To some, it’s an academic discussion—something to be argued about over a glass of wine in a warm parlor after a fine meal. To others, it’s a question with practical applications: How important is context in shaping our perception of a wine’s quality? If someone tells you the wine they’re pouring is a grand cru, you will taste it with a higher level of expectation. When opening an $8 bottle, critical faculties might be relaxed. Further, it’s often been observed that a basic, no-frills table wine enjoyed in Italy or France, with the local cuisine, will taste sublime. Try that same wine months later at home, and you’ll wonder what ever made you think it was special.
So when you open a bottle of wine that cost you quite a bit less than you expected to pay, given the producer’s reputation, the vintage, the region…does your palate prepare itself for the worst? Or does it welcome the wine with open nostrils?
That’s the parlor game. The reality is, buying better wines at lower prices is a win-win. And given the economic climate of 2008, it’s never been more important to the wine devotee to stretch the almighty dollar as far as it can go. With the holidays coming up, stocking your cellar with crowd-pleasing wines without stinting on other items in the budget has never been more important.
Here, then, are our editors’ selections of the top Best Buys available on the market today. Best Buys are defined as wines that, in our reviewers’ judgment, offer super quality relative to modest cost.
This year, to reflect the growing trend in retail and on many restaurant menus, we’ve organized our Best Buy wines by style. The categories—from fresh, aromatic whites to big, powerful reds—are derived from the Wine Enthusiast Wine & Food Pairings Cookbook, recently published by Running Press.
Fresh, Aromatic Whites
91 Avondale 2006 Chenin Blanc (Wellington, South Africa); $12. A wine that takes a delightful detour from the more typical, rounded Chenin style, this bright, zippy wine has lovely tropical fruit flavors and a refreshing finish. Despite its cheerful character, it’s also quite intense and layered. Enjoy with more delicate dishes like light salads, or sip on its own. Imported by The Wild Grape. —S.K.
90 David Hill 2007 Estate Riesling (Willamette Valley, Washington); $14. Made from vines planted in 1965, David Hill’s estate Riesling is aromatic and textural, with an interesting, nuanced character that brings apple, peach, pear and passion fruit flavors in profusion. Despite 1.8% residual sugar, it has plenty of acid and alcohol, finishing with a creamy, lemony fade. —P.G.
90 Domaine de l’Ecu 2006 Cuvée Classique (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, France); $15. Very dry, crisp, grapefruit and green apple flavors pile through this wine. There is some spice, hints of kiwi and a layer of apple skin tannins. All these intense flavors explode from the glass. Imported by Chartrand Imports. —R.V.
90 Lee Family Farm 2007 Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho (Alta Mesa, California); $15. Here’s a welcome addition to the new wave of bone-dry, high-acid, floral-fruity wines made from more obscure varieties that has been sweeping across California. It’s a very fine wine, firm and crisp and lemony, with just a slight kiss of oak. Terrifically versatile and a sommelier’s dream. —S.H.
90 Los Vascos 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley, Chile); $12. Los Vascos is fast becoming the leader in value-priced Sauvignon Blanc from the Casablanca Valley. This is the winery’s best effort to date, and it delivers a champion’s blast of green apple and citrus aromas. The palate is lively as can be, and it houses fine but also defined lemon and lime flavors. Refreshing as a walk under a cascade. Imported by Pasternak Wine Imports. —M.S.
90 Valdelainos 2007 Verdejo (Rueda, Spain); $11. Not many wines of this price are pulling legit 90-point scores. But this Verdejo deserves it. The wine delivers citrus and piquant green-fruit aromas, which are backed by honeyed melon and lime flavors. The texture is just soft enough not to bite, while the finish is wavy. Imported by Grapes of Spain. —M.S.
90 Vina Robles 2007 Jardine Sauvignon Blanc (Paso Robles, California); $14. With no oak influence, this Sauvignon Blanc was cool-fermented, preserving fresh fruit, and it did not undergo malolactic
fermentation, so the acidity is brisk. It was aged on the lees. That is a great formula for keeping prices low while crafting a wine of creamy interest. With citrus, lemongrass, melon, fig and vanilla flavors, it’s a stunning buy for this price. —S.H.
89 Hunter’s 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand); $13. A great value in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Hunter’s 2007 marries ripe nectarine aromas and flavors with just enough acidity and a touch of grassiness to retain focus and varietal character. The lack of overt herbal notes makes it easy to pair with food or drink on its own. Imported by the Australia-New Zealand Wine Connection. —J.C.
89 Tomero 2007 Torrontes (Salta, Argentina); $12. Tomero is a new line from the Carlos Pulenta group, and this one sings the tale of Salta with sincerity. You get telling acacia and lychee aromas, but none of the cheap perfume that can sometimes ruin the variety. The palate is lightly oily but linear, while the papaya, citrus and melon flavors just roll along. Imported by San Francisco Wine Exchange. —M.S.
88 A to Z 2007 Pinot Gris (Oregon); $13. A to Z can lay claim to making Oregon’s best budget Pinot Gris. Their inexpensive, widely available bottlings consistently offer fresh, varietal scents of citrus and pear, with nuances of acacia flowers and honeysuckle. Production has ramped up to 31,000 cases of this one wine alone, with no diminution of quality. —P.G.
88 Veramonte 2007 Reserva Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley, Chile); $11. This is true Casablanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc from one of the pioneers in the region. It hits with piercing, almost sweaty aromas of citrus, celery and nettles, and that nose yields to grassy and tropical flavors that are intense, balanced and slightly complex. Imported by Huneeus Vintners. —M.S.
86 Fleur Du Cap 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Western Cape, South Africa); $10. An attractive nose of gooseberry and grapefruit is followed by bright, fresh flavors of lemon, tropical fruit and minerals in this affordable SB. Slightly lean but still elegant, the wine has a refreshing citric
finish. Imported by Maisons, Marques & Domaines USA. —S.K.
86 MandraRossa 2007 Pinot Grigio-Grecanico (Sicily); $10. This is a very fragrant and forthcoming Sicilian blend of Pinot Grigio and Grecanico that offers stone fruit, citrus and yellow rose. The wine has
terrific freshness and intensity, and begs for an easy plate of fried fish or calamari. Imported by Palm Bay International. —M.L.
86 Rosemount 2007 Diamond Label Sauvignon Blanc (South Eastern Australia); $10. Strongly herbal, a surprise in an Australian Sauvignon Blanc, but the green notes are balanced by tropical fruit flavors, including passion fruit. It’s on the lean side and nicely dry, finishing fresh, clean and zesty. Imported by Foster’s Wine Estates Americas. —J.C.
Rich, Full-Bodied Whites
89 Bodegas Peñaflor 2006 Elementos Chardonnay-Viognier (San Juan, Argentina); $13. Blended by the Australian Peter Bright, here’s a full-bodied, barrel-aged wine that’s seemingly oxidized but isn’t. Yellow in color, with roundness, depth and waxy honey, apricot, pineapple and apple flavors. Not a perfect specimen, but I’d drink it again, and I’d expect to be challenged. Imported by South American Import Co.
89 Bonterra 2006 Chardonnay (Mendocino County, California); $13. Year after year, Bonterra crafts splendidly pure varietal wines from organically grown grapes, and in large quantities that make them easy
to find. The ’06 Chard is delicious in pineapple, sweet Meyer lemon, tangerine, lime and caramelized vanilla oak flavors that finish clean and long. What a super value. —S.H.
88 Aveleda 2006 Follies Chardonnay-Maria Gomes (Bairrada,
Portugal); $13. Named after the follies that were built in past centuries on the Aveleda estate, this range of wines brings together some intriguing combinations. This ripe, full wine has acidity, white pear, spice and a smooth texture. Imported by HGC Imports. —R.V.
88 Calina 2007 Reserva Chardonnay (Casablanca
Valley, Chile); $9. Calina Chardonnay was born in 2001, and in every year since, the wine has achieved Best Buy status. The 2007 is full of apple, pineapple and banana aromas and flavors. Along the way, hazelnuts, pear and honey enter the mix. Not forced, with proper acidity and balance. Imported by Sovereign Wine Imports. —M.S.
88 Hogue 2007 Chardonnay (Columbia Valley, Washington); $10. Apples, peaches and pears are evident in this surprisingly full, almost fleshy Chardonnay. A portion was barrel-fermented, and the flavors of toast and tobacco are relatively moderate and well-integrated. The wine has some sweetness along with the crisp fruit, but without the exaggerated vanilla flavors of many cheap Chardonnays. This is the best from Hogue in a long while. —P.G.
86 Jindalee 2007 Circle Collection Chardonnay (South Eastern Australia); $10. A good value, this Chardonnay delivers plenty of mouthfilling flavor for the price. Pine-apple and melon fruit is tinged with a touch of mint, and while the flavors may be somewhat simple, at least they’re assertive. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd. —J.C.
85 Concannon 2006 Selected Vineyards Chardonnay (Central Coast, California); $10. Shows real Central Coast character in the zesty acidity that makes this Chard so bright. With jammy pineapple, Meyer lemon, kiwi and fig flavors, it also has forward oak influences. Lots going on in this fresh young wine. —S.H.
Rosés and Light Reds
89 Château de Fountgraves 2007 Pic Saint Loup Rosé (Coteaux du Languedoc, France); $10. The chalky limestone soil of the region allows the fruit to shine without being overpowering. Lively aromas and flavors of fresh red berries, nectarine, banana and ripe pineapple chunks are supported by nuances of talcum and sweet pea. The creamy texture and medium weight are somewhat surprising for this light, salmon-
colored rosé, which has a lingering finish and well-balanced acidity. Imported by Luneau USA Inc. —L.B.
89 Domaine Sorin 2007 Terra Amata (Côtes de Provence, France); $12. More complex and richly textured than most Provençal rosés, this wine is a treat, from its mineral-laden, smoky aromas to its ripe cherry-berry flavors and layered finish. Drink now, although it has enough stuffing to suggest it might last longer than just a single summer. Imported by Grape Expectations (CA). —J.C.
88 CVNE 2007 Rosé (Rioja, Spain); $13. Clean, lucid and fresh. This is the style of Spanish rosé we think most people are looking for. The palate offers voluminous nectarine and tangerine, while the finish is pretty long as it stays harmonious. Best in the summer of 2008, thus you may want to wait for a new vintage if you’re already thinking about next year. Imported by Pasternak Wine Imports. —M.S.
86 Ironstone 2007 Xpression Rosé Blend (California); $10. Crisp, silky and clean, with subtle raspberry, cherry, vanilla and pepper flavors, this blush is a fine partner for everything from Mexican food, tempura and barbecue to ham and fried chicken. —S.H.
Medium-Bodied, Fruit-Forward Reds
90 MontGras 2007 Reserva Carmenère (Colchagua Valley, Chile); $14. One of the standout Best Buy reds of the season out of Chile. There’s welcoming grape and sweet berry aromas mixed with olive and tobacco. The feel is smooth and medium-deep, and the blackberry and plum flavors are just right. Barely herbal, with a long finish. Imported by Palm Bay International. —M.S.
89 Spier 2005 Pinotage (Stellenbosch, South Africa); $12. This is a classy, elegant Pinotage that offers balance with character. Aromas of clove, pepper, smoke and plum lead into waves of rounded red
fruit, tobacco and spice with a refreshing edge. The wine is structured but smooth. Another Pinotage that might just win over American consumers. Imported by Saranty Imports. —S.K.
89 Viña Bisquertt 2006 Casa La Joya Gran Reserve Merlot (Colchagua Valley, Chile); $13. Round, floral, fruity and just a bit bretty, almost everything is right about this value-priced wine. The fruit is dark and veers toward black cherry and plum, while the feel is good. Finishes with a nice run of dry oak and chocolate flavors. Imported by Prestige Wine Group. —M.S.
88 Castle Rock 2006 Syrah (Columbia Valley, Washington); $10. Somehow, this California winery manages to put out the best budget varietal Syrah in all of Washington State. This excellent bottle brings clean berry fruit, natural acids and moderate tannins into play, with none of the bizarrely sweet vanilla and tobacco flavors that typically show up on Yellowtail wannabes. This wine just wants to be what it is—affordable, juicy and nicely representative of the higher acid, food-ready flavors of Washington grapes. —P.G.
88 Dow’s 2006 Vale do Bomfim (Douro, Portugal); $12. Ripe fruit, touched by vanilla, layered with dark tannins: this is a winning formula, a wine packed with black jelly flavors, made more tense by acidity and smoothed with the hint of wood. Imported by Premium Port Wines Inc. —R.V.
88 Jean-Luc Colombo 2006 Les Abeilles (Côtes-du-Rhône, France); $12. This is a pretty, nicely balanced Rhône for immediate consumption. Attractive aromas of cherries, with hints of cocoa and cinnamon, give way to similar flavors couched in supple tannins. It’s not a rustic powerhouse, but a surprisingly silky blend of 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 20% Mourvèdre. Imported by Palm Bay International. —J.C.
88 Ramón Bilbao 2005 Crianza (Rioja, Spain); $13. For a large-production Rioja, this sings the proper notes and should please almost anyone with a taste for Spanish red wines. It’s violet in color, indicating good ripeness. The nose is concentrated and likable, with solid berry and plum fruit to back it up. Round, pleasant and with a touch of oaky vanilla on the finish. Imported by Quintessential Wines. —M.S.
87 Goats Do Roam 2006 Red (Coastal Region, South Africa); $12. Rich red fruit, spice and plums on the nose and palate recommend this elegant, integrated red blend. A touch of oak and luscious fruit fills the mouth, and the finish is soft and lingering. A versatile, food-friendly sip. Imported by Vineyard Brands. —S.K.
87 Trivento 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza, Argentina); $11. Big and strong, with full but easy black-fruit aromas. Ripeness is where it should be, as cassis and berry flavors work the consistent palate before giving way to a medium-long finish. Along the way there are hints of herbs, coffee and cherry cough drop. Not overpowering; just simple to drink. Imported by Banfi Vintners. —M.S.
87 Tsantali 2003 Maronia Vineyard Mavroudi (Thrace, Greece); $12. This 100% Mavroudi has an expressive, red-fruit nose with warm hints of vanilla and smoky spice. Grown in northeastern Greece on an ancient site overlooking the Aegean Sea, this is smooth and velvety with rich, spicy flavors and a lingering finish. Its texture and complexity lends it to pairings with more opulent dishes like rack of lamb and beef stew, but alternately, consider its Mediterranean roots and sip alongside a plate of spicy black olives. Imported by Fantis Imports, Inc. —S.K.
87 Westerland 2006 Celebration Red (Darling, South Africa); $10. Black cherry and pepper lead on the nose of this appealing red blend from Darling. Flavors of fruity black cherry are reined in by dry black pepper and an elegant, acidic backbone. Complex enough to enjoy alone, or excellent as a food pairing wine; think pork or ham. Imported by Avinya Distributors Inc. —S.K.
85 Green Path 2006 Organic Shiraz (South Eastern Australia); $13/1 L. Sold in one-liter Tetra Prisma packaging meant to reduce greenhouse emissions, this is an ecofriendly wine that tastes good. Its bouquet is its strongest asset, offering floral, perfumy notes of white pepper and rhubarb, while the palate is on the light side for Shiraz, but clean and supple. Drink now. Imported by The Country Vintner. —J.C.
85 Hilltown 2006 Pinot Noir (Monterey County, California); $7. One of the best under-$10 Pinot Noirs on the market. It’s dry, silky and refined, with the light texture, crisp acidity and cherry, cola and pepper
flavors you want in this variety. —S.H.
Big, Powerful Reds
90 Chakana 2006 Malbec (Mendoza, Argentina); $11. Chakana strikes again with this excellent value-priced Malbec. The nose hits firmly with smoke and rubber before settling on ripe black-fruit notes. Then
the palate holds form, with blackberry making its mark before chocolate fills the void. Great depth and purity for a wine not meant to be complicated. Imported by Tastings Import Co. —M.S.
90 Easton 2006 Zinfandel (Amador County, California); $15. Easton’s basic Zin offers plenty of delicious pleasure. It’s a dry, smoothly tannic wine, packed with wild blackberry, mulberry, mocha and (believe it or not) olallieberry flavors, which perhaps suggests a certain rural, old-fashioned quality. The wine is also superspicy in white pepper and nutmeg. Great value. —S.H.
90 Tormaresca 2007 Neprica (Puglia, Italy); $12. You cannot get better value than this. Ripe berry notes, cassis, molasses and cola serve as a preface for the thick texture and smooth density that this 40-30-30 blend of Negroamaro, Primitivo and Cabernet Sauvignon delivers to the palate. The wine is thick and succulent with smooth tannins and great length: excellent quality for this low price. Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. —M.L.
90 Water Wheel 2007 Memsie Red (Bendigo, Australia); $15. Dark in color and richly fruity on the nose, this keenly priced blend of 70% Shiraz, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and bits of Malbec and Petit Verdot features some floral notes complemented by dark olives and blueberries. It’s unusually complex and layered for the price. If you can’t find the just-arriving 2007 yet, the 2006 is a worthy fallback. Imported by Southern Starz. —J.C.
89 Guardian Peak 2006 Shiraz (Western Cape, South Africa); $14. A gorgeous nose of plums, chocolate and red fruit leads on this affordable Shiraz from the Cape. In the mouth, the wine is a combination of savory spice and tobacco, plum and chocolate. Mouthfilling and full of dimension, the wine has enough structure to age, and will pair well with smoked meats, stews and heartier fare. Imported by Terlato Wines International. —S.K.
89 San Pedro 2006 Castillo de Molina Reserva Syrah (Curicó Valley, Chile); $12. Powerful and full-bodied, with lots of chocolate, mint, mocha and black cherry on the nose. The palate is a mudslide
of dark berry flavors, and the finish shows coffee and spice in addition to creamy oak notes. Very much a lush, saturated Chilean Syrah, but one that’s on target. Imported by Shaw-Ross International Importers.
88 Companhia das Quintas 2005 Fronteira (Douro, Portugal) $10. From vines in the upper Douro Valley, this is an intense wine, still young. Its smooth, ripe black cherry fruits are followed by blueberry, spice from wood, and bitter chocolate. This is a complex wine that’s complemented by its finishing freshness. Imported by Aidil Wines & Liquor Inc. —R.V.
88 Rubiejo 2006 Young Tempranillo (Ribera del Duero, Spain); $12. Rubiejo makes one of the best, most consistent jovens (young wines with only a little oak aging) in all of Spain, let alone Ribera del Duero. The 2006 is typically deep and earthy, with five months worth of hickory and leather poking through. The flavors run toward blackberry and chocolate, while some vanilla comes in late. Chewy and big, with mass appeal. Imported by Haro Imports. —M.S.
87 Cameron Hughes 2005 Lot 48 Meritage (Napa Valley); $12. A really good Merlot-based blend, rich in cherry, blackberry, anise and smoky oak flavors, and showing a sophistication that’s elegant enough to pair with fine food. Should be easy to find, with 7,000 cases produced. —S.H.
87 Perrin 2006 Réserve (Côtes-du-Rhône, France); $11. A chunky, corpulent Côtes du Rhône to quaff with rustic, full-flavored dishes, the Perrin brothers’ Réserve bottling features alluring aromas of cherry, sandalwood and clove, plenty of bright cherry fruit and a fresh, reasonably long finish. Drink it now and over the next couple of years. Imported by Vineyard Brands. —J.C.
Champagnes and Sparkling Wines
89 Juvé y Camps 2003 Brut Reserva (Cava, Spain); $13. Give this stylish wine a few minutes to rev its engine, and you’ll be rewarded with warm pear and apple aromas. The palate is equally nice, as it focuses on apple, pear and peach flavors. The finish is relatively long, clean and pretty, and overall it’s a very nice sparkler with a hint of intricacy and complexity. Imported by Winebow. —M.S.
85 Törley NV Fortuna (Hungary); $10. This is a stylish, sparkling semi-dry wine at a good price. Lush and lovely on the nose, with layers of perfumed flowers and spice, the wine offers sweet but delicate flavors on the palate. It’s not overly complicated or complex, but simply good and a fitting apéritif for every day. Imported by MHW Ltd. —S.K.
Fortified and Dessert Wines
90 Hidalgo NV Morenita Cream Sherry (Jerez, Spain); $13. Smooth and sweet, like a cream Sherry is supposed to be. On the nose, this one easily shifts from ripe apricot and peach fruit to nuts and saline. The palate starts with a blast of coffee and mocha, and then folds in brown sugar and spice. Sweet, long and generous, with accents of cinnamon, clove and milk chocolate. Imported by Winebow. —M.S.
87 Florio NV Fine Dry Marsala (Sicily); $12. If you’ve forgotten the flavors of this once superpopular fortified wine from Sicily, it’s time to repay a visit to Marsala. Florio’s Dry version offers fragrant notes of caramel, candied fruit, maple syrup and citrus peel over a creamy texture. Marsala is often used as a cooking aid, but forget that: try it as an apéritif wine with cubes of Gorgonzola or Roquefort cheese. Imported by Banfi Vintners. —M.L.