- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES — Everyone loves a bargain. Even people who shell out big bucks on wines for birthdays or other special occasions become bargain hunters when choosing bottles for everyday drinking.

So where are the good deals these days?

With top California wines sporting three-figure price tags and the falling dollar making many European imports ever more expensive, where can you find the best values? With wine as with real estate, location is the biggest factor in determining cost.

At least in terms of the number on the price tag, where a wine comes from proves more important than who made it with which grapes.

When buying wine, as when buying a house, the best bargains tend to be found in neighborhoods on the rise, places where property values are going up. These can be either new developments or restored ones, but in either case, they are not (yet) superchic or trendy.

This means that good wine values don’t often hail from famous places such as Pomerol in Bordeaux, Montalcino in Tuscany or Napa in California. To find bargains, you have to be willing to step off the proverbial beaten path.

With wine, an additional complication comes from the fact that specific grape varieties do better in specific places, so no one locale can satisfy all tastes. A region that does well with hearty reds probably won’t succeed with delicate whites.

Here are five wine-growing locales to investigate this spring when hunting for bargains (defined as wines costing $12 or less) — two for whites, and three for reds.

Prices are approximate, and importers are identified in parentheses.

MACON FOR STYLISH WHITES

White Burgundy from the Cote d’Or’s famed appellations of Montrachet, Meursault and the like is invariably expensive. However, wines made from the same grape, chardonnay, coming from vineyards located in the Maconnais region farther south can provide delicious and much more affordable drinking.

The best Macon whites are lighter than both their more famous northern Burgundy cousins and the vast majority of New World chardonnays. They see less wood during aging and taste more like crisp apples and pears than tropical fruits.

Pouilly-Fuisse is the best-known Macon wine, but it tends to cost upward of $20.

For values, look to wines labeled Macon-Villages, or Macon with a hyphenated village name such as Lugny or Ige following it.

Good Macon wines taste graceful and stylish. Try Macon-Lugny “Les Charmes” 2001 ($11, imported by Diageo Chateau & Estates), Bouchard Macon-Villages “Chamville” 2001 ($12, Clicquot) or Drouhin Macon-Villages 2002 ($11, Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.).

SOUTH AFRICA FOR BRACING WHITES

South Africa is the sleeping giant among the world’s significant wine-producing nations, a country with a long wine tradition that just now is awaking to the realities of the contemporary international market. Bargains abound, even though plenty of the wines do taste tired and dull.

Some excellent South African chardonnays (try Brampton 2002, $11, Cape Classics) and sauvignon blancs (try Porcupine Ridge 2003, $9, Vineyard Brands) are being imported into the United States these days. The very best white-wine values, though, tend to be made from chenin blanc, a grape variety that accounts for almost half of all the vineyard planting in South Africa.

These wines taste rich but at same time refreshing — a rare and beguiling combination. They have the added advantage of being truly distinctive, as they have a flavor profile (floral and fruity, but also flinty and fortifying) all their own. Try the taut Kanu 2003 ($10, Cape Classics), the richer Forrester’s “Petit” 2002 ($9, Country Vintner) or the admittedly simpler but truly cheap Indaba 2003 ($7, Cape Classics).

SPAIN FOR SUMPTUOUS REDS

If South Africa is still slumbering these days, Spain is now fully awake. Over the past decade, it has become the source of increasingly exciting, often thrilling wines, many of which remain value-priced.

Bargains come from all over the country. Many are made with tempranillo, Spain’s most tantalizing indigenous grape variety, but Spanish vintners are experimenting with cabernet, merlot, syrah and a host of other grapes, as well.

Prices for good Spanish wines are bound to go up in the next few years as more people discover the wines. Now is the time to buy.

From Rioja, try the light but soft and spicy Marques de Arianzo Crianza 1999 ($12, Allied Domecq). From Jumila, try the rich but also soft Bodegas Agapito Rico Carchelo 2002 ($9, Classical Wines). And from La Mancha, be sure to sample the wonderfully expressive, deeply flavored Finca Antigua Tempranillo 2001 ($12, CIV USA).

SOUTHERN ITALY FOR EARTHY REDS

Prices for many wines made north of Rome are going through the roof, consequences of the surging euro as well as many vintners’ greed. Meanwhile, most wines from southern Italy, while more expensive than a few years ago, remain bargain-priced.

Whether in Puglia (the heel of the “boot”), Calabria (the toe), or the island Sicily, vineyards in southern Italy are very hot. That’s why this is, for the most part, red-wine country, and why the wines, even when rustic, tend to taste richly fruited. Grapes here have little difficulty attaining full ripeness.

There are many exciting southern Italian wines on the market today, so choosing a few to recommend proves difficult. You can’t go wrong, though, with the medium-bodied, spicy Librandi Ciro Rosso Classico 2001 ($9, Winebow); the briary A Mano Primitivo 2001 ($11, Empson); or the deep, dark Arancio Nero d’Avola Sicilia 2001 ($11, Prestige). Pepperoni pizza, anyone?

CHILE FOR ELEGANT REDS

No other country produces as many refined Bordeaux-styled reds that sell at bargain-basement prices as Chile. Sure, the Chileans also send us plenty of boring inexpensive wines, especially whites, but their good reds are very, very good, indeed.

Whether made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carmenere or a blend of these, good Chilean reds marry the rich, red fruit flavors characteristic of California wines with an earthiness reminiscent of fine French ones.

Only a few years ago, many inexpensive Chilean reds tasted excessively vegetal.

Today, that problem seems to have been largely corrected, due in large measure to improved viticulture — particularly, harvesting the grapes at the proper degree of ripeness.

The results can be extremely impressive.

For merlot, try Errazuriz Curico Valley, 2001 ($12, RM Imports), from a consistently impressive producer. For cabernet, try Veramonte, Maipo Valley, 2001 ($10, Constellation Brands). And for carmenere, a deep, rich varietal when fully ripe, try Calina Reserve, Maule Valley, 2001 ($12, Kendall Jackson Wine Estates). Like all the wines recommended above, it’s a great bargain.

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