15 months to achieve smooth tannins and toasted nut flavors that are well integrated without being overwhelming. Everything about the wine's mouthfeel is soft, supple and caressing, including the finish. Try it with duck or oven-roasted tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese. Imported by Pebble Ridge. —M.L.
85 Dancing Bull 2004 Merlot (California); $10. Loaded with bright, ripe cherry, raspberry, blackberry, chocolate and wintergreen flavors, and seasoned with a touch of oak, this young wine is dry, with a zesty sharpness that calls for food. The grapes are largely from Gallo's Paso Robles vineyard, Sunnybrook, and the wine was made by Rancho Zabaco's team, led by Eric Cinnamon, who describes Dancing Bull as "the lighter side of Rancho Zabaco." Easy to find, with 42,000 cases. —S.H.
85 Thorntree 2003 Merlot (Western Cape); $9. Merlot has had its ups and downs, but it has always been accessible. This version is medium-to-full bodied, with oozing black fruits and mint notes on the nose and palate. The mouth offers additional spice from a light touch of oak, with a hint of vanilla sweetness. Offers the flavor intensity of a wine three times the cost. Imported by Cape Wine Ventures. —M.D.
84 Banrock Station 2005 Merlot (South Eastern Australia); $5. Just the thing you need if there are dozens of people on your deck, and burgers are on the grill. Cherry and red plum flavors have earthy, oaky accents. It's medium-bodied and easy to drink. Imported by Pacific Wine Partners. —D.T.
85 Lindemans 2005 Bin 99 Pinot Noir (South Eastern Australia); $8. A good, value-priced New World-style Pinot. Raspberry and cherry flavors are framed by faint caramel, while on the nose, cherry and plum notes dominate. Not complicated, but solid. Imported by Foster's Wine Estates Americas. —D.T.
85 Silverwing 2004 Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley); $10. It's something to get a Yarra-appellation wine at a price like this. Smells quite nice, with hints of orange peel and burnt sugar dressing up sturdy red fruit. On the palate, tealike tannins put the wine's cherry fruit in the back seat. Lean and almost tart, with tea and lemon notes on the finish. Imported by The Country Vintner. —D.T.
89 Brampton 2004 Shiraz (Coastal Region); $12. Rustenberg's second label, Brampton, enclosed in screwcap, shines because of its focus on fruit. This Shiraz glows with aromas of cola, sour cherry, lemon and spice. Underneath the veneer are layers of red berry and blueberry flavors, tempered with coffee, lemon, and just the right amount of oak. Full but silky, with sweet tannins, this is enjoyable now and can stand up to rich dishes like braised ribs or filet mignon. Imported by Cape Classics. —M.D.
89 Columbia Winery 2004 Syrah (Columbia Valley); $13. This is stylish and clean, just 13.5 alcohol, so nothing about it is overblown or jammy. Winemaker David Lake pioneered Syrah in Washington state almost two decades ago, and still makes one of the most balanced and restrained versions. The polished fruit flavors do not stray into the realm of jam or preserves, but offer true-blue blueberry, currant and cherry, with silky tannins. Though young, this satisfying wine has good aging potential over the near term. 16,000 cases produced. —P.G.
88 Snoqualmie 2003 Syrah (Columbia Valley); $8. Snoqualmie's reserve Syrahs are very good efforts, but the real deals are the winery's Columbia Valley bottlings. This is pure Syrah, from the Wahluke Slope's Rosebud vineyard, and I would be hard-pressed to find a better Syrah at this price in the country. It's got genuine varietal character, whereas most cheap Syrah/Shiraz is just light red wine—could be Zinfandel, could be anything. Here there are zippy flavors of mixed berries, spicy black pepper and claret-like tannins. A beautiful sense of proportion and balance invigorates this wine; at less than 14 percent alcohol, it delivers more actual, nuanced flavor than many far more expensive, over-extracted versions. 25,000 cases produced. —P.G.
85 Hardys 2004 Nottage Hill Shiraz (South Eastern Australia); $9. Smells a little like fruitcake, with its thick wheat and dried-fruit aromas. On the palate, it's a medium-sized, linear wine with plum and blueberry in the starring roles. Finish is brief. Imported by Pacific Wine Partners. —D.T.
84 Crane Lake 2004 Shiraz (California); $5. It isn't Hermitage, but it's clean, fruity and pleasant, in a rustic sort of way. Five dollars is the suggested retail price, but you can probably find it for even less. Sharp in grapey-jammy black cherries and mocha, and fully dry, it's the kind of inexpensive house red that millions of Americans depend on. Kudos to Bronco Wine Co., which makes this and other value brands, including Two Buck Chuck. —S.H.
84 Lindemans 2005 Bin 55 Shiraz-Cabernet (South Eastern Australia); $8. Soft in the mouth and pretty straightforward, but still a bargain. This Shiraz-Cab shows black pepper aromas, with purple plum and oak flavors. Its slightly sour, green edge is a minor detraction. Imported by Foster's Wine Estates Americas. —D.T.
91 Punto Final 2004 Malbec (Mendoza); $11. One of the year's best red wine values has to be this fully ripe and totally structured Malbec made by Alberto Antonini (winemaker for Altos Las Hormigas) and Hector Durigutti. The color almost gives away its power; and if not, the aromas of marinated meat, plum and blackberry essence will. Saturated, thick and modern, but made right. Perfect with beef. Imported by Winebow. —M.S.
89 Fabre Montmayou 2005 Malbec (Mendoza); $10. Always one of the best Malbecs for the money. This French-owned estate doesn't cut corners, so you get a serious red wine that's heady, vigorous and authentic. The color is vivid, the bouquet smoky and penetrating, and the taste of berry fruit, spicy wood and vanilla well integrated and convincing. —M.S.
89 Viu Manent 2004 Oak Aged Reserve Malbec (Colchagua Valley); $13. It's easy to size up this high-quality bargain. The nose is deep and dark, with crude oil, violet petal and earth along with a stout package of mixed black fruits. The palate is impressively fruity and rich, with density. A very satisfying wine given the price. Multiple U.S. importers. —M.S.
85 Elsa 2005 Malbec (San Rafael); $9. The price on this perennial bargain brand from Valentin Bianchi has crept up in recent years, and thus its value potential has begun to stall. But it's still a fruity number that once it opens and settles delivers jammy aromas and solid red-berry flavors. We like that it's neither candied nor weedy, while production of 60,000 cases proves that good wine can be made in quantity. Imported by Quintessential LLC. —M.S.
|Other Red Wines|
91 Domaine de la Guicharde 2003 Cuvée Genest (Côtes-du-Rhône Villages); $14. In many ways, this wine reflects the spirit of France's new vignerons. Isabelle and Arnaud Guicharde started the domaine only 18 years ago. The husband and wife team, with no prior winemaking experience, admit that at the beginning, "We made all the mistakes we could." They've certainly come a long way. This wine is fragrant and spicy, filled with scents of garrigue, baking spices and anise, yet at the same time showing plenty of ripe, mouthfilling fruit. Elegant, complex and a fantastic value. Imported by Russell Herman. —J.C.
90 Domaine du Saint-Gayan 2004 Côtes-du-Rhône; $12. Jean Pierre and Martine Meffre are vignerons in Gigondas who trace their domaine's roots back to 1709, but make this great bargain from 50-year-old vines just outside the Gigondas appellation. The 2004 Saint- Gayan boasts scents of anise, black cherry and flowers on the nose, then follows that up with a lushly textured palate. Flavors of black cherries and spice add some meatier notes, then finish long and softly tannic. Drink now-2012. Imported by Europvin. —J.C.
89 Casa di Tonda 2004 Quinta dos Grilos (Dão); $11. Look at the label of this Dão red wine, and there is a cricket (in Portuguese a grilo) lurking in one corner. Perfumed, deeply colored, this is a blend of Alfrocheiro and Touriga Nacional. With flavors of new wood, raisins and dried prunes, this is a great, fruity wine that combines tannins with its powerful, ripe fruit flavors. Oenologist Carlos Moura, part of the dynamic team that runs Dão Sul and Quinta do Cabriz, shows the modern side of the region with a wine that has juicy red berries, mint, spice and a well-integrated, polished wood character. A powerful but balanced wine. Imported by Grape Moments. —R.V.
89 Columbia Crest 2002 'Two Vines' Merlot-Cabernet (Columbia Valley); $8. How amazing it is to find a wine of this caliber, with some nice age on it, selling at this price. There is plenty of color, and scents of bramble, cherry, tobacco, ash, bark and smoke. In short, this is a party wine, smooth and delicious, with generous cherry, blueberry and raspberry fruit, ripe tannins and perfectly balanced acids. Put this into a blind tasting with some $30 Bordeaux blends from elsewhere, and you are sure to amaze your friends. 250,000 cases produced. —P.G.
89 Viña Sardasol 2001 Reserva (Navarra); $11. A Tempranillo-based blend that's not only a clear cut above most Spanish reds in this price range, it's the type of wine favored by opponents of the New World, bigger-is-better school of thought. It opens with subtle cherry and spice aromas, while the flavors are similar, with tea and a hint of leather added in. The fuel for it all is laser-like acidity, which gives the wine a ready-to-go personality. Imported by Baron François LTD. —M.S.
88 Cuatro Pasos 2004 Mencía (Bierzo); $12. Bierzo is being called the new frontier for stimulating Spanish red wines, but many are expensive. Cuatro Pasos, a new wine sourced from old hillside vineyards, is not. Still, it delivers power, freshness and flavor, all of which are attributes of the indigenous Mencía grape. With no overt oak character, good acidity and mild tannins, it's perfect for drinking now. Imported by European Cellars. —M.S.
88 Fairvalley 2004 Pinotage (Coastal Region); $9. The Fairvalley Workers Association was founded in 1997 by workers from the Fairview Wine & Cheese Estate with funds from Fairview's owner Charles Back and the South African government. This young Pinotage (the first was in 2001) is a standout. Plush and inviting, modern and sexy, it has deep aromas of berry, plum and barnyard nuanced with lemon and spice. There are pure fruit flavors of plum and berry, and hints of leather and spice to add character. This wine shows what Pinotage can be. Imported by Vinnovative Imports. —M.D.
88 Marqués de Riscal 2004 Riscal 1860 Tempranillo (Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León); $8. This fruit-forward wine based on grapes mostly from the Toro region represents a relatively new project from a venerable Rioja producer. With a few years behind the wines, the '04 is highly expressive and packed with bold character. The palate is lush, saturated and meaty, while the finish is smoky and big. This is a lot of wine for the money. Imported by Shaw-Ross International Importers. —M.S.
87 Le Jaja de Jau 2005 Syrah-Grenache; $11. From the black and white label—handwritten and casual—to the name (jaja is the local slang for the region's fruity red wines) to the wine itself, this is the friendly face of the south of France. Château de Jau, in Roussillon hard by the Pyrenees mountains, houses a modern arts center. This blend of Syrah and Grenache is robust and fruity, as is typical from the hottest, driest area of France. It is a wine fit for stews or, if the weather is sunny, served chilled with cold meats and cheeses. Imported by Pasternak. —R.V.
87 Luis Pato 2003 Casta Baga (Beiras); $9. Pato is the master of the broody grape that is Baga, the grape of the central coastal region of Bairrada and Beiras in Portugal. He tames the tannins, smooths the rough edges and makes a great, soft, generous wine. With flavors of yellow plums and thyme with good acidity, this ripe wine has a fine, razor-sharp streak of tannin holding it all together. Imported by Aidil Wines & Liquor Inc. —R.V.
87 Two Oceans 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (Western Cape); $8. This lively wine has a deep nose of cassis, pencil eraser and tobacco. A Bordeaux blend, it tastes like a fine wine of that region, with a core of dark berry fruit accented by some tobacco. Wrapped in moderate tannins with a dry, dusty feel and finishing with cassis, this is a value-priced wine to stock up on. Drink over the next two years. Imported by USA Wine Imports. —M.D.
86 Domaine Calvet-Thunevin 2004 Présidial (Bordeaux); $12. When Jean-Luc Thunevin, master garagiste and creator of Saint-Emilion Château Valandraud, gets his hands on making a branded Bordeaux wine, it's worth taking notice. And this Merlot-dominated wine, distributed jointly with Bordeaux négociant Calvet, is the sort of wine that simple Bordeaux should taste like. It is smooth, ripe, concentrated, packed with red berries and attractive, forward fruit flavors, and yet with just the right layer of tannin to make a fine food partner. There is nothing complicated—leave that to the grand châteaux. This is just a great drink. Imported by T. Edward Wines. —R.V.
86 Iby 2005 Zweigelt Classic (Mittelburgenland); $14. The Mittelburgenland is Austria's red wine land. In the tiny village of Horitschon, the Iby family makes Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and a barrel-aged Pinot Noir. This Zweigelt is all about fruit, driving the wine with soft tannins, cranberries and spice, leaving fresh, ripe acidity to finish. It's a great barbecue wine, and terrific with Mexican food. Imported by Morandell. —R.V.
86 Ironstone 2005 Expression (California); $6. I accidentally refrigerated this red wine. Voila! It's great cold. Just goes to show that the conventional wisdom doesn't always hold. A blend of Shiraz and Cab Franc, the wine is rich in cherry-filled chocolate, with a dash of lavender, licorice and pepper, and the finish is dry. Easy to find, with 25,000 cases produced. Ironstone is really doing a great job in making varietally true, inexpensive wines. —S.H.
86 Scopetani 2004 Chianti Rufina; $6. The formula for traditional Chianti sees Sangiovese blended with white grape varieties for a fruitier nose, fresher mouthfeel and an easy-to-approach drink. This Chianti follows that tradition with its blend of Sangiovese, Malvasia and Trebbiano. The nose offers forest berry and blue flowers with background notes of marzipan, minerals and crushed mint. And there's enough acidity in the mouth to keep it lively and food-friendly. Imported by Visco Inc. —M.L.
86 Umani Ronchi 2002 Jorio (Montepulciano d'Abruzzo); $13. There's a distinctive aromatic element to this single-vineyard wine that resembles dried sweet herb or basil followed by generous tones of sweet berry fruit, toasted nuts and vanilla. Made from the hearty Montepulciano grape, the wine sees 11 months of wood aging (in both larger casks and smaller barrique) that help render flavors of exotic spice and cigar box. It's chewy and rich in the mouth and would pair well with grilled meats. Imported by Bedford International. —M.L.
85 Capezzana 2004 Conti Contini Sangiovese (Toscana); $10. This is a very attractive Sangiovese that is elegant without being too thin, and intense without being too powerful. The nose is ripe with aromas of forest berry, pressed violet flowers and spice (the wine is aged in oak barrels for six months). But what makes it particularly well suited to informal foods is its acidity, which cleanses the palate and leaves an almost menthol-like freshness in the mouth. Those qualities help give the wine a tasty, long finish as well. Imported by Moët Hennessy USA. —M.L.
85 Casa Girelli 2003 Canaletto Winemaker's Collection Primitivo (Puglia); $10. For a meatier, heavier bargain red, head south to the sun-drenched Puglia region. Canaletto sources fruit to make a wine that delivers bold fruit, black cherry, roasted espresso bean and moist earth. The wine is aged 12 months in oak to shape a softer wine accented by exotic spice, cinnamon and sandalwood. This is the kind of wine you want on a chilly winter evening at home in front of a roaring fire. Imported by F&F Fine Wines International. —M.L.
85 Castello di Monsanto 2005 Monrosso (Chianti); $10. Stay-at-home pasta or pizza dinners call out for a simple but solid Chianti, and Monrosso fits the bill beautifully. The ruby-colored wine (80 percent Sangiovese with smaller components of Canaiolo and Merlot) is fermented in steel and aged six months in oak casks for fresh, fruit-forward results. It is redolent of cherry, plum, milk chocolate and has distant hints of spice and licorice. Its lightweight consistency and subtle tannins make it an excellent, no-brainer match for most foods. Imported by Moët Hennessy USA. —M.L.
85 JanKris 2004 Estate Crossfire Rhone Red Blend (Paso Robles); $10. JanKris is located in the cooler, westside Templeton Gap area of Paso Robles, and their wines are moderately priced. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot is very fruity, with ripe blackberry, cherry, pomegranate, cocoa, tobacco and coffee flavors that finish softly dry. There's something about the long, rich aftertaste that makes this balanced wine especially impressive, and at this price, it's a great house red. —S.H.
85 Screwed 2004 Red Wine (McLaren Vale); $10. From McLaren Vale's Davey family, this wine smells nice—fresh herb, fireplace, red fruit—and offers plum and black olive flavors on the palate. Soft and approachable in terms of feel; with such savory accents, this one is probably best enjoyed with dinner. Imported by Precept Brands. —D.T.
84 Altano 2003 Tinta Roriz-Touriga Franca (Douro); $7. Altano, a table-wine project of the Symington family, famous for their various Port houses (among them, Dow's, Graham's and Warre's), takes a two-pronged approach to marketing. A pricier Reserva offers greater richness and texture along with hints of oak, but while the entry-level Altano lacks the rich texture and density, it offers good value. Cherries and sappy green herb notes combine in a lightweight, easy quaffer that folds in dark chocolate and black tea notes on the finish. Imported by Vineyard Brands. —J.C.