From the cheap seats…

October 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Reprinted from Portland Press Herald October 13, 2010

A reader recently commented (gently) that the price range of wines I’ve been discussing is creeping upwards. It was just one reader, but he probably speaks for several at least and anyway, the point’s well taken. There are so many brilliant wines in the mid-teens that it’s difficult to resist promoting them, but most people, most nights, are probably looking for something closer to $10.

Truly interesting $10 wines are hard to find, which is part of the reason I’m not taking a vow of <$12 from here on out. I will, however, try to highlight lower-priced wines I find that defy mass-produced pressures toward homogeneity, inoffensiveness and masks.

I remain convinced that the best bargains in wine these days are in the $12-$17 range – by which I mean that therein lie the most extreme complexity-to-price ratios. There are many very good $10-$12 wines available in Maine, but complexity is less what I’m looking for than balance, humility, respect for place and varietal, and something (a flavor, a texture, a connotation) interesting. Ten-to-twelve bucks can get you something more than good, if you know where to look and don’t compromise your standards of interestingness. Set your bar a bit lower for complexity, though, and then you’ll have something wonderful to look forward to when a special occasion and a few more bucks arise.

Les 3 Domaines La Croix Blanche 2008, Cotes de Gascogne, France, $10. White wines from Gascogny, usually made with such grapes as Colombard, Ugni Blanc and Gros Manseng (the same ones used to make cognac), are often delightfully light, petillant (slightly bubbly) and fun. This shares that pedigree but adds some welcome new traits: fattier body, lingering sweetness, and an oily, green-olive thing that makes it a natural for saute vegetables.

Arona Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, New Zealand, $10. From the South Island in one of sauvignon blanc’s true homes, this is what we call “overdelivery”– a wine that provides much more than the price would suggest. It’s salty, really crisp, with fresh grass instead of acrid grassiness (an NZ pitfall). A touch of sweetness at the beginning gives way to lime and grapefruit. But it’s kind, gentle lime-and-grapefruit.

Lo Brujo Macabeo 2009, Calatayud, Spain, $10. If more people brought this all-rounder to pot-lucks, I wouldn’t dread pot-lucks. Linear at first, it really gained dimensions a full hour after it was opened, so don’t think only “great” or expensive wines need to breathe. It got fat and resounding, with nuts, custard, warmth, straw and sunshine. Hello, autumn.

Culpeo Pinot Noir 2008, Curico Valley, Chile, $9-$10. New-world pinots are often hot, ‘roid-raging frat-boys after the winemaker’s done with them, but this is honest, “varietally correct” pinot noir, with the delicacy, grippy mouthfeel, cherry-earth balance, and slight char I’m usually looking for. Made from organic grapes (though many wines that don’t mention this are too).

Terra Unica Reserva 2002, Valencia, Spain, $10. You read that right: Eight-year-old Spanish wine for $10, and it’s very alive. Tempranillo and Monastrell team up to give us cigar, leather and incense, balanced by whispering tannins and delicate body. A pal and I wonder whether the hint of oranges we sense is “really” there or mere suggestion from the wine’s geographic origin. Does it matter?

Campos de Viento Old Vine Tempranillo 2009, Ucles, Spain, $10. Surprisingly deep, with that dried-plum fruit Spanish-wine lovers appreciate, though the news here is the bright, lip-smacking minerality. A terrific balance of sparkle and forestlike maturity.

Monte Antico 2006, Toscana, Italy, $11. Everything about this wine screams “autumn” – the dusty attic spirit, the stripped-down quality, the wet leaves. An Old Soul.

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