Wine’s Sweet Spot Is a $20 Bill
By Eric Asimov
Hollywood,CA(Spiritsman)(New York Times)7/26/12/—WHAT’S the right price for a bottle of wine? Silly question, I know. All sorts of prices are right, depending on the quality of the wine, the scarcity, the demand and other economic, social and psychological imperatives.
Strictly speaking, a wine can be a great value at $10 or $200, though for most of us, a steal at $200 is small consolation, like a $5 million apartment deemed an excellent deal because its price has dropped by half.
Beyond the realm of the theoretical, though, there are wine bull’s-eyes where high values intersect with low prices. On the low end, that sweet spot ranges from $15 to $25; practically speaking, let’s call it $20.
Now I admit: $20 a bottle is not cheap. For that price, you could buy 10 bottles of Two-Buck Chuck, headaches no extra charge! For a little more (say, $10 a bottle), you can find wine that is perfectly palatable. But is palatable good enough?
Not for me. I want wine that excites me, that feels so good to drink that one sip urges on the next and the next after that. I want a wine that tells a story of a place and a people and a culture, that is not the predictable equivalent of a franchise restaurant but more like a little mom-and-pop’s, where you’re not always sure what you’ll find but you know it can have the capacity to inspire.
You might be able to find a bottle like that for $10. But it’s rarer than you think. At $15 to $25, though, the odds swing decidedly in your favor. With a little experience, you can find dozens of joyous bottles, plucked carefully from the ranks of the routine.
Touring a few shops in Manhattan last week, I was overwhelmed with good choices, reds and whites, sparklers and rosés. I culled 20 excellent bottles that are not only great for drinking now, in the oppressive heat, but throughout the year. Many are from small family domains, the equivalent of handmade wines, but not all. Size is not always a bad thing, as long as the wines express the regional flavor.
You will not find Napa cabernet, Barolo or Champagne at the $20 sweet spot, though I did include one Burgundy, from Chablis. Instead, you’ll find wines from less renowned regions, like Santorini and Corsica, and some with no official appellation at all, either because the wines do not conform to established styles, or because a producer chose not to deal with an entrenched bureaucracy. You’ll also find many unfamiliar grapes, which is one reason these are great values, as the soothing familiarity of cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir is often enough to add a few bucks to the price.
MEMORABLE BOTTLES FOR $20
François Pinon Vouvray Brut NV
A richer sparkling wine that is nonetheless dry, snappy, pure and precise with an undertone of honey, the gorgeous signature of the chenin blanc grape. François Pinon, one of my favorite Vouvray producers, has a knack for coaxing the perfect combination of voluptuous body and laserlike focus from chenin blanc. LOUIS/DRESSNER SELECTIONS
Domaine de l’Octavin Arbois The Péteux NV
This frothy sparkling chardonnay from the Jura is exuberant and floral yet dry, steely and absolutely delicious, perfect for a lunch outdoors. Octavin is a small, rather new estate started by a young couple, Alice Bouvot and Charles Dagand. They are devoted to natural winemaking, and the Péteux is a pétillant naturel. Rather than bottling finished wine with yeast and sugar in the manner of Champagne, which induces a second fermentation to produce bubbles, a pétillant naturel is bottled before the first fermentation is complete, producing a softer fizz. ZEV ROVINE SELECTIONS, NEW YORK
La Clarine Farm Sierra Foothills Rosé 2011
This is not one of those onion-skin-colored rosés from Provence, which epitomize the Mediterranean style. It’s darker, a pale ruby blend of syrah and mourvèdre grown in the Sierra Foothills, most often the source of bold, powerful zinfandels. This wine is a lesson in balance and elegance, dry and mineral, light enough for an aperitif yet substantial enough to drink throughout a meal.
Dönnhoff Nahe Estate Riesling 2011
Dönnhoff is one of the great riesling producers. The estate riesling is a blend of grapes from several different sites and offers more than initially meets the eye. Poured directly from a chilled bottle, it seems gently pleasant and lightly sweet at first. But as the wine warms up, its elegant nature becomes apparent, and a richness and rocky minerality emerge. TERRY THEISE ESTATE SELECTIONS/MICHAEL SKURNIK WINES, SYOSSET, N.Y.
Nusserhof Vino Rosso Elda 2009
I love the wines of Nusserhof, from the Tyrolean region of northeastern Italy. They are always pure and honest, and the 2009 Elda is no exception. It is made of schiava, a workhorse grape in the Trentino-Alto Adige area but rarely seen on these shores. It’s lightly fruity, with touches of olives and herbs, slightly reminiscent of a northern Rhône syrah, though less dense and structured. LOUIS/DRESSNER SELECTIONS
Edmunds St. John El Dorado County Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir 2009
Steve Edmunds is one of the iconoclasts of California, dedicated to gentle, insightful wines rather than blockbusters. He is also one of the few American winemakers who seek out gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, which he gets from El Dorado County high in the California gold country. The 2009 is spicy, fruity, light and inviting.
Josep Foraster Conca De Barberà Trepat 2010
This is a rare red made of 100 percent trepat, grown in the Catalonian region of Conca de Barberà in northeastern Spain. Usually, trepat is blended into rosés and cava. On its own, it is pale, fresh, light and cherry-scented, with a touch of bitter chocolate, delightful when lightly chilled. From 50-year-old vines. T. EDWARD WINES, NEW YORK
Burlotto Langhe Freisa 2010
The Piedmont region of northwestern Italy is best known for its nebbiolos and barberas, but oddball grapes like the freisa lurk there as well. Burlotto makes excellent Barolos, yet its 2010 Langhe freisa is fascinating. It’s reminiscent of nebbiolo with its combination of textural lightness, firm tannins and deep flavors, and if it is maybe more Naugahyde than leather, it’s perfect for burgers and sausages off the grill. It might even benefit from another year of aging. BACCHANAL WINE IMPORTS, PORT CHESTER, N.Y.
Guy Bossard Domaine de L’Écu Muscadet de Sévre-et-Maine Expression d’Orthogneiss 2010
Muscadet is perennially a great value, and the Muscadets from Guy Bossard’s Domaine de l’Écu are among the best. He makes three cuvées named after different soils, which, if you care to compare them, offer a quick lesson in terroir. The Expression d’Orthogneiss is pure and limpid, with an ample richness that belies its sheer texture. Yes, it’s delicious now, but (lean in close) good Muscadet like this one will age and improve for years. CHARTRAND IMPORTS, ROCKLAND, ME
Gilbert Picq et Ses Fils Chablis 2010
I love Chablis and am grateful that it remains perhaps the best value in Burgundy. Few wines are as instantly identifiable as Chablis, with its austere, chalky flavors that seem derived (in the imagination, at least) from the zillions of fossilized shells found in its soils. As a simple Chablis, this wine naturally doesn’t have the richness and intensity that you might find in a premier cru, the next step up, but it nonetheless offers an excellent introduction. POLANER SELECTIONS, MOUNT KISCO, N.Y.
La Rioja Alta Rioja Reserva Viña Alberdi Selección Especial 2005
Most of the wines on this list are of recent vintage, but the Viña Alberdi Reserva is aged before its release, as was once traditional with Rioja Reservas. The result is a seven-year-old wine, delicious now but capable of further aging. Unlike La Rioja Alta’s other cuvées, the Alberdi is 100 percent tempranillo and offers a classic profile of mellow fruit framed by vanilla from American oak. Beautifully integrated, lively and lovely. MICHAEL SKURNIK WINES
Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo 2010
Produttori del Barbaresco is one of the world’s finest wine co-ops, offering great values throughout its range. The Langhe nebbiolo is generally made from the grapes of young vines, or grapes that for one reason or another don’t go into the Barbarescos. This is a lighter gauge than a true Barbaresco but still offers all the classic leather, floral and red fruit flavors. VIAS IMPORTS, NEW YORK
Olivier Lemasson Vin de France Poivre et Sel 2011
Vibrant and spicy, light, bright and pure. Poivre et Sel hails from the Touraine region of the Loire Valley, source of many great values, and is made of the obscure pineau d’aunis grape, with a little gamay thrown in. Like all of Olivier Lemasson’s wines, it is produced with no added sulfur as a stabilizer, so store in a cool area. Better yet, drink up, lightly chilled. LOUIS/DRESSNER SELECTIONS
Argyros Santorini Assyrtiko 2010
Over the last few years I’ve fallen in love with the dry assyrtiko wines from the Greek island of Santorini. These wines, made from grapes trained to hug the volcanic soils as protection from the fierce ocean winds, offer an almost tactile sensation that prickles the mouth, as if the liquid were condensed from millions of microscopic sea pebbles. This one is fresh and fragrant, with a touch of citrus and tropical fruit flavor. ATHENEE IMPORTERS, HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.
Domaine Vico Corsica 2010
You’d expect a wine from Corsica to be a little rough-hewn, no? This is made of the nielluciu grape, sometimes rendered nielluccio, said to be a Corsican synonym for sangiovese. But this wine tastes nothing like Tuscan sangiovese. It’s deep, rich and mouth-filling, with an aroma of licorice; tannic yet expressive and pleasing. While it cries out for scrubby hillsides and the Mediterranean, I’ll settle for spit-roasted lamb. WINEBERRY AMERICA, VALLEY COTTAGE, N.Y.
Denis Jamain Domaine de Reuilly Les Pierres Plates 2009
It’s often said that the whites of Chablis and Sancerre have a lot in common because of their similar soils, despite the differences between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, their constituent grapes. Well, nobody could mistake this sauvignon blanc from Reuilly, a neighbor of Sancerre, for a Chablis. The ripe 2009 vintage amplifies the vivid pungency of the sauvignon blanc, though it can’t quite obscure its underlying savory mineral flavors. KERMIT LYNCH WINE MERCHANT, BERKELEY, CALIF.
Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées Côte de Brouilly 2010
Year after year, Domaine des Terres Dorées is one of my favorite Beaujolais producers. Jean-Paul Brun is defiantly old school, employing straightforward Burgundian techniques rather than the prevailing method in Beaujolais of semi-carbonic fermentation. His wines are capable of aging, yet enjoyable young as well. The Côte de Brouilly is fresh, energetic and spicy, light but intense and very fine. LOUIS/DRESSNER SELECTIONS, NEW YORK
Gunderloch Rheinhessen Riesling Kabinett Jean-Baptiste 2010
The 2010 vintage in Germany is considered one of the strangest (freakish, even), resulting in wines with absurdly high levels of acidity and unexpected amounts of sweetness. Somehow, Fritz and Agnes Hasselbach of Gunderloch managed to make a wine that tastes perfectly balanced. This is fruity, earthy and slightly sweet, as befits a kabinett wine. Pure pleasure. RUDI WIEST/CELLARS INTERNATIONAL, SAN MARCOS, CALIF.
Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina 2011
Txakolina (pronounced chock-oh-LEE-nah) is the traditional wine of Spanish Basque Country. While it may be consumed year-round in San Sebastián, it’s obscure elsewhere, even in the rest of Spain. Yet unexpectedly, Americans have fallen in love with these wines, especially the lightly sparkling versions from the Getaria region like this one, which is tangy, zesty and bone dry, with a saline edge that is perfect for shellfish. DE MAISON SELECTIONS, CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
Tablas Creek Vineyard Paso Robles Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2010
This estate, dedicated to making southern Rhône-style wines in the central coast region of California, keep getting better and better. Patelin de Tablas Blanc is a blend of four Rhône grapes: grenache blanc, viognier, roussanne and marsanne. The result is a structured, fresh, crisp and focused wine with a fine balance between lively fruit and herbal flavors.
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