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Cheaper Wines Taste Just as Good as High-End Wines

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

We are convinced that a talented winemaker can make a good, cheap wine just as well as a great, expensive wine. But there is considerable effort being made in California to produce ridiculously expensive wines just to raise a winery’s image.

There is no dearth of prestigious wines. Domaine de la Romanee-Conti has an unassailable reputation and its grand cru sells for roughly $20,000 a bottle. Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle was soaring under the radar until wine potentate Robert Parker Jr. gave it 99-point scores. Now, its prices soar at dizzying heights. The sauvignon blanc – a sauvignon blanc! – commands more $5,000 a bottle and gets an average 91-point score.

There are wines at a fraction of that cost scoring much higher. So, do you really want to spend this money on a bottle of wine? Clearly, most of you don’t.

We haven’t tasted Domaine Romanee-Conti or Screaming Eagle and suspect we never will. But we’ve had plenty of wines that cost more than $100 and even they are hard to justify the cost. There is a sea of wines at $20-30 that satisfy our interests. And, on occasion, we’ll splurge for a $70 bottle. But unless you really know your wine, it’s risky to pay this kind of money if you aren’t convinced that you’ll like the wine.

Price isn’t always a reliable barometer to determine what you’ll like. We’ve done plenty of blind tastings for friends and rarely does a taster pick the most expensive candidate as the one he or she likes the best. On the other hand, an inexpensive wine with fruit-forward character and minimal acidity seems to grab the most attention.

A friend asked us to taste an Argentinian wine the other day, convinced we would pan something sold at Trader Joes. Indeed, we didn’t expect much from a tempranillo made in Argentina. But, guess what? At $4 a bottle, we wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve it to guests.

The average cost of a bottle of wine is around $15. The pandemic has driven up that average cost because people stuck in their homes are splurging on wine. Retailers are reporting brisk sales in the $30-plus price category – still cheaper than what a consumer would pay in most restaurants.

There is a significant tradeoff for bargain prices. You won’t find much complexity in cheaper wines because many don’t see the inside of expensive French oak barrels and the source of the grapes are from less prestigious regions, such as Central Valley in California. But, if you’re willing to trade off complexity, body and depth, there is a world of satisfying wines awaiting you. Here a half-dozen gems we recently tasted:

  • Enate Tempranillo Somontano 2018 ($12). This is an amazingly good wine for the price. A very ripe expression of tempranillo from this somewhat obscure wine region tucked into the northeast corner of Spain. Lovely notes of fresh plum, cherries and herbs and a minimal expression of oak create a great package.

  • La Finca Oak-Aged Tempranillo 2020 ($4). Frankly, we don’t know how the producer can make any money – the bottle, labeling and processing has to absorb three-fourths of the cost. It’s aged for only three months, so don’t get too excited. However, the wine is delicious. From Argentina, it is light color with forward blackberry and cherry notes. No complexity, but delicious for the price.

  • Rodney Strong Knotty Vines Chardonnay California 2018 ($15). Nice apple and tropical fruit notes with almost no discernable oak influences. Very refreshing.

  • Rodney Strong Knotty Vines Pinot Noir California 2018 ($15). Refreshing fruit redolent of cherry and strawberry.

  • Mottura Negroamaro Del Salento IGT Puglia 2018 ($15-20). This is a grapey, full-bodied red wine from the Puglia region of Italy. Not overly complicated, it is just an abundantly fruity wine that is easy to drink.

  • Roaming Dog Columbia Valley Chardonnay 2019 ($14). Aged in stainless-steel tanks for 8 months, this chardonnay doesn’t have the complexity of an oak-aged wine, but its simple, pure fruit character is something to appreciate. Ripe pear notes and fresh acidity.

Wines from Sicily

Sicily is one of the most overlooked wine growing regions in Europe. We are regularly impressed with discovering both red and white gems from this largest island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Here are a couple we have tasted from Tasca d’Almerita:

  • Tenuta Whitaker Mozia Grillo 2019 ($22). Aged three months on the lees in stainless steel, this unfiltered wine is fresh and abundant in fresh apple and stone fruit flavors. From the tiny island of Mozia on the western side of Sicily, grillo is grown on little, wind-swept bushes. Very unique. Citrus and grapefruit notes with a touch of minerality. If you like pinot grigio, you’ll like grillo.

  • Capofaro Didyme 2019 ($26). Made entirely of Malvasia di Lapari grapes from the island of Salina north of mainland Sicily, it is aged four months on the lees in stainless steel. This wine has unique flavors that may not appeal to all palates. Floral aromas with peach flavors and a hint of almonds.

Wine picks

  • Talbott Sleep Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($42). The luxurious quality of this chardonnay is an ideal match to fish and fowl. The pear and tropical fruit aromas are enough to enjoy without food. Add the juicy pineapple and apricot flavors with hints of spice and you have a hedonistic, creamy gem for the table.

  • The Hilt Estate Chardonnay 2017 ($45). New to the lineup, this chardonnay makes its debut with the 2017 vintage. Good balance of lushness and acidity, it has stone fruit flavors and nice minerality.

  • Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($24). You get a decent, food-friendly chardonnay for the price here. Soft mouthfeel with oodles of peach and pear notes with a touch of citrus and oak.

  • Luce Lucente 2017 ($30). Tuscan wine producers learned long ago that sangiovese can have too much acidity. Adding merlot to soften the wine takes the traditional chianti to another level. The second label of a pricier Luce, this sangiovese/merlot blend has a red berry jam aroma with raspberry and black cherry flavors and hints of tobacco and licorice. It is light enough to be enjoyed with turkey but offsets cranberries, sausage and other side dishes too.

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