Somewhere in my house, either stuffed in a drawer or buried in a box, are probably hundreds of the little plastic bulls that are attached to the neck of the bottle of the Sangre de Toro, a Spanish red blend. When I started doing this 20-some odd years ago, I drank a lot of what I called bull wine. It was $6 or $7 then, well made, and dependable.
I haven;t had Sangre de Toro in years. No reason to, really. I thought I knew what it tasted like, and I thought I had outgrown it. Which is a good reason to repeat the Wine Curmudgeon mantra: “Taste the wine before you judge it, dummy.”
So I bought a bottle for about $10, took it home, unscrewed the cap (a welcome change from the old days) and discovered that the wine has remained relevant. These days, it ?s made with Spanish versions of grenache and carignan. The former gives it fruitiness I don’t remember from before, while the latter adds body. It was fine on its own before dinner, and would also pair with simple red wine food — burgers, sausages, and the like.
• It’s from Bulgaria (and the back label notes that “Since we haven’t seen you in Bulgaria lately.” )
• It ?s actually available, which was really surprising given how many $10 wines that the Wine Curmudgeon likes that aren ?t available.
• It may be the best-made cheap merlot I’ve ever had. It’s certainly the best I’ve had in a long time, with enough tannin and structure to complement the cherry and plum fruit. Best yet, it wasn’t cloying and jammy, like so many inexpensive California merlots. It’s pleasant enough to drink on its own, but it would also complement barbecue, beef fajitas, and meat loaf. Most definitely a candidate for the 2010 $10 Hall of Fame.
This has been, for the past couple of vintages, a decent enough white wine blend. And then someone at The Other Guys, the subsidiary of Don Sebastiani & Sons (think Smoking Loon) that produces the wine and a Hey Mambo red, had a great idea: Use more viognier and chenin blanc and less sauvignon blanc. (And we know how much the Wine Curmudeon appreciates viognier and chenin blanc).
The result is impressive. Look for a fresh, apricot fruity and juicy wine that isn ?t sweet and has enough zing to stand up to most white wine foods. It reminded me of many of the cheap and well-made Gascogne wines that have showed up over the past couple of years. The suggested retail price is $13, so it may be available for as little as $10.99 in some parts of the country.
The Wine Curmudgeon has never understood why more people don ?t drink sparkling wine more often. One of the most fun parts of teaching my Cordon Bleu wine class was introducing the students to bubbly as something to drink with dinner (instead of, sadly, their preferred use — mimosas). Quality sparkling wine is fruity, has solid acid, and pairs with almost anything except big red meat.
And the Gruet (about $14) is an exceptional example of well-priced, well-made bubbly. That it is from New Mexico ? regional wine alert! ? makes it even better. The Brut is crisp and full of green apple fruit, without the overdone oak and toastiness that defines so many other, more expensive sparklers and Champagnes. It ?s also a little more sophisticated and softer than cava, Spanish sparkling wine.
Two years ago, this was a nifty $7 wine and it almost made the $10 Hall of Fame. The 2005 vintage, on the other hand, was fat and flabby, and was not interesting at all.
The good news is that the 2006 is almost up to the standards set by the 2003. This Douro, a Portuguese red blend, is still not as well put together as the ?03. It ?s kind of empty in the middle, and it ?s more jammy than it should be. (Whether this was a conscious decision by the winemaker to appeal to the American palate or the result of Portugal ?s recent unseasonably warm weather is anyone ?s guess.)
But it ?s certainly drinkable, with lots of red berry fruit, decent tannins, and it is food friendly ? think burgers or pizza. And you ?ll probably be able to buy it for as little as $8 at some retailers.
The Wine Curmudgeon, as noted, is a huge fan of chenin blanc. It can produce tasty, well-made, cheap wine that isn ?t chardonnay ? something that is always welcome. Which is why I was so glad to find the Dry Creek on sale for $9 (it ?s probably going to be closer to $11 most of the time).
It ?s a little oily, which is not a bad thing for this kind of wine. (The winespeak term for oily, by the way, is viscous, which sounds like a bad cough, as in, ?Boy, your viscous sounds awful. ?) Most importantly, the Dry Creek is not sweet, which makes it a little more food friendly. This is not an indictment of sweet wine, as regular visitors here know, but a reflection of how much poorly made, sweet chenin blanc exists in the world. Also, look for some apricot fruit and a very long mineral finish.
Serve this with salads, seafood or as an aperitif.