Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How to Buy Excellent Cheap Wine

Is it possible to drink great wine on a daily basis if you're not rich? I'm talking about wines that cost between $8 and $12 a bottle? I think it it is possible, yes. I've been thinking about this lately because my wine buying budget has been cut in the past year, but also because Eric Asimov has written about this several times, most recently pointing to Mike Steinbergers' article in Slate that discussed inexpensive wines he recently drank with mixed results.

I can (and will) name some cheap wines that I think are excellent wines. But before that, I want to explain my general approach to this problem.

First of all, I reject the notion that as a consumer I should forgive a wine for being inexpensive and expect little of it. Regardless of the price point, if I buy a wine I want it to be excellent. Sure, a liter of Hofer Zweigelt and a magnum of Barthod Chambolle Les Cras are excellent in different ways. But for me to buy the Hofer Zweigelt, its excellence must derive from the smell and taste of the wine, and from its expression of place, not from the mere fact that it is palatable and costs $10.

Secondly, I don't think $10 is a rational way to define cheap wine anymore. You know this already - the dollar, although stronger right now, has been weak against the Euro for years. European wines cost more now that they did 5 years ago. That great Beaujolais that sold for $12 in the 2002 vintage costs $17 now. For me the new cheap wine cutoff is something like $12 or $13. Buying a mixed case allows me to buy $14 or $15 wines and pay $12.60 or $13.50 for them, essentially eliminating NY State's drastic liquor taxes, and keeping my average bottle price in that $12-$13 range.

Thirdly, the best way to get excellent cheap wine is by choosing your retail store carefully, not by identifying the best individual wines and then buying them wherever you can find them. I don't want to buy a case of any one cheap wine - who wants to drink the same wine on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then again the following week? And I don't want to buy a bottle here and there and pay full retail. I'd rather buy a mixed case, enjoy a greater selection, and pay a little less.

So how do you buy great cheap wine in NYC? Here's how I've been doing it lately. I've been putting together mixed cases at one of my favorite retail shops, Chambers Street Wines. There are other stores I like that stock great wines at the $12-$13 price point, but so far I haven't found another store where I can buy 12 wines in different styles, all of them excellent. Chambers actually has many more than 12 - the wines below are only some of the goodies that you'll find there for $12-$13. Here are my favorites right now (prices are with the 10% mixed case discount):


2008 Benaza Monterrei Godello, $11.70, Jose Pastor Selections, Vinos & Gourmet Imports. Chris, the Spanish wine buyer at Chambers has been filling my ear about Galicia for a while now. "Galicia is the new frontier for inexpensive great wine," Galicia this, Galicia that. If this wine is representative of what the region has to offer, then I wholeheartedly agree. Use this wine wherever you would use Sauvignon Blanc, but instead of being annoyed at how mediocre your Sauvignon Blanc is, you'll be thrilled with this wine. Godello is the grape and this version is fresh, balanced, and just delicious. Grapefruit and pith, spring water, coriander? Once I forgot a half-drunk bottle in the fridge for 3 days, and it was even better, completely harmonious.

2007 Domaine des Pothiers Vin de Pays d'Urfé Fou de Chene, $12.60, Fruit of the Vines Imports. This is Chardonnay, technically from the Loire Department, but we're talking closer to Lyon and Burgundy than to Vouvray or Chinon. Perhaps not terroir specific in the sense that the wine would be identifiable as a Loire Valley wine, but that's okay in this case. It's not easy to find delicious, varietally correct, old school Chardonnay at this price. Here is one. Ripe lemony orchard fruit infused with minerals, well balanced and fresh. The finish is surprisingly long and stony.

2008 Knebel Mosel Riesling Trocken, $12.60, Mosel Wine Merchant, USA Imports. An expressive and unmistakably Mosel wine that treats you gently but also cuts like a knife. I've been drinking a lot of this wine lately and I love it every time. We did split pea soup - very good. Crab boil, not as much, as the wine is lean and got a bit lost amidst the Old Bay. Pork cutlets with mustard and kale - excellent.

2009 Weingut Hofer Grüner Veltliner Wienviertal, $10.80 (1 liter), Michael Skurnik Imports. This delicious Grüner is a bit simple on day 1, although it is well balanced and shows some of the lemongrass lift that is typical of the grape. On day 2 (get your own stopper, this is a crown cap) the wine shows more complexity and harmony, with herbal tones, more depth of fruit, and an intriguing sour cream like note on the finish.

2007 Laurent Barth Pinot Blanc, $12.60, Louis/Dressner Selections. This is the delicious Alsace Pinot Blanc I drank the other day with a Vacherin-style cheese. Such an expressive and delicious wine, focused and mineral driven.

2008 Michel Brégeon Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, $12.60, Kermit Lynch Imports. I really like the '08 Muscadets so far. This one is quite intense with citrus and creamy lees on the nose. The palate is piercing with minerals and acidity, but is approachable with lovely herbal and citrus flavors. Quintessentially Muscadet, we had it the other night with cornmeal crusted fried flounder and it was great.

NV Pedro Romero Manzanilla Sherry Aurora, $10.80 (500 ml), Frontier Wine Imports. This wine offers a combination of brisk salty tang and the rich vinosity of very old solera wines. It feels weightless but is quite intense, especially on days 2 and 3. I've yet to encounter the food that this wine doesn't compliment.


2009 Weingut Hofer Zweigelt, $10.80 (1 liter), Michael Skurnik Imports. I've gone through almost a case of this wine since November. Beaujolais starts at $15 now, and this wine, although most certainly not Beaujolais, fills the cheap Beaujolais role these days in my house. It has the texture and body of a well made Beaujolais, and like Beaujolais, I prefer this wine served cool. It shows smokey, medicinal, and herbal flavors. There is fruit in there too, black currants maybe, but this is not a fruit-driven wine. We've enjoyed it with mushroom omelets, with a spicy tofu dish, with turkey burgers, and all by its lonesome. You could have this wine with lighter fish dishes.

2008 Domaine Guion Bourgueil Cuvée Domaine, $9.90, Fruit of the Vines Imports. I've actually not had this vintage yet (my bottle waits for the right meal in the fridge), but I like this wine each year. This is slightly rustic Cabernet Franc. Typically everything you'd expect in a red wine from this place - pure ripe fruits, earth, mineral, raspy tannins that are easily tamed by whatever food you're eating.

2007 Château la Grolet "G" Côtes de Bourg, $12.60, Fruit of the Vines Imports. This wine is 90% Merlot from Bordeaux. I'm going to let that sink in for a moment. On a recent trip to San Diego my interest in Bordeaux was piqued, and if David Lillie says he has a couple of excellent and cheap Bordeaux wines, I'll try them. Honestly, this wine is great. Gravel, tobacco, damp soil, pure dark fruits. fresh and balanced, just delicious wine, and improves on the second day, becomes very harmonious. Not a light wine - think roasts or a steak or a burger, but not in any way overwhelming.

2008 Domaine Rimbert Saint-Chinian Les Travers de Marceau, $13.50, Jenny & François Selections. This is a blend of Mourvedre, Carignan, and Grenache from the western Languedoc. For a leathery and dark wine that sheds grains of soil with every sip, this wine manages to have great purity and poise. Think thinly slices dry sausages, or roast chicken with potatoes and mushrooms.

2008 Clos la Coutale Cahors, $13.50, Kermit Lynch Imports. I always enjoy this wine, a meaty Malbec with a bit of Merlot in the blend. It offers lovely fragrance and texture, and achieves an elegance that I find lacking in most Cahors. Of course it's great with beef, but there's something about the way it works with duck that really pushes my buttons.


Tricerapops said...

timely post. i too had to reevaluate my wine budget as of late, and think about what my strategy should be. i'm too big of a fan of variety, to stick to the idea of a basic house red/white that economical and reaching for higher priced wines on the weekend. i'm more of an advocate of your approach, what i call the weighted average approach (if you will).

I struggle with the idea of how one values inexpensive wine. i don't think that wine consumers are purposely giving a wine slack because it's cheap, i think it's more a case of wanting to find that $10 bottle that's drinking like it's $20. Joe Dressner went on one of his Twitter rants about a month ago on this very topic, basically challenging the idea of describing a wine (in a positive sense) as 'inexpensive.'

Cliff said...

Thanks for the post. This has been my strategy for -- wow, it's been nearly a decade -- awhile now. But I've still only tried a few of those wines.

Michele Connors said...

Great suggestions. No Italian possibilities though? I totally hate this good wine = expensive notion and I think it must be stopped. One of the reasons wine is considered part of every meal in Europe is that you can get a decent wine for not much money. Yes, I said decent, not excellent, but if we are going to improve wine knowledge and wine sales in the U.S., people have to start drinking and enjoying regularly, developing their palates, etc., without blowing thousands of dollars.

Brooklynguy said...

Tricerapops - i cannot think of it that way, to try to find a $10 bottle that drinks like a $20 bottle. there are bottles at all price points that stink and others are great. for me the key is to decide what i think is great at any price point, and that is deliciousness and expression of place. there are ways to find those things at $10-$15, and that's my only point.

Cliff - my pleasure. you should try some, i bet you'd like.

Live from Tuscany - you know, i felt bad about not picking anything Italian, but there simply wasn't anything that to my palate competed in Italian reds at Chambers st. There are a few whites at this price that I've enjoyed, including a Grillo and a Soave, but I guess I prefer the wines I suggested. You could easily find good Italian wine at chambers St at the $10-$13 price point though.

Anonymous said...

'Fou de chene'--one translation of that is 'crazy about oak.' You aren't, so I gather it wasn't oaky!

Nick Bumstead said...

Agree that $10 is a very tough price point for wine these days - and my value range is around the $12 - $15 mark. For Italian whites - I really enjoy the Hauner 2008 Salina Bianco IGT (italian white) for $12 at CSW - inexpensive, but really interesting.

Michele Connors said...

I hear you, BrooklynGuy. It may mean that some of the bset reasonably priced stuff isn't making it into the US market! Smaller winemakers may not produce enough or have the time/ability to reach out to US distribution.

Lindsey said...

I have a few super inexpensive whites that I love and a few reds in the $12-$15 range. I will definitely look to see if distribution on these has made it down South!

Henri Vasnier said...

Brooklynguy, you must not be getting very good California wines in New York City. Granted, Europe is just as close to you. But zero $13 CA wines that are worth drinking? Buy (winery direct) yourself a mixed case of Navarro, to name one of several. Cheers!