For the past 22 years, I’ve been almost obsessively (okay, obsessively) keeping a list of the great value wines that I run across in my bewildering annual journey through the couple thousand wines I taste and evaluate. I have a deep and abiding affection for those dazzling bottles that I sample and then ask the price, gasp, and sputter, “No freakin’ way!” This may seem harsh and I want you to know ahead of time that, when I write this, I have absolutely no winemaker I’ve ever known or met in mind, but, any fool who knows how to make wine in a commercial setting can make wine and slap a $40 price tag and get affluent wine lovers and/or critics to taste it and take it seriously. It’s just a fact.
A price tag suggests a LOT about a wine but proves very little. When you approach a bottle of red that carries a hefty price tag, certain expectations arise. “Hey,” most of us think, “Sixty-buck Cab/Merlot. This must be the Good Stuff!” I once attended a release tasting at a Woodinville winery at which an $18 bottle of blended red absolutely mopped the floor with a $55 blend sitting three bottles away from it. Then, at that same tasting, I watched as several people came in, tasted all the wines and left with cases of the pricey stuff. This took place in the fall of 2005. I happened, for one the rare times ever, to be in the company of another wine-trade pro. He and I both went wide-eyed at the same moment as we sipped the $18 bottle. He also shrugged at the $55 wine, so this wasn’t just me and my eccentric palate. I had been chatting with one of the four guys and/or couples who picked up cases and casually asked him why he bought the more costly blend. He chuckled and said, “Oh, that cheap stuff, that’s just for fun. This is serious wine.”
That was nine years ago. I’ve since tasted both of those wines; just this year, in fact. The $55 stuff is faded and flat. The $18 bottle absolutely sings. Better wine in every aspect, for less $$$. Amazing how many people ignore that in favor of impressing their friends.
Price has little or nothing to do with the quality of wine. And, for over two decades, the single most requested thing I have written on the subject is…that list of the values, the bargains. It works like this: I add a wine to the list and if the next vintage is not up to the first, I put an “X” next to it. If the third vintage is better, I put a check-mark. If any vintage just flat sucks, the wine gets tossed out. (This happens to probably 70% of the wines that ever make the list.) As the vintages go by, I count the Xes. Wines that have no X are the Gold Standard and, when I give the list to someone who asks, those are the only ones they see.
For 2014 and this post, I’ve added some more current wines that are outstanding in the vintage listed. These are great values now, in this particular vintage. There’s every possibility that they’ll fall off the list upon next release but, this once, they’re making me see stars. The ones that are shown in Bold Red, those are wines that just never disappoint. They’re the value rock stars, the ones I really don’t even bother to check vintage on, anymore. They’re just flat-damnit GOOD. Some are even, despite the price and lack of wine-weenie sizzle, certifiably great. I’ve deliberately stayed away from anything that’s being heavily touted by other writers, so there are ton of great wines that are not here but are on my little Roster of Killerness. Those, you probably already know about, maybe even drink. These are, I hope, some relatively overlooked gems…wines that you can buy and drink with every confidence that you haven’t just flushed your hard-earned ducats down the toilet and that what’s entering the piehole is going to give you a good, GOOD time.
On Day One of this bargain extravaganza, we’re going to start with the sexy stuff- The Ultra-Value Reds. Tomorrow morning, check out Day Two for unforgettable Sweets, Bubbles, and Whites!
(All reviews follow the photos, left to right.)
The Red Army
A-Mano Primitivo Puglia 2013 – This amazing little bottle of Primitivo – an Italian-via-Croatia red grape that’s genetically identical to Zinfandel – may just be the all-time value champion in imported red wine. For 15 straight years, since its first release in 1999, A-Mano has been named as a Best By in at least one – and usually all – of the world’s major wine publications. This is unmistakably Zin-like, with energetic spices and gobs of black fruits but less overtly peppery than American Zin; deeper, darker, and more silky. Zin’s red berries are balanced by blackberry liqueur, blueberry, huckleberry, and a quick (8 to 10 weeks) dose of French and American oak. I just absolutely LOVE this wine and it is NOT scarce. And you’ll almost always find it for…$8 to $10. Just crazy-fine. 93 Points
McManis Family Cabernet 2013 – For ten years, now, whenever somebody has asked me to recommend a good, approachable, inexpensive Cabernet, I’ve said “McManis. No contest.” Made by a veteran grape-growing family based in the very un-sexy Ripon, California, this wine is every bit as user-friendly and versatile as your iPad. The McManis family started the winery in 1990. The first vintage of Cabernet cost $8 at retail. By the time I first found it, in 2000, it was $10. Today…it’s still $10. Wine snots will say that this Cab is too fruity and not structured like a great American Cabernet…both of which are true and both of which are irrelevant. At ten bucks, you’re not expecting Screaming Eagle. What is is…delicious, juicy, generous, even a tad complex, showing glorious red plums, red and black berries, currants, anise, pepper, and fine, food-friendly acidity. I’ve probably told 200 people about this stuff and exactly TWO didn’t like it. For a dynamic, consistent bottle of American Cabernet, this is the juice. 91 Points
Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet Nagambie Lakes 2010 – This is Serious Cabernet; every inch as dense, complex, and beautifully-constructed as its fine Sonoma cousins, except that a comparable Sonoma Cab would cost something north of $60. Tahbilk is 154 years old in 2014. They’ve been one of Australia’s and the world’s most celebrated family wineries that entire time but have been very low-profile in the US. In terms of bang-for-buck, only Carolyn Lakewold’s Donedei (WA) Cabernet equals the quality and craft that comes in this bottle. FAT, rich, deep, but almost defiantly unsweet flavors of dark berries, cherries, plums, tobacco, chocolate, and fresh Mission figs suffuse every glass. Serious, world-class Cabernet…for under $20! 94 Points
Bodegas Atalaya “Laya” 2013 – This is a newer wine from a veteran Spanish winery in the Mourvedre-soaked appellation of Almansa. A gorgeous, expansive blend of 70% Garnacha Tintorera and 30% Monastrell (Spanish for Mourvedre), Laya is a young wine and is intended to be. It gets a long, cool maceration in steel and then a judicious four months in new French oak. The oak, here does what oak should do: kiss the wine with a bit of vanilla and woodsy, silken tannins, not smack it upside the head. The flavors are stately and emphatic: Raspberries, Bing cherries, anise, red currants, sage, espresso, and whole rack of baking and Asian spices. In the mouth, it feels like a top-tier Napa Merlot – medium-bodied but impossibly silky. Make no mistake about this: Laya is a freakin’ great bottle of red wine…and it’s right around TEN BUCKS. 93 Points
Xavier Cotes du Rhone 2010 – Before starting his own label, in 2002, Xavier Vignon was one of Chateauneuf du Pape’s hottest consulting winemakers and really had no intention of doing anything else. Then, some meddling international importers wheedled him into making ONE custom edition Cotes du Rhone for export only. The response was so fast and so positive that Vignon couldn’t ignore it. Since the 2002 vintage, Xavier Cotes du Rhone has been one of the Rhone Valley’s most sought-after CdRs, both internationally and in France but flies very much in stealth mode here. It’s a beautiful piece of winemaking, sourced from newer vineyards owned by his Who’s Who list of Chateauneuf du Pape clients. It’s not a big, strappin’ international-style Rhone. It’s more elegant, balanced, and expressive, showing vast red and black fruits, lavender, heather, coffee, stone fruit, and a bewitching caramel note. The Dark Horse Cotes do Rhone in the US today. 93 Points
Bodegas Luzon “Luzon” 2013 – Jumilla (hoo-MEE-uh) is a Spanish region that grows what everyone thinks are native French varietals like Monastrell (Mourvedre), Garnacha (Grenache), and Syrah (Syrah). In truth, except for Syrah, which was only sparsely seen south of the Pyrenees, the other two primary Rhone grapes are also native to Spain. This is genuine Old Vine Mourvedre blended with some Syrah vines that are verging on OV status. Every vintage for nine years, now, Luzon has been one of the best international wines under $25, from anywhere. It’s a finely structured, complex, gloriously fruity red that delivers its home region’s tangy lime-shot sandy soil’s sweet minerality frankly on the front of palate. This is a startling wine for those who have never tasted it. It tastes and feels like a very spendy Rhone and even has significant aging potential. All the Luzon wines are similarly celebrated and all howlin’ bargains, like this little gem that delivers all this for…$10! 92 Points
Marcel Lapierre Raisins Gaulois Vin de France 2013 – Gamay! You’d be shocked at how many prominent wine writers and critics harbor a secret, guilty-pleasure fixation for this grape that most Americans only encounter once a year, in Beaujolais Nouveau. The fact is, Gamay is NOT what everyone assumes: It ages quite nicely, it can be as dark and solidly medium-to-full bodied as a Rhone wine and expesses itself in radically different ways when not produced by the carbonic maceration technique used to ferment Nouveau. Marcel Lapierre is one of what importer Kermit Lynch dubbed “The Gang of Four” producers of Beaujolais in what is arguably the region’s most “serious” appellation, Morgon. This 100% Gamay edition is a young wine that’s sourced from Morgon and a couple of other growing areas and blended with Lapierre’s usual off-hand brilliance. Its flavors are pure Gamay: raspberries, strawberries, blackerries, white pepper, sugar plums, sweet herbs, and the prominent granite and limestone of its appellation. Think all Beaujolais is just light Fun Wine? Explore a little…and start right here. 90 Points
Medici Ermete Dry Lambrusco “Quercioli Reggiano” 2011 – If you’re one of those Riunite victims who wrote off Lambrusco after Dad slipped you a glass during your sixteenth birthday pool party, you’ve been done a grave dis-service. In the entire world of wine, there are damned few sensual pleasures that compare with sipping from a glass of properly-made, artisan-producer Lambrusco. The flavors in this satiny, dark, $18-ish version from one of Italy’s best Lambrusco producers, Medici Ermete, are unique and absolutely bewitching. Soft, dark plums lead the way, followed by a prominent but subtle shot of white pepper. Past that, wonderful notes of strawberry jam, Morello cherries, lime leaf, and teaberry mingle in a texture that’s definitely and delightfully light but so impossibly smooth that it almost doesn’t require swallowing. Oh, and did I mention…it’s a sparkling wine! A red you can drink lightly chilled! There is ZERO of the sticky-sweet Ruinite gag-me character about a great Lambrusco and this, make no mistake about it, is a great Lambrusco. 92 Points
Vina Qaramy Finca 2011 – My choice for total-freakin’-shock wine of 2013, this totally under-the-radar Argentine red, a blend of Cabernet and Malbec, is a stunner, totally nailing that quirky alchemy that sometimes, if the winemaker is very lucky, evolves from the marriage of these two grapes.The father-son team of Mario and Leonardo Bromberg were originally two of Argentina’s foremost boutique grape-growers, selling fruit that produces a staggering number of highly-rated wines. Their vineyards sit in a wildly stony, high-elevation 242 acres in the Los Arboles, Valle de Uco appellation of the country’s best wine region, Mendoza. The cool nights and blazing days, along with notably stingy soil, stress the vines and produce genuine miracles. Finca Qaramy tastes expensive; like a slightly smaller-scale, more earthy take on Joseph Phelps “Insignia”. The Brombergs barely touch their grape harvests to make Qaramy (“Poetry” in the Qechua language of Argentina’s indigenous tribes) wines, and you wind up getting the same fruit as you’d pay $45 – $60 for in a more-celebrated wine at about…$13. A gusher of jet-black flavors swamp the palate: blackberry liqueur, blueberries, black cherries and currants, espresso, dark chocolate, and a magical intimation of something like chewing on a baseball glove. This is an amazing wine that has, for every vintage it’s been made, offered many times the quality and complexity its price tag suggests. 93 Points
Castelmaure Corbieres 2012 – A blend of 50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 15% Syrah, & 5% Cinsault, this wine shows a stately, uber-dry elegance that can really shock the hell out of anyone who has spent most of their adult life genuflecting before the altar of Bordeaux. All the alleged Bordeaux virtues are here: nuance, subtlety, restraint, elegance, yadda-yadda-yadda, been there done that. But here we have different, more-interesting flavors. Replacing the predictable Bordeaux Cab/Merlot berries ‘n’ stones are a spicy edge, with all the same berries as its sticker-shocky cousins, but more earthiness and grip and a whole array of grace notes like brambles, figs, sage, teaberry, pink peppercorns, and a haunting whiff of fresh-ground coffee. In a nutshell, this is what might happen if you took a bottle of very good Bordeaux and mixed it 50/50 with a very good Rhone. It’s compelling and complex and compulsively drinkable and a howlin’ value at just $12. 92 Points
Cline Cellars “Cashmere” 2013 – Everybody who has any interest in wine past just grabbing a box at the supermarket knows Cline, one of those trusty, go-to brands that you know is gonna be soft, fruity and fun because that side of Cline – the under-$15 bargain bottles – is all most people know about them. But there are literally dozens of Clines that we never see in grocery stores or even bottle shops and this Rhone-inspired gem may be the most under-exposed of all. Cashmere is Fred Cline’s hommage to his beloved Chateauneuf de Pape and, vintage after vintage, he’s taken that French ideal and respectfully Americanized it, expanding the flavors of CdP with a judicoous dose of Petit Sirah atop the core Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. With over $270,000 donated to Living Beyond Breast Cancer, Cashmere was created (there is also a white version) for a charitable fund-raiser, which may explain it’s relative obscurity. But the hunt for a bottle is well worth it. It’s typically Cline-soft but just flatly opulent, with complex flavors of blackberries, raspberries, black cherries, plum jam, heather, chocolate, pepper, and restrained spices. This, along with Morgan “Cote du Crow”, is one of California’s most overlooked red blends and if I do nothing else with this post, I hope I can motivate a few folks to seek out some of these hidden value gems, buried in the portfolios of many of the better Cali mid-price wineries. 92 Points
Scarborough “The Rebel” Red 2009(?) – The question mark by the vintage is there because I’m pretty sure that Seattle’s Travis Scarborough has now moved into the 1020 vintage…but I can’t find it on shelves. Which is somewhat true of this wine altogether. This has to be Washington’s most overlooked value red. Those in search of subtlety, nuance, restraint, etc., etc, etc., are going to scoff at this wine. More for the rest of us, is my thinking. This is brawny; a big, swaggering stevedore of a wine but, in its own muscle-car way, strikingly elegant…okay, “elegant” the way Earl Thomas is elegant: graceful but all up in yo’ face. Assertive flavors of mixed berries – leaning toward the Dark Side – tag-team with red plums, figs, mocha, bay leaf, sweet herbs, and surprising minerals to produce something big but lovely, like a bottle of Lisa Lesley. Those who simper and do that moue thing with her mouths about excess fruit and size of wines should back off and let the rest of us handle this. We’ll be more than happy to remove this very American wine from your sanitized worldview. Just brilliant stuff! About $14. 93 Points
TOMORROW: THE SPARKLINGS, PORTS, AND DAZZLING WHITES THAT MAKE UP THE FOOL’S ALL-TIME ULTRA-VALUE LIST!