We celebrate the blog’s 12th birthday with the $10 Casillero del Diablo Reserva pinot noir
This fall, wine guru Roberta Backlund recommended Chilean pinot noir, and those who listened to the podcast with Roberta probably heard the skepticism in my voice. Shows what I know: The Casillero del Diablo Reserva pinot noir shows Roberta may be on to something.
But this Chilean red is a pinot noir that tastes like pinot noir. Isn’t tarted up with residual sugar, overloaded with over-ripe fruit, or blended with a couple of other grapes to “smooth” out the wine. Instead, it’s almost earthy in the front, with soft tannins and a pinot-like, almost restrained, approach in winemaking. There is a lot of berry fruit, but it’s not overdone.
Highly recommended, and especially with the uncertainty about inexpensive French pinot noir given the 25 percent wine tariff. Pair this with any weeknight dinner or something like Italian takeout – and even enjoy a glass or two in the afternoon.
Zestos Blanco, a Spanish white, is the kind of great cheap wine everyone wishes they could make
Being cheap isn’t enough to make a great cheap wine. Otherwise, the $10 Hall of Fame would be little different from a list of the country’s best-selling $8 supermarket labels. That difference can be seen in the Zestos Blanco, which is both cheap and marvelous.
How marvelous? A friend of mine, who enjoys the wines I recommend but pays little attention otherwise, tasted it the other day and said: “I’ve had this before, haven’t I? I remember it, because it’s so well made compared to the rest of the stuff I buy at the grocery store. Which all mostly tastes the same.”
The Zestos Blanco ($10, purchased, 12%) is a Spanish white made with malvar, a grape found mostly in and around Madrid. It produces a crisp, almost lime-infused, tropical sort of wine that is bone dry and has surprising body (but isn’t tart). That combination makes it an especially wonderful food wine, be it Chinese takeout or something as complicated as roast salmon.
Highly recommended, and certain to return to the 2020 $10 Hall of Fame; also, a candidate for the 2020 Cheap Wine of the Year.
Finally, a note about the importer, Ole & Obrigado. Patrick Mata, who runs Ole, is one of the smartest people I’ve met in the wine business. He is also one of the most stand-up: He returns phone calls and emails, answers questions honestly, and is unfailingly polite.
I mention this because his company, and everyone he employs, could suffer dramatically from the 25 percent European wine tariff. I’ve tried not to beat up on the tariff more than necessary on the blog, but it’s worth noting again the financial harm it could cause Ole and dozens of other small- and medium-sized importers. Trade policy is just not imperial pronouncements. It’s also the people we overlook when we’re making those imperial pronouncements.
The Cune Rioja, from Spain’s CVNE, is a tempranillo blend that will bring joy to anyone who loves quality cheap wine
CVNE’s Cune Rioja brings joy to my tired and worn out brain whenever I see it on the shelf. And these days, when the future of quality cheap wine is very much in doubt, that’s something to depend on.
The Cune Rioja ($11, purchased, 13.5%) is a Spanish red wine from the Rioja region, mostly made with tempranillo. CVNE is a large Spanish producer that has been around for 140 years, and its wines still taste as they should and still offer quality and value for less than $15. Crianza is the simplest of the Rioja wines, but still well made.
This vintage of the Cune Rioja is a little rounder and fuller than the 2014 – the cherry fruit isn’t quite as tart and the wine isn’t quite as earthy. But there is some baking spice and a hint of orange peel, Rijoa’s calling card. And it will pair with almost anything that isn’t in a cream sauce. As I wrote in my notes: “As it should be. One of the world’s great cheap wine values.” What more do we need these days?
The Wine Curmudgeon pairs wine with some of his favorite recipes in this occasional feature. This edition: three wines with perhaps the most classic of all dishes, roast chicken.
When I taught wine to culinary students, they always asked what my favorite dinner was — no doubt expecting some over-complicated, over-sauced French haute cuisine adventure to pair with $300 wine. My answer always surprised them: Roast chicken served with a simple pan sauce, green noodles, a green salad with a mustardy vinaigrette, and crusty French bread.
Because when it’s a top quality chicken and the skin is brown and crisp, what else do you need but terrific cheap wine?
The catch, of course, is finding an affordable quality chicken. Most supermarket chickens don’t have any flavor to begin with, and they’ve often been frozen and defrosted and frozen again as they go through the supply chain. Hence, the meat gets almost crumbly after it’s cooked. Find a chicken that has avoided that, usually at a specialty grocer, and you’ll be stunned at the difference.
The other key: Finding the best roasting method. I’ve tried almost all of them, including smothering the skin with gobs of butter, roasting in a rack, and stuffing the cavity with lemons and herbs. But nothing seems to work as well as Jacques Pepin’s Chicken Roti. It’s simple and direct and delicious. You brown the chicken on each side in a hot oven, and then finish the bird on its back, basting with the pan juices occasionally. Yes, it can cause an undue amount of smoke in the kitchen, and flipping the chicken during roasting takes some getting used to. But it’s well worth the effort
• Zestos Old Vine Rosado 2018 ($10, purchased, 12%): This Spanish pink is one of the world’s great cheap roses — bright and fresh and almost minerally, but with more fruit than a Provencal rose (strawberry?). Highly recommended. Imported by Ole & Obrigado
• La Cornada Crianza 2015 ($5, purchased, 13%): I bought this Spanish temprnaillo at Aldi in February, and it was enjoyable. I’ve since bought a half-dozen more, and it keeps improving with age — more Spanish in style, less oaky, and cherry fruit that stays in the background. There’s even a little earth.
The Falesco Est! Est!! Est!!! remains a classic Italian cheap white wine
The Falesco Est! Est!! Est!!! is one of the Wine Curmudgeon’s favorite cheap wines. So why have I reviewed it just three times in 12 years?
Availability, of course. What other reason could there be?
The Falesco Est! Est!! Est!!! ($10, purchased, 12.5%) is the kind of cheap wine that Europeans understand implicitly – you buy it, you drink it with dinner, and you enjoy it. No posturing about scores and no fretting about pairings.
So why isn’t it regularly available? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably has something to do with changes in its importer and distributor over the past decade.
But when the Falesco Est! Est!! Est!!! is available, it’s always a treat (even at $10, as opposed to $8 the last vintage). It’s a white blend made with trebbiano and malvasia, plus an even more rare grape called roscetto. The result is a tart, lemony wine, and some years it can be really tart. The 2017 is comparatively subtle – less tart, more balanced, and even a bit of minerality.
I don’t know that I enjoyed this vintage quite as much, but that’s a personal preference and not about the quality of the wine. It remains as it has always been – enjoyable and well worth buying and drinking.
The WC feels like Don Quixote in the wake of the European wine tariffs — chasing the windmills of cheap wine.
Where we are with the 25 percent European wine tariff, and where we may be going
A few thoughts after talking to a couple of dozen people – importers, distributors, retailers, and producers – about the 25 percent European wine tariff (and most asked not to be named, citing the nature of the dispute):
• How long will the tariffs last? Almost all I talked to were pessimistic – one official at an important New York importer said he was an optimist, which meant 12 to 18 months. “And that’s because I’m an optimist,” he said. “Others are telling me the tariffs will be here forever, because who lowers taxes once they’re imposed?” In this, he told me, the tariffs will almost certainly change the way Americans buy wine. This was echoed by an employee of one of the biggest distributors in the country and a prestigious Dallas retailer. If $15 French and Spanish wine suddenly costs $20, who will buy it? They’ll just switch to another $15 wine
• Will anyone “win” this part of the U.S.-E.U. trade war? If winning is scoring political points, then the Trump Administration is having a victory party. And I have no doubt Jackson Family Wines is celebrating, as short sighted as that might be. But if winning is solving a problem, then no one has won and almost no one will win. As a former newspaper colleague of mine, a respected South Carolina political writer, said recently: “Tariffs are a mug’s game.” These were imposed as punishment for something that happened 14 years ago, and it’s difficult to see how taxing British wine will solve an aircraft parts dispute.
• When will prices go up? The tariff only affects wine imported after Oct. 18, so if it’s already in the country, we’re probably safe. The New York importer said his company will raise prices on wine brought in after Oct. 18 in the next 30 to 60 days. On the other hand, a Dallas retailer told me his very large chain is trying to figure out a way to absorb some of the increase for less expensive wines, since it doesn’t want to see them priced out of existence. He said large retailers, thanks to economies of scale, might be able to work around some of the the tariff’s effects.
• What’s the Wine Curmudgeon doing? Trying not to panic. The blog’s reason for being is cheap wine, and much of the world’s most interesting cheap wine comes from France and Spain. Price that out of reach, and I don’t have much to write about, do I? I can still count on Italy, and I’ve spent considerable time in local retailers looking for wine from countries not affected by the tariff. The good news is that I stumbled on a $10 Chilean pinot noir and a $10 South African white blend. The bad news? That doesn’t make 52 wines of the week. And availability is almost certainly going to become even more uneven than it is now, and we know how uneven it is now.
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.
• Jean-Jacques Vincent Bourgogne Blanc 2017 ($20, purchased, 13%): This is the second time I bought this chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France, which shows that even those of us who do this for a living make mistakes. Bland, boring, and overpriced. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons
• Raimat Saira Albarino 2016 ($10, purchased, 12.5%): This Spanish white is cheaply made, watery, and doesn’t much taste like albarino. It apparently exists for no other reason than to cost $10. Imported by Aveniu Brands