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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Finding Value Wine

A friend of mine, Bill Stimmel, and I, write a wine column for our local paper. Since we own the copyright, and since the paper doesn't pay us for the column, I thought I'd post one of our recent columns here. Pragmatically, I want to keep this blog moving forward with new content, but I also hope one or two of you might actually find the advice helpful. If you do, let me know. (And remember, this was originally composed for a small daily newspaper, not for the academic blogosphere.)

Here's the text:

Despite what you may have heard, there is a sea of delicious wines out there that sell for not much money —often less than $10. But there is also plenty of junk floating around in that sea, especially below that magic $10 mark. (Below that point it takes serious skill, care, and luck to craft a wine without unpleasantly bitter or sour flavors.) So how does one find the good stuff?

There’s no foolproof strategy, and the best (and most fun) approach is simply to experiment. If you like a wine you’ve tried, write it down—what grape or grapes it was made from, what year it was made, where it comes from. Then try buying wines of similar prices from the same grapes, region, and/or year. Once you’ve explored some possibilities, making sure to keep a record of your successes, try a different grape or region and start the process again. Pretty soon, you’ll have a nice list of go-to value wines.

But we also know that nobody wants to go through several lackluster bottles just to find a good one. Even a $10 investment is not one most of us make lightly. So here are some tips. They’re not foolproof; you will still run into the occasional dud. But, if you follow these pointers, your odds of discovering great value wines will go up considerably:

1. Look for grapes that tend to yield good wines at lower prices. Grapes with strong fruit character like zinfandel or syrah (also known as shiraz), and grapes with soft, rounded flavors like merlot often do well in simple, inexpensive forms.

2. Try wines from up-and-coming regions and countries. You can find outstanding deals on wines from Chile, Australia, South Africa, and lesser known regions in Spain (two of our favorites are Jumilla and Calatayud).

3. Explore whites. Because white wines tend to contain almost no tannins, it is generally easier to achieve a tasty, unadorned fruitiness with whites. We find chenin blanc especially approachable.

4. Go to tastings. A wine tasting is a perfect way to try wines you think you might like without draining your wallet. Check with local merchants to find out when and where you can find a tasting.

5. Keep your eyes and ears open. What are people at tastings, at parties, and in online forums raving about? You can find some real gems this way.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that mass-produced, $6.99 merlot on the grocery store shelf. If you enjoy it, drink it. But also try branching out. We have the most fun when we’re discovering new, exciting wines and learning about the places they come from. We hope you will, too.

Our recommendations:
  • Man Vintners Chenin Blanc 2008 ($6.99). Crisp and refreshing, like a Granny Smith apple. Would be a very versatile food wine, to be paired with anything from Thai curry to chicken salad to grilled pork chops.

  • Casillero del Diablo Carmenère 2007 ($10.99). Rich, full-bodied, and spicy, with surprisingly complex flavors reminiscent of blackberries, pepper, and coffee. A steal at this price.

  • Las Rocas Garnacha 2006 ($12.99). A perennial value, with supple raspberry fruit and wonderfully sensual earth and spice notes. The perfect bridge between the “New World” (ripe, rich, fruit-driven) and “Old World” (subtle, nuanced, earthy) styles.

  • Penfold’s Koonunga Hill Shiraz/Cabernet 2006 ($9.99). Big, chocolaty, and bursting with ripe berries, this full-bodied red shows enough balance and structure to stand up to the heartiest grilled or roasted meats and even has some aging potential.