When asked to write an article about great cheap wine, I thought long and hard about the best way to go about it. Rating wine has a lot to do with personal taste, so I didn't see how I could write a fair evaluation by just rewriting what others had said. I wasn't comfortable with that. After all, I am a chef, and I do have a reputation to consider.
I called up a few friends and proposed that we all go out and buy a bottle of what we though would be a good wine, bring it to my house, and we would sample them. The rules were that they had to cost under $20.00 a bottle. They could not be any of the mass-produced table wines such as Paul Masson, Riunite, Blue Nun, Yago, etc… The wines could not be toxic, such ad Mad Dog 20/20, Thunderbird, Boones Farm, Torpedo Red, Ripple, Cripple Creek, or anything else known to the state of California to have a half-life. And absolutely nothing home-made that glows in the dark!
We were in the middle of the worst snowstorm Tennessee could remember, so we had little else to do anyway. We all live within walking distance of each other, and the Shopping Center, which has a Walmart, Food Lion, Bi-Lo, and a small Beverage and Tobacco Store. We were in good shape.
My friends, who shall remain nameless to protect their anonymity (and police records), showed up and we began an odyssey into the world of inexpensive wines with 5 hand-selected representatives. Here are the results. They are not in any particular order of preference:
Candidate #1: Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin 2008 - $9.99
A California Zinfandel. If the name wasn't enough to intimidate by itself, the label was positively ominous: a black tree with tentacle-like limbs reaching out, against a Great-Pumpkin orange background. I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. The label said it came from Lodi, California. When we opened the bottle, I was expecting smoke, or a genie, or something to pop out. In the glass, it was crystal-clear, with a deep ruby-red color, So far, so good. The bouquet was assertive and intoxicating, with notes of Black Cherry, vanilla and coffee. I was becoming optimistic. I tentatively took the first sip, and was overcome with relief. This stuff was actually drinkable. The taste was deep, and complex, with Black Cherry everywhere, and a pleasant woody overtone. It had a goodly amount of tannins, but I expected that from a 2008 wine, and they were not unpleasant. The finish was long and wonderfully tart. This wine would go great with pasta and marinara, or anything spicy. Not quite a luscious as some other Zinfandels I have sampled, but at $9.99 a bottle, this is a bargain in anyone's book.
Candidate #2: Trumpeter Pinot Noir 2008 - $8.99
The label said this one came from the Rutini Winery in Argentina, which made me feel a little better. I am familiar with the Rutini Wineries. They have a history dating back to the late 1800s, and a good reputation. In the glass, the wine was a bit darker than I would've expected for a Pinot Noir, but is was absolutely clear and clean-looking. Intitially, the nose was a bit overwhelming, and hard to pick out individual notes, but it mellowed out quickly into a pleasing blend of cherry, tart raspberry, and honeysuckle. It is nice and dry, with a bold strawberry/cranberry taste, a great silky mouth feel, and a long strawberry finish. This would be great with pork chops, pork roast, or baked ham. Just remember to let it breathe a minute or two. At $8.99 a bottle, this is a winner.
Candidate #3: Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc 2009 - $10.99
In the glass, it was a bit darker than I expected, but it had a lovely greenish-tinged gold color. This was probably the prettiest wine out of all that we sampled. It was spring-water clear. Coming from New Zealand, I expected a strong citrus nose, but I was taken by surprise by the attention-grabbing mineral overtones, similar to Bass Pale Ale. There were some citrus notes, but mostly melon, and what I can only describe as fresh-mowed grass. When I took the first sip, I found where the citrus was hiding….sunny grapefruit, Granny Smith Apple, and honeydew melon, all in perfect harmony, and just the right amount of acidity. The finish was long and fruity. This is the wine to go with poached trout, or baked stripers (freshwater striped bass), or even broiled catfish. At this price, there is no reason not to keep a bottle of this in the kitchen. Another winner.
Candidate #4 Barefoot Chardonnay Vintage Unknown - $6.99
OK, I was a bit apprehensive about drinking anything that started with the word "Barefoot", but I pressed on. So far, we were 3 for 3, and had discovered some great cheap wine, but I knew there had to be a Joker in the deck somewhere, and a wine named 'Barefoot' seemed a likely suspect. They didn't even put a year on the label…. In the glass, it was about what I would expect from a California Chardonnay, a nice medium gold color, and extremely clear. The bouquet reminded me of peach, and apple orchards. The nose was not strong, but enough. The crisp Rome apple and peach notes, and nice creamy mouthfeel on the palate pleasantly surprised me. The finish was mostly citrus, with good acidity. This is a great middle-of-the-road Chardonnay that would be perfect with baked, or rotisserie chicken, or roast turkey. This was the least expensive wine of the lot, and a great bargain.
Candidate #5 Carmen Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 - $13.99
This was the most expensive of the bunch, but still very reasonable. The label is beautiful and attractive, like what you would see on a much more expensive wine. It is labeled as a Cabernet Sauvignon, but upon further reading, I discovered that it is a blend of 80% Cabernet, 10% Syrah, and 5% Merlot. I normally do not care for blended wines, but this was an exception. In the glass, it has an enticing deep purplish-red color. The bouquet was extremely complex and interesting, with notes of mint, Cavendish pipe tobacco, and cedar forest right after a spring rain, with spicy and herbal overtones. The palate was an intense and rich experience of Crème de Cassis, and fresh blackberries, without being too fruity. It has a superb balance of tannins, and acidity, with a smooth silky berries and cream finish. This wine would be excellent with roast beef, pot roast, or steaks. It is worth way more than it's $13.99 price tag.
This experiment was a revelation for me. There was not a throwaway in the bunch. My previous experience with cheap wines has been with Thunderbird, Mad Dog 20/20, Boone's Farm, and other flavored embalming fluids. I intend to continue this exploration into the realm of budget-priced vino. I don’t know if we were just lucky, or maybe there is some really good cheap wine being made these days.