- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

“Be thankful I don’t take it all,” George Harrison sang sarcastically in the 1966 Beatles hit “Taxman.” Although few of us feel thankful this time of year, wine lovers can take comfort in the fact that high quality need not carry a high price tag. No matter how much the taxman has taken by April 15, you should still be able to drink good wine.

An extensive series of recent tastings, all with wines priced at or below $10 a bottle, leads me to suggest that you look to the Southern Hemisphere when searching for after-tax-day bargains this year.

The combination of low real estate prices and relatively inexpensive labor there renders the price-quality ratio particularly attractive. By contrast, the poor exchange rate between the dollar and the euro has inflated the prices of wines from most European countries. Now that simple Beaujolais and northern Italian pinot grigio have broken the $10 barrier, it’s time to look south.

Although Australian producers pride themselves on their wine values, my tastings indicate that few of their under-$10 wines taste all that exciting. (It’s a completely different story in the $10-to-$15 category, where many Australian wines excel.) Much the same is true for New Zealand, a source of ever more excellent wines but few that are truly bargain-priced.

The three countries offering the most wine values are Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Each also produces superb wines that compete at a rarified level, so don’t make the mistake of thinking of these countries only in terms of bargains. But when you feel the need to pinch pennies, they are good places to look.

Most Argentine wine values are red, but a few whites stand out. Heading the list is Santa Julia Torrontes 2004 ($6), a light, off-dry quaffer. Made from a popular local grape variety, it has an enticing floral bouquet and a satisfyingly fruity finish, so it is a great choice for warm-weather sipping.

More substantial, and a good wine to accompany shrimp and other shellfish, El Portillo Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($10) tastes crisp and refreshing. Fuller-bodied still, Alamos Chardonnay 2003 ($10) offers plenty of toasty oak to enhance its rich tropical fruit.

The best values from Argentina, though, are full-bodied reds. Whether made from cabernet sauvignon or malbec, they exhibit deep, rich flavors, making them excellent partners for grilled meats.

Good Argentine cabernet tastes rich and deep. Some producers use too much oak, obliterating the grape’s natural flavors; but when the winemaker displays a judicious hand, the results can be extremely impressive. Elsa Cabernet 2003 ($8) lacks complexity but tastes satisfying.

For a couple of dollars more, El Portillo Cabernet 2001 ($10) is deeper and more complete, while Trumpeter 2003 ($10) flirts with excessive oak but ultimately offers sufficient fruit.

Malbec, a grape that offers deep red-berry flavors augmented by a telltale note of black licorice, is an Argentine speciality. Try Altosur Malbec 2002 ($8), a wine of uncommon complexity for the price. Deeper and equally nuanced, Fantelli Malbec 2002 ($8) and Gougenheim “Otono” Malbec 2003 ($9) are also well worth searching out. These three wines taste not only delicious, but also distinctive — a rare combination at under $10 a bottle.

Across the Andes mountains in Chile, white wines made with sauvignon blanc often stand out. Although not as aggressive as some sauvignons (from New Zealand, for example), good renditions tend to be crisp and vivacious — just right for spring sipping. Santa Rita 120 Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($7) is a great example. It offers nothing complicated, just clean, fresh flavor. Much the same is true of both Arucano Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($9.50) and Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($9), both of which taste slightly fuller but prove equally invigorating.

Although value-priced Chilean chardonnay as a category is not as consistently impressive, some fine wines are worth trying. In particular, look for the tropical-scented Araucano 2004 Chardonnay ($9.50) and the lush but balanced Concha y Toro Cassillero del Diablo Chardonnay 2004 ($9).

When it comes to reds, Chile excels with cabernet, merlot and carmenere. The last, a grape first imported from France in the mid-19th century (but since largely abandoned there), yields forceful wines with plenty of tannin and a slightly weedy undertone — not unlike cabernet franc from Bordeaux. It’s a great choice with hearty stews and casseroles.

Araucano Carmenere 2002 ($9.50) would be a fine introduction to the varietal, as would be Terra Andina Carmenere 2003 ($9.50). Both offer uncommon complexity, with nuanced bouquets and multilayered flavors.

Top Chilean merlots offer this grape variety’s characteristic red berry and plum fruit, but add an intriguing dusty undertone. Santa Rita 120 Merlot 2003 ($7), although fairly simple, offers plenty of flavor. Vina Errazuriz Merlot 2001 ($9) tastes more complete and complex. Richer still, Montes Merlot 2003 ($10) has just enough rich fruit to complement all its oak.

Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($9) is arguably this Chilean winery’s finest effort to date. Deep and satisfying, it is simultaneously firmly structured and smooth on the palate. More traditional, meaning that it displays a leathery bouquet and dry tannins, Cousino Macul 2003 ($10) tastes deliciously different. Finally, Big Tattoo Red 2003 ($8), a blend of cabernet and syrah, is a great buy — both because it tastes good and because a portion of every sale is donated to breast-cancer research.

Across the Atlantic in South Africa, values abound in both white and red wines. Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($9) fairly tingles with bright grapefruit-scented fruit. Similarly styled, Fleur du Cap Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($10) tastes slightly fuller but is just as fresh.

The most exciting white-wine bargains from South Africa, though, are made with chenin blanc. When handled lovingly, that country’s most widely grown grape variety yields wines that taste full and fruity, with a sweet, floral bouquet but a dry finish. Ken Forrester “Petite Chenin” 2004 ($10) is a great example, as is Kanu Chenin Blanc 2003 ($10). Both of these wines taste of peach and nectarine fruit, with a spicy edge and excellent balance.

Although most of the better South African chardonnays cost more than $10, Indaba Chardonnay 2004 ($10) is a great buy. Tasting of apples and pears, it has a bright, tangy finish. Fuller-bodied, with an almost waxy texture, Boschendal Chardonnay-Semillon 2004 ($8) blends those two grapes to good effect. It would be a great choice to drink with grilled salmon.

When it comes to red bargains from South Africa, try Goats Do Roam Red 2003 ($9), a cleverly named blend modeled after a French Cotes du Rhone. Supporting its fresh fruit with peppery spice, it’s a good choice to accompany dishes with tomato or barbecue sauces.

Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($10), although not especially nuanced, augments its fresh fruit with notes that hint at chocolate and mocha. Finally, Graham Beck “Railroad Red” Cabernet 2003 ($10) tastes so deep and rich that, like all the wines recommended here, it seems underpriced — just what you need once the taxman takes his inevitable bite.

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