- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Have holiday bills got you down? Does the idea of spending serious money on wine (like you did last month) make you shudder? Stop worrying. Washington-area wine shops are full of delectable bargains. The combination of high quality and low prices can relieve anyone’s post-holiday blues.

More delicious, value-priced wines are available today than ever before. This is due in part to technical advances in viticulture and winemaking and in part to the force of international competition.

Grapes grow and ferment as they always have, but human understanding of how best to plant, tend and harvest a vineyard has increased significantly during the past half-century, as has our knowledge of how to manage a wine’s passage from crush to bottle. In addition, the rapid rise in quality of New World wines has led to significant improvements in the Old World, and the market for fine wine has become increasingly internationalized.

Not too long ago, the gap between nearly all of the world’s expensive, prestigious wines and the table wines that most people actually could afford to drink involved not just gradations in quality but also huge disparities in style and composition. Vintners used different grape varieties and different techniques, and because only well-financed wineries could afford to purchase temperature-controlled equipment, an awful lot of inexpensive wine tasted sour and spoiled.

Today, the days of cheap wine as defective “plonk” are just about over. The revolution in wine production that has swept across the globe during the past few decades has led to an upsurge of quality at every price level. As important, it has produced a stylistic reconfiguration, as everyday wines now are modeled on exclusive ones. Since more good wine is coming from more places, neither quality, style nor value is the exclusive province of any one region or country.

For consumers, the result is a bevy of bargain-priced wines that bear more than a passing resemblance to expensive, elite ones. A tasty $10 cabernet from Chile, for example, probably won’t be as nuanced or refined as a $100 Pauillac from Bordeaux, but the gap between them can be surprisingly narrow.

Of course, this does not mean that all inexpensive wines are created equal. There still are plenty of technically correct but boring bottles out there. An awful lot of them come from California, where vintners too often seem to assume that genuinely interesting wine needs to cost a proverbial arm and leg. By contrast, many of today’s best values come from abroad. Given the declining value of the dollar, this may not last, but my list of January bargains this year is filled with imports.

Here are 10 whites and 10 reds, all delicious, and all priced under $15 a bottle. Drinking any of them won’t make your bills disappear, but a glass or two may make paying them a little easier. (Importers are listed in parentheses.)

WHITES

Adam, Tokay Pinot Gris Reserve, Alsace, 2002, $15. Filled with ripe pear flavors, this dry but extremely fruity wine would be a great choice to serve alongside pork tenderloin accompanied with a spicy fruit chutney. (Chapin Cellars)

Cave de Lugny “Les Charmes,” Macon-Lugny, 2001, $10. This wine has sometimes been disappointing in the past, but the folks at the Cave de Lugny got everything right in 2001, fashioning a crisp, flavorful Burgundy. It’s pure chardonnay, with no heavy oak to get in the way. (Chateau & Estates)

Chateau de Montfort, Vouvray, 2002, $12.Off-dry, with fruit flavors reminiscent of peaches and pears, this is a delicious aperitif choice, particularly for people who want their white wines to have a hint of sweetness. (Chateau & Estates)

Gavala, Santorini, 2002, $12. This crisp, fresh, Greek wine is made from indigenous asyrtiko and aidani grapes grown on the volcanic island of Santorini. Light-bodied with an intriguing herbal note in the finish, it should pair well with seafood, especially shellfish. (Dionyssos Imports)

Kanu, Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, 2003, $10. Tasting of summer peaches and nectarines, this dry, crisp South African is a super aperitif choice and a reminder that chenin blanc, an often-overlooked grape variety, can produce delicious, distinctive wines. (Cape Classics)

Alexandros Megapanos, Savatiano, Spata, 2002, $11. From Attica, the prefecture that contains Athens, and extremely delicate, this easy-to-quaff wine tastes soft and gentle, with a seductive floral bouquet. Although savatiano is often used to make boring jug wines, this one demonstrates that it is a variety capable of much more. (Amerikus Importers)

Saint Clair, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2002, $15. Bright and fresh, with vibrant grapefruit and lime flavors and plenty of refreshing acidity, this is a textbook sauvignon blanc from the South Island of New Zealand — arguably the best place in the world to grow this particular grape variety. (American Estate Wines)

Selaks, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2002, $15. This New Zealand sauvignon comes in a somewhat gentler guise. Not as intensely flavored, it is still crisp, dry and delightfully long on the palate. (American Estates Wines)

Johann Topf, Gruner Veltliner, Strassertal, 2002, $15. Medium-bodied, with a peppery aroma and autumn fruit flavors, this is a wonderfully nuanced, subtle wine. From Austria, a country that should be on any wine lover’s radar screen, it will complement all sorts of pork, poultry and veal dishes. (Tastings Import Co.)

Yalumba, Viognier, South Australia, 2003, $10. Most viogniers with genuine varietal character, meaning a floral bouquet and ripe fruit flavor, cost upward of $25. Many at that price prove disappointing. This Australian rendition puts all but the very best to shame. What it lacks in finesse it more than makes up for with heady exuberance. (Negociants, USA)

REDS

A-Mano, Primitivo, Puglia, 2001, $9. Italian primitivo, genetically much the same grape as zinfandel, exhibits a similarly spicy, fruit-filled personality. The difference is that you can’t find a California zin that tastes this good for $9. (Empson USA)

Antinori, Sangiovese “Santa Cristina,” Toscana, 2002, $11. I have been disappointed by previous vintages of this widely available Chianti-styled wine, but the 2002 rendition, filled with bright cherry-flavored fruit and a dry, dusty undertone, is a delicious surprise. A great choice with pizza. (Remy Amerique)

Casa Lapostolle, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rapel Valley, 2001, $11. Although better known for merlot, the acclaimed Chilean winery Casa Lapostolle excelled in 2001 with cabernet, producing a deep, dark but sumptuously smooth wine. It may be priced to go with burgers, but it tastes good enough for prime rib. (Schiefflin & Somerset)

Domaine des Nugues, Beaujolais-Villages, 2002, $11. Surprisingly deep and rich, this Beaujolais-Villages is jam-packed with ripe, rich fruit flavor. A great partner for ham and other smoked meats. (Robert Kacher Selections)

“Fifth Leg,” Margaret River, 2001, $13. Showing outstanding depth and length, this full-bodied Aussie is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot and cabernet franc. It tastes lush but at the same time substantial. (PWG Vintners USA)

Joan d’Anguera “La Planella,” Montsant, 2001, $15. A blend of cabernet, carignane, and grenache from eastern Spain, this wine is packed with deep, dark fruit. It’s extremely classy and will befuddle any wine snobs you may know. (De Maison Selections)

Kris, Merlot “Heart,” Italy, 2000, $12.# There is nothing complex about this wine, but the ripe red berry flavors prove very tasty, making it a good choice when throwing a party and serving a crowd. (Winebow)

Monte Antico, Toscana, 2000, $10.# A best buy nearly every year, this wine consistently outperforms Chianti Classicos that cost two or even three times as much. The 2000 tastes of dark cherries, with a woodsy undertone that gains force in the finish. (Empson USA)

Penfolds, Shiraz/Mourvedre “Bin 2,” South Eastern Australia, 2001, $12. Showing impressive depth of flavor, with lush fruit supported by an earthy undertone, this is a juicy, fun-filled wine, perfect for sipping on its own as well as enjoying with medium-weight meat dishes. (PWG Vintners)

Trumpeter, Merlot, Tupungato, 2002, $10.# From Argentina, this wine has the sort of depth that many value-priced merlots fail to deliver. It’s filled with rich, red, fruit flavor. (Billington Imports)

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