Wine Limbo

How low can you go (in price) and still drink well?

Good, cheap wine? We’ll drink to that.

As toddlers, both of my children were big Elmo fans. My daughter was especially enamored of “Limbo Elmo,” an online game in which Elmo and some of his pals do the limbo while he sings a personalized version of the Chubby Checker hit, “Limbo Rock.” Ava is now 5 and, like her older brother, she has outgrown her furry red friend. I have not. The sound of his scratchy voice warbling “Elmo nimble, Elmo quick, Elmo go under limbo stick” regularly pops into my head. Clearly, I am in need of an Elmo exorcism (that, or professional help). But the song did provide me with some excellent mood music during a recent visit to Total Wine & More in Wilmington, Del. I went there to perform a limbo of my own—to see how low I could go in price and still find something decent to drink. Back in May 2008, I wrote a column about $15 and under wines, all of which I procured from the same Total store, one of the retail giant’s 64 locations nationwide. With “Elmo’s Limbo Rock” as my mental soundtrack, the goal this time was to see what I could get for less than $10.

When Slateran the $15 piece, the economy was already in recession. Two years later, the experts say the worst is over, but unless you’re a TARP-engorged bankster, happy days are not exactly here again. For oenophiles, thrift remains the watchword. But there’s good cheap and then there’s rotgut cheap, and I was skeptical of what my bottom-feeding at Total might yield.

I knew the store would have a wide selection of mass-market shirazes and chardonnays; I was hoping to find wines with a little more character and individuality (snob alert!), which seemed like a lot to ask. It is hard to turn out profit selling a wine for $10 unless it’s produced in industrial quantities. Another problem: The most interesting value wines generally come from Europe, and the weakness of the U.S. dollar in recent years has put upward pressure on prices. A Côtes-du-Rhône that retailed for $10 in 2004 likely costs several dollars more now. (Last year, wine writer Tyler Colman did an interview with importer Robert Kacher that touches on the economics of value wines; be sure to also read through the comments, including observations from another acclaimed importer, Joe Dressner.)

I’d love to report that I found a bunch of sensational $8 and $9 wines at Total, but I didn’t. To begin with, there wasn’t all that much to choose from; there was enough Yellow Tail to flood an aisle or two, but the shelves were thin on the more distinctive stuff that I was after. In fact, I only managed to dig out 14 wines that satisfied my criteria, and, of these, just seven were good enough to include here. Two of them were quite good, and the other five were passable. How low can you go and still drink well? Based on what I sampled from Total and what I see at many other wine shops, I’d say that $10 pretty much has you scraping the ground. In my opinion, the$10-$20 range, although just a notch higher in price, offers a big jump in complexity and taste, particularly with imported wines. (Click here for a list of importers worth knowing.)

One thing to note: Most of the wines I tried came in 1 cent below my cutoff, and because Delaware has no sales tax, prices may be a bit higher in other states. But even if they are above $10, it shouldn’t be by much.

The two best wines I picked up at Total were from Italy. The 2007 Kellerei-Cantina Tramin Lagrein ($9.99), from the Trentino-Alto Adige region, was a full, rich, and very satisfying red. It was marked by dark fruit, earth, and mineral notes, as well as the firm tannins and brisk acidity characteristic of Lagrein, a grape native to northern Italy. The other wine hailed from an area known as Le Marche, on the Adriatic coast. The 2007 Saladini PilastriRosso Piceno ($8.99), a blend of sangiovese and Montepulciano, sported an inviting nose redolent of  cherries, spices, and herbs that gave way to a chewy, lusty wine that would match nicely with a pizza or  pasta.

Spain is arguably the world’s premier source of well-made bargain wines. Comprised entirely of grenache, the 2005 Niño Jesús Figaro Tinto Calatayud ($9.99) was a warm, robust red that had a nice savory kick to go along with its sweet fruit flavors. The tannins were impressively polished for a wine of this price, and it carried its 14.5 percent alcohol fairly well, too. The 2007 Tres Ojos Old Vines GarnachaCalatayud ($9.99), also 100 percent Grenache, wasn’t bad, either. It served up an inviting whiff of plum, cherry, and tobacco and easily qualified as quaffable.

Argentina is known as another bargain hunter’s nirvana, but it is as yet no match for Spain or Italy when it comes to marrying quality to value. However, the 2009 Altos Las Hormigas Malbec ($8.99), a deeply colored, dense wine with modest structure and an appealing gamey note, offered some pleasure to go with its attractive price. The United States is something of a problem case as good inexpensive wines go, but it didn’t get shutout in my tasting: The Rosenblum Cellars Vintner’s Cuvée Zinfandel XXXI ($9.99), featured a heady mix of cherry, earth, and spice against a light frame of tannins and acidity; it was a serviceable zin that would be ideal for a barbecue (added benefit: Of all the wines listed here, it is probably the most widely available). One white wine made the cut: The 2008 Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler Riesling ($9.99), from Germany, had a winning bouquet redolent of peaches and pears, ample acidity to parry the fruit, and a long, enjoyable finish. It would be an excellent, economical foil for Thai, Indian, or Vietnamese takeout—and nothing improves a cheap wine like cheap food.

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