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Exploring Wine on a Budget Part I: Old World

Catching the wine bug can be a costly endeavor. One is immediately tempted to buy the best they can afford in order to discover what is so special about wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Puligny-Montrachet, Napa Valley Cabernet, etc. Even if you can afford more expensive wine right off the bat, it may not be the best idea to dive right into the deep end of the pool. Wines that command high price points do so for a reason--one of them being that they offer lots of complexity, which can be lost to a newcomer to wine. Enjoying a village level Puligny-Montrachet becomes much more meaningful having first tasted a simple, yet satisfying Mâcon-Villages. Excess of funds was not a problem with which I was familiar when I first began to purchase wine. I would browse the top shelves of wine shops (or liquor stores, as is the case in Mississippi) to see what exalted names I could find, but then I would search for something I could actually buy--something in the neighborhood of $8-15. This lead me to the realm of basic Chianti, Argentine Malbec, Beaujolais, and Côtes du Rhône, maybe some wine from California as well--"Just stay away from Barefoot," I told myself.

I knew that quality at lower price points was possible. Wine for Dummies was my reference point to finding affordable, yet quality wine. The prices they give are a little outdated in my edition, but the advice remains solid. The good news is that quality wine at affordable price points is more prolific than ever. Wine Spectator's latest edition (Jan. 31-Feb. 28, 2022) in fact highlights this very fact. Wines in the $10-20 range could give you an excellent overview of the world's greatest wine regions and could keep you busy for some time to boot. What follows is some advice on doing just that, and some bottle recommendations to kick you off, all for $20 or less.*


France

Okay, I had to start with France. I'm a little biased, but France is renowned for its wine for a reason. It has over 2,000 years of experience making wine and flip-flops with Italy as the world's largest producer of wine in the world. Famous for its top wines from regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne, France also offers a plethora of quality wines at excellent prices. Wines to look out for include bottles from regional, as opposed to village-level and single-vineyard level appellations. AOCs (Appellation d'Orgine Contôlée, the legal basis for defining French wine regions) such as Bordeaux/Bordeaux Supérieur, Bourgogne Rouge/Blanc, Alsace, and Côtes du Rhône/Côtes du Rhône-Villages offer a great introduction to the more famous wines from these regions, particularly in the hands of a good producer. If sparkling wine is your thing, just about every region in France makes a crémant--a sparkling wine made in the traditional, i.e. champagne, method. And don't forget the south of France, Provence and Languedoc, where rosé is a specialty but quality wines of all colors can be found. Here are a few bottles to try:


Jean-Marc Brocard AOC Chablis Sainte Claire--Brocard is a well-respected producer of organic viticulture in Chablis, and while this may be entry level Chablis, it punches well above its weight, hovering around $20/bottle depending on your local wine merchant. It's a crisp and varietally pure example of the Chardonnay grape with classic notes from the region of wet stone, flint, lemon zest, and white flower blossoms. Cellar Brocard's Premier and Grand Cru bottles and enjoy this one while you wait.


Albert Bichot AOC Bourgogne Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes--This bottle will run you $18-20 and is a great introduction to the potential of regional Burgundy in the hands of a skilled producer. Medium tannins with flavors and aromas of strawberry, blackberry, violets, black cherry and subtle chocolate make this a perfect pairing to a weekday crock-pot boeuf bourguignon.


Mouton Cadet AOC Bordeaux Rouge--Owned by the same Mouton-Rothschild of Bordeaux 1st Growth fame, this is solid bang for your buck. Costing $12-15 at most retailers it's a merlot-dominated blend, with grippy tannins and a core of dark fruits, plum, and chocolate.


E. Guigal AOC Côtes du Rhône Rouge--This is one of my absolute favorite wines. I've tried most vintages since 2010 and it never disappoints. Unlike most other Côtes du Rhône blends, it has a higher proportion (50%) of Syrah, which gives the wine structure and greater longevity than other regional Côtes du Rhône. Each year is a testament to the vintage conditions, but looking over my notes from the past few vintages, tobacco, licorice, and blackberry are consistent descriptors, all hallmarks of the Syrah grape. In Wisconsin I could buy a bottle for as low as $13, but now in Mississippi it runs me $17.


La Vieille Ferme Rouge--Okay, seriously, this is real value. A humble Vin de France, it is owned and operated by the Perrin family, who also own Château de Beaucastel, one of the leading estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Known fondly as the "Chicken Wine," it also comes in white and rosé. At $8 a bottle ($15 for a magnum, or 1.5 liter bottle) it can't be beat. It's a traditional southern French blend of Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah. It's spicy, fruity, and absolutely delicious.


Italy


Italian wines are made for food, and Italian food is made for wine. A match made it Heaven! While fine French wines can have an air of pomp and circumstance about them, Italy's wines feel down to earth, from the humblest of wines to the exalted. Piedmont and Tuscany are undoubtedly the most famous regions of Italy, but the entire country is covered in vines. While international varieties are grown and thrive in Italy, there are hundreds of native grape varietals that make interesting and quality wines. While reds dominate, Italy produces excellent whites from international and native varietals. It's a country ripe for vinous exploration.


Caparzo IGT Toscana Rosso--I used to not like Sangiovese. At least I thought I didn't like Sangiovese. I decided to give this bottle a try when it was the wine of the week at Barriques Café in Madison, Wisconsin. Suffice it to say I drink a lot more Sangiovese now. Elisabetta Gnudi Angelini is the proprietor of this Montalcino estate, along with Altesino and a couple of others. It's 100% Sangiovese and a good wine to start with if you want to understand the grape. Its tannins are well integrated into a medium-bodied wine of red and black fruit, with a nice whiff of earth and herbs to keep it structured. $10-15 a bottle.


Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio DOC Trentino--I'll let you in on a little secret: drink Pinot Grigio from Trentino, not from Venezie. Located in northern Italy in the DOC of Alto Adige, the climate is cooler here than in Venezie, leading to wines of higher acidity and more complexity. There's nothing wrong with Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, but for the same price you can drink something more interesting. It's the same grape with notes of pear, melon, and flowers--just less meh on the mid-palate. All for $12.


Di Majo Norante Sangiovese IGT Terre degli Osci--Another 100% varietal Sangiovese, but this one comes from the region of Molise, southeast of Rome and northeast of Naples. It's aromas and flavors remind you of Italian cuisine: oregano, bacon fat, smoke, and charred meat and supported by dark fruits such as plum and blackcurrant. It'll cost you around $15.


Inama DOC Soave--Soave is a wine made in the Veneto from the native Italian grape, Garganega. It's somewhat reminiscent of a crisp Chardonnay, but what sets it apart is the notes of fennel and bitter almond on the finish. Pairs very well with seafood. $16.


Pillastro Selezione d'Oro IGT Puglia--I would be remiss not to include a selection from Puglia, the native land of my grandmother. This wine is a blend of negroamaro (the dark, bitter one) and primitivo (aka zinfandel). Unsurprisingly, it is big and bold. Notes of licorice, blackberry, and bramble fruit take center stage followed by spice and charred wood. Think hearty stews and grilled meat. $15-18.


Spain


While Spain ranks third in world-wide wine production, it actually has the most land under vine. Many of these vines are very old, however, and produce little wine. Spain is a budget-conscious wine-lovers paradise. Love Burgundy, but can't afford it--drink traditionally-styled Rioja. Love Bordeaux, but can't afford the classified growths--drink Ribera del Duero. Love Champagne but can't afford it--drink Cava. Love Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but can't afford it--drink reds from the Penedès and Calatayud. You get my point. Spain is choc-full of value wines. Okay, I'm getting thirsty now...


Martin Codax Albariño DO Rias Biaxas--Known as Alvarinho in Portugal, Albariño is one of my favorite white grapes, and Martin Codax's is one of the easiest to find. Named after the 13th century Galician minstrel, this wine offers consistent quality for $15-17 a bottle. Notes of sea breeze, cucumber, melon, and lime are followed by a crisp finish with a salty tang. Perfect with anything from the sea.


Las Rocas Garnacha DO Calatayud--Calatayud is one of Spain's answers to France's Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Old, bush trained-Garnacha vines produce small berries of concentrated fruit in the hot continental climate of this part of Spain, and the resulting wines are deeply colored with intense flavors. Coming from vines with an average age of 40-60 years old, Las Rocas is a powerful wine with intense flavors of black fruit, smoke, and crushed rock. All for $10-15 dollars.


Camp Viejo DOC Rioja Tempranillo--This youthful Rioja reminds me of a cross between a regional red Burgundy and Beaujolais-Villages. Cherry and plum dominate, with hints of bubblegum, cinnamon, toast, and tobacco. Solid quality and widely available for $10-12.


Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut DO Cava--A best selling Cava in the US, Freixenet's distinctive black matte Cordon Negro Brut is a favorite go-to of mine. We served this at our wedding reception. It showcases ripe lemon, pear, and apple with subtle pineapple and the faintest toasty note on the finish. Great as an aperitif or with traditional Catalan appetizers like pan con tomate. $15 locally for me, but you can grab a bottle at Total Wine for $10.


La Guita Manzanilla DO Sanlúcar de Barrameda--No discussion of Spanish wine could be complete without a mention of Sherry. Grossly underappreciated, Sherry is great in cocktails and is super versatile at the table. Manzanilla can only come from the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and is bone-dry. It pairs with various dishes such as jamón, Manchego cheese, olives, and seafood. La Guita is $22 a bottle, so I'm technically cheating here with my recommendation, but as sherry is often sold in 375ml bottles, you can get one for $13. The half-bottle size is perfect for sharing over appetizers (or not...nothing like getting in touch with your muse with a meditative Manzanilla buzz). Savory and tangy, La Guita's Manzanilla has flavors and aromas of tarragon, chamomile, sea breeze, and olive brine.


The Old World has much to offer in terms of wine, not just its most famous bottles. Quality and affordability coexist as well. I've regrettably excluded Portugal, Germany, and many other wine-producing nations in Europe from this post that produce wines with excellent quality to price ratio; I still have a lot of exploration to do myself in these regions, and I wanted to start anyways with the most recognizable countries. My next post, however, will turn to the New World.


*Prices are based off of personal buying experience, as well as prices found on sites such as wine-searcher.com, vivino.com, and totalwine.com.



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