Grocery store wine, and especially grocery store wine from the biggest companies, takes a lot of abuse on the blog (and deservedly so). So when Big Wine does grocery store wine right, it’s worth noting, and that’s why you’re reading about the Banfi CollePino.
Banfi is among the top 20 biggest producers in the U.S. which makes the Banfi CollePino ($9, sample, 13%) all that much more interesting. That’s because it shows what Big Wine can do when it aims for more then technical correctness — that is, boring wine made without any flaws. In this, the CollePino is varietally correct, so that it’s made with sangiovese and tastes like sangiovese, with the telltale tart cherry fruit, a certain freshness, and soft tannins. It’s also worth noting that these wines need some oak to temper the, bu that it it has almost no oak and yet what little oak there is has done its job. This is a testament to Big Wine’s technical ability.
But that may not be the CollePino’s greatest asset. It’s made with a bit of merlot, which softens the sangiovese and produces a wine that’s soft enough so that it won’t scare off the grocery store smooth wine drinkers who are, I assume, its target audience. But those of us who want more than smooth should also be happy, and especially if we drink it with anything with red sauce. Highly recommended, and candidate for the 2017 $10 Hall of Fame.
I’d like a bottle of Rhone Rangers, please.
• Not so fast, Big Wine: A group of Australian family producers, angered by Big Wine companies who market their “family” roots, have issued a furious denunciation of the practice. “I’m really sick of the latest trend for corporate misuse of the term ‘family’ when promoting wine brands that were sold by the family founders eons ago and conning wine loving consumers and trade alike,” Robert Hill-Smith, the fifth-generation vigneron at Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Yalumba, told the The Weekend Australian newspaper. Hill-Smith said Big Wine subsidiaries portraying themselves as family companies undermined the validity of family-owned businesses actually owned by families. This is a fascinating story; wineries never air this sort of thing in public, though they say it in private all the time. It also speaks to Big Wine’s need not to be seen as big, something that never seems to bother General Foods or Procter & Gamble. Why that is I’ll leave to the experts.
• Score one for the Italians: The Wine Curmudgeon regularly bemoans the lack of wine education in the U.S., which is why this Italian proposal is so impressive: Children 6 to 13 would spend one hour a week learning about Italy’s wine industry as part of the national education curriculum. “We’re not trying to teach kids to drink – although even if we were it wouldn’t be so bad,” said the sponsor of the legislation. “It’s been shown that knowledge creates responsible drinkers. But this is just an extra subject that will enrich the education of our students. We make children study music in school without expecting them to become musicians.” Hopefully, the various neo-Prohibitionists who are trying to roll back U.S. drinking laws will note this and pause for a moment.
• Won’t they ever learn? A website called Elite Daily, with 2.8 million Facebook likes, ran a piece about how to buy wine in a restaurant and impress your date in the process. The story, supposedly written with advice from a top wine retailer, repeats almost every misconception about restaurant wine I have lamented since the blog started. Gruner veltliner! Plus, it recommends buying white wine from France’s Loire, which is a wonderful idea save for the fact that many wine lists, and especially those at mid-priced restaurants, have little, if any, white Loire. Or we should buy cabernet franc from Spain, which hardly exists. Or we should buy a wine called Rhone Rangers, which is not a wine, but a group of producers in California who make wines with Rhone grapes. Maybe we can enroll the people at Elite Daily in the Italian school wine educations classes.
During last week’s judging at the Texsom International Wine Awards, another judge and I were commiserating about how difficult it had to become to find value in California, and just not at my price range. Fortunately, the judge told me, there is always Spain and Italy.
Which is about the best way possible to introduce the Farnese Fantini sangiovese ($10, purchased, 12%), an Italian red wine from Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast west of Rome. Cheap wine doesn’t get much better than this; it’s as if the last couple of years of premiumization and dumbing down wine never happened. The Fantini (Farnese is the producer) is surprisingly layered and rich for a $10 sangiovese, with almost sour cherry fruit, black pepper, and what the tasting notes call a wood flavor, an intriguing way to describe how sort of oaky it is.
The other thing I liked? That it tasted like sangiovese, but didn’t taste like the $10 sangioveses from Umbria, about two hours north or Abruzzo, or those from Tuscany, another couple of hours north. In this, we get a chance to taste terroir for our $10, and how often does that happen with cheap wine?
Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2017 $10 Hall of Fame. Pair the Fantini with red sauce, of course, but don’t be afraid to try it with grilled meats and beef stews.
Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month.
? Estancia Pinot Grigo 2014 ($9, purchased, 13.5%): This California white is another example of the deteriorating state of cheap wine. If you drank it when it was released almost a year ago, it had pleasant apple and tropical fruit and was certainly worth what it cost. Drink it almost a year after release, which I did, and the fruit is gone and what’s left is mostly pithy bitterness — the kind of wine people cite when they say they don’t like wine. Even $9 white wine should last 15 or 18 months.
? Pascual Toso Malbec 2014 ($8, purchased, 14%): This red is a decent enough grocery store Argentine malbec, without too much jammy berry fruit and a little rusticity for balance, though there is way too much fake oak. It’s not bad, but not as good as it could be.
? Louis Jadot M con-Villages 2014 ($10, purchased, 12.5%): This French white is everything the Estancia isn’t, and offers at least $10 worth of chardonnay. Look for green apple, a nicely rich mouth feel, and short if refreshing finish. It should be in most supermarkets in the country, so you have something to buy if all else fails.
? Scarpetta Timido NV ($17, purchased, 12%): This sweetish Italian rose sparkling wine has lots of strawberry and then some more sweetness, just like I remember from the bad old days. You can buy the same quality wine for half the price without any trouble at all.
One of the problems with really cheap wine — the $3, $4, and $5 labels like Trader Joe’s Two-buck Chuck and Whole Foods’ Three Wishes — is that they don’t always taste like the grapes they’re made with. That is, they’re not varietally correct. The merlot tastes like the pinot noir, the pinot tastes like the cabernet sauvignon, and so on and so forth.
Which is not the case with the Benedetto Chianti ($5, purchased, 12.5%), a really cheap Italian red wine from Aldi. It tastes like Chianti — not “this Chianti is so good it made me cry” Chianti, but that’s true of wines that cost three or four times as much as the Benedetto. Call this the “man, this Chianti is better than I thought it was going to be” Chianti, which is never a bad thing for $5.
The Benedetto Chianti is simple and juicy, with a little tart cherry fruit. It’s softer than many Chiantis and doesn’t have the burst of telltale acidity, but there’s enough of the latter so that you can tell it’s Chianti if you’re forced to do a blind tasting. In this, it’s fairly priced at $5 — just enough less interesting than the $8 Melini, and obviously not as interesting as the $10 Caposaldo and Straccali.
And, for those of you who want to tweak the wine snob in your life, the Benedetto Chianti is DOCG, the second highest rung in the Italian appellation system. That it can be DOCG and only cost $5 says a lot about how the Italian wine business works, and why it’s as well made as it is.
In those long ago days before pinot grigio, we drank Soave or maybe Frascati and Gavi when we wanted Italian white wine. Not that we drank much Italian white wine; it was a novelty for a wine drinking culture that assumed all Italian wine was red and came in a wicker-covered bottle.
These days, Italian white wine, mostly pinot grigio, ranks as one of the biggest imports in the country, and wines like the Pio Cesare Gavi ($15, purchased, 12.5%) are something most of us don’t drink. Which is too bad, because the Cesare is well worth drinking, an example of what happens when a top producer puts care and effort into an affordable wine made with a grape, cortese, that is not well regarded.
Look for minerality and a little lemon and dash of herbs in a wine that is so subdued and understated that it takes almost a glass before you understand what is going on. It’s also a stunning value for the price; most quality Gavis cost more than $20, and those at this price are usually too simple for a $15 wine.
Highly recommended, and just the thing for spaghetti with clam sauce with garlic and parsley.
My tasting notes for the Falesco Vitiano Bianco are simple and to the point: “Cheap wine doesn’t get any better than this.”
The Falesco ($10, purchased, 12.5%), an Italian white blend, has been that way since I first tasted it 10 or 12 years ago. The red and the rose have been equally as impressive, an example to the the rest of the wine world that it’s possible to combine value, quality, and terroir in a cheap wine. This wine is so well made and so dependable that a distributor friend of mine practically went into mourning when his company lost the rights to sell the brand.
What else do you need to know about this blend of verdicchio and vermentino from Umbria in central Italy? Look for some citrus aromas, white fruit flavors (somewhere between apricot and peach) and a pleasing Italian minerality at the end. Drink this chilled on its own, whenever you want a glass of white wine after work. It’s also a fine food wine, pairing with almost anything, be it Chinese takeout or spaghetti with clam sauce.
Highly recommended, and the Falesco Vitiano Blanco will return to the 2016 $10 Hall of Fame next month. And, in this, the perfect wine of the week to introduce the third annual Best Cheap Wine Poll, which starts tomorrow.