Drinking on the Cheap

Great wines for less than 15 bucks.

In the second installment of this series, Mike Steinberger sought out great wines that cost less than 150 bucksSteinberger chatted online with readers about this article; read the transcript.

The New York Times recently reported that the sputtering economy and soaring food costs are forcing Americans to become thriftier at the table. Among other things, restaurant alcohol sales are down, and discount domestic beers are gaining at the expense of pricier imports. Wine went unmentioned, but strapped oenophiles are also scaling back. That is not such a hardship in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, which are home to sophisticated wine boutiques carrying toothsome Bourgeuils, Brouillys, and other inexpensive elixirs. But does this QPR cornucopia (QPR stands for quality-price ratio and is an acronym often used by wine buffs to denote good value) extend to the suburbs and the sticks? What’s the cheap stuff like out there?

To find out, I visited a Total Wine & More outlet in Wilmington, Del., last month. Total claims to be the country’s biggest independent wine retailer (meaning it’s not part of some larger enterprise, like Costco), and given the chain’s 52 locations in 10 states and its combined sales of more than 33 million bottles a year, I’m inclined to take their word for it. The Wilmington store was cavernous, with an enormous selection of discount wines. My self-assigned mission: to see whether there were any $15-and-under wines, domestic or imported, that I’d be willing to recommend.

Twenty-two bottles and $298.21 later, I can report that I discovered some good wines and had an unexpectedly edifying experience. Over the last decade, international demand for lower-priced French wines has fallen sharply, which helps explain why thousands of French vintners are now struggling to stay in business. The French are not being beaten on price. They are being beaten on taste, and I now understand more than ever why that’s the case. The Total store was filled with exuberantly fruity cabernets, Syrahs, and sauvignon blancs from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and other countries. Many of them are not to my liking—I prefer leaner, drier, more mineral-driven wines—but it’s easy to see why they are so appealing, particularly relative to what was on offer from France.

There was no shortage of $15-and-under French wines, but the choices were uninspired. I liked the warm, spicy 2005 S.C.V. Castelmaure Corbières Col des Vents ($9.99), a red from a cooperative in the Languedoc, but the other French wines I tasted were decidedly limp. There was nothing interesting from the Loire, and the Beaujolais section appeared to be composed almost entirely of Georges Duboeuf bottlings. It is not that France doesn’t produce good cheap wines; the Loire is a QPR nirvana. Ditto Beaujolais, the Languedoc, Mâcon, and the Rhône Valley. But the better ones are generally made in small quantities, and while they are readily available in New York and other big cities, they were not on the shelves in Wilmington.

Conversely, I was struck by the depth of the Spanish section. I knew that Spain had become a popular source of budget wines; nonetheless, I was surprised by the size and quality of Total’s Spanish inventory. There were a number of $15-and-under offerings, for instance, from estimable importer Eric Solomon, who has a vast Iberian portfolio. One of his wines, the 2006 Artazu Artazuri ($11.99), a Grenache from the Navarra region, was superb. It packed plenty of ripe, dark fruit, nicely offset by a subtle herbal kick and terrific acidity—all in all, an excellent red for the money. Another winner was the 2004 Cune Rioja Crianza ($13.99), a pleasantly juicy wine that hit all the right Rioja notes (cherries, plums, tobacco, a whiff of nuts).

Having written several years ago about the dearth of good cheap wines from California, I expected the $15-and-under domestic selection to be grim, and, by and large, it was. I did, however, find a few exceptions—and surprising ones, too. The Gruet Brut nonvintage ($13.99) is—I kid you not—a quaffable sparkling wine from New Mexico, with an attractive, yeasty bouquet and a pleasantly creamy texture. It won’t cause Olivier Krug any lost sleep, but it was a lot better than the comparably priced champagne that I tried, the anemic Francois Montand Blanc de Blancs nonvintage. The 2006 King Estate Signature Collection Pinot Gris ($13.99), from Oregon, also impressed me. It was a zesty, refreshing wine with good pear and citrus notes and a fine mineral edge; if you are looking for a summer white, this would be an excellent choice. California wasn’t entirely shut out; I enjoyed the 2006 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel ($11.99). The bouquet, bursting with white pepper, put me in mind of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and while the wine was plenty ripe, it was neither jammy nor excessively alcoholic, two traits that have become sadly typical of zins.

They have also become all too typical of Australian reds, and the ones I tried were no exception. I did, however, taste a decent Australian white, the 2006 d’Arenberg the Hermit Crab ($13.99). A blend of viognier and Marsanne, the Hermit Crab delivered a convincing head fake: The nose, bursting with tropical fruits, suggested something confected and plump, but the wine, though ripe, was pleasantly restrained, thanks in part to a subtle and much-appreciated mineral note.

The store also had a formidable array of Italian wines. The 2007 Cusumano Nero d’Avola ($12.99), a Silician red marked by ripe cherries and a good whiff of tobacco, was an easy-sipping wine that would go well with pizza or pasta. Even better, though, was the 2006 Prunotto Dolcetto d’Alba ($14.99) from the Piedmont region, which had crisp, succulent cherry fruit, nice herbal and floral overtones, and excellent acidity. A group of Italians, including famed importer Marc de Grazia, teamed up in 1995 to create an Argentine winery called Altos las Hormigas. The 2006 Altos Las Hormigas ($8.49), made entirely of Malbec, Argentina’s signature grape, served up gentle waves of blackberry fruit along with an appealing savory note; it went down very smoothly and is a particularly good value. In a very different vein, I really liked the 2007 Loosen Bros. Dr. L Riesling ($12.99) from Germany. The wine comes from the Mosel area, Germany’s Riesling heartland, and has the classic Mosel profile: ripe peaches, a twist of lime, and subtle underlying acidity and minerality that parry the sweetness. It is a wine that begs to be served with Indian or Thai takeout.

All in all, then, a reasonably successful trip to the corner liquor store. And if there’s not a Total location in your neighborhood? Anywhere you look, you are going to struggle to find inexpensive domestic wines worth drinking—it’s the cardinal sin of American winemaking, in my opinion. Generally speaking, the foreign shelves will have much more to offer. Of course, French, Italian, and Spanish wines can be confusing in ways that, say, California merlots and chardonnays are not. One usually surefire method of finding interesting foreign wines: Let the importer be your guide. The United States is blessed with a small army of superb importers, who bring in excellent wines at all price points. If any of the names on this list are on the label, you can be reasonably certain you’ve got yourself a good bottle.