Tag Archives: cheap wine

Wine review: Bolla Valpolicella 2009

This is the first wine I ever drank. It is, in fact, the first wine I have any memory of. In the 1970s, if you were a “serious” wine drinker in the United States, you drank French Beaujolais, California burgundy or chablis (which were not necessarily pinot noir or chardonnay), German liebfraumilch, Lancers and Mateus rose, or the Italian Bolla. My father, an Italophile, drank the Bolla.

Which meant I did, too. I brought it with me with when I went to someone’s house for dinner. I bought it to impress girls (one of my first big dates, actually). I had no idea whether the wine was any good. I knew very little about wine 30 years ago; the Bolla was wine, and that was good enough.

Bolla, as a brand, mostly disappeared in the 1990s. It was bought and sold several times, and I had not seen it in years. And then, at the grocery store this week, there it was. I checked with my Italian wine expert, who told me, yes, the current owners dusted the brand off, changed the label, and are bringing it back.

Memory is part of wine, as much as the grapes or the soil. This is one of Alfonso Cevola’s favorite themes, that it’s not just what the wine tastes like now, but what we remember of the tasting — who we were with, where we were, what we were doing when we tasted it. So when I opened the Bolla ($6, purchased), I was thinking about my dad and Chicago in the 1970s and the girls I bought it for. The Wine Curmudgeon was sipping and analyzing, but Jeff Siegel was remembering.

So maybe this is memory talking. Maybe the Bolla isn’t what I tasted the other day — young and disjointed, yes, but fresh and clean, with a funky Italian nose and lots of sour cherry fruit. It’s an incredible value at this price, a wine for winter stews and red meat and tomato sauce. And, of course, for memory.

Wine of the week: Eco Balance Carm n re 2009

The Wine Curmudgeon, once a huge fan of Chilean wine, has become mostly ambivalent over the past several years. Too many Chilean wine have gone from being cheap and well done to just cheap. Labels that had once I counted on, like the Veramonte sauvignon blanc, have morphed into just another grocery store wine. Blame the weak dollar for much of this, but the Chileans have been turning out a lot of ordinary wine as well.

That's why the Eco Balance ($10, sample) was so welcome. Carmenere is a tricky grape to work with, and the Chileans are still trying to figure out what to do with it, especially for cheaper wines. I didn't expect much with this, and at first sip there wasn't much there. But let it open a bit, and you'll find lots of cherry fruit, something that tastes like fake oak but that isn't cheesy, and healthy tannins. The tannins were a nice touch; most wines at this price either have no tannins at all or tannins that are so harsh they grate your tongue. It's a beef wine, probably best suited for burgers and meat loaf.

And yes, it is eco-friendly. Emiliana, the producer, does three green wines — biodynamic, organic, and the Eco, which is produced using environmentally protective farming practices.

Consumer Reports’ top wines

One would think that it would be incredibly difficult to rate wine as if it was a refrigerator. There are objective measurements for refrigerators — how well does it maintain temperature? — and hardly any for wine.

Nevertheless, Consumer Reports, which has been rating products for some 80 years, does wine. I don't know that I agree with all of the choices in the December issue (a famous critter wine made it), but I can't argue with their methodology. This is about as objective as wine tasting gets.

"We're very specific about what we're looking for," says Maxine Siegel (no relation), who oversees the wine project for the magazine. "There are acceptable standards that we're looking for. And it does have to be a tasty wine."

More, after the jump:

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Wine of the week: Mouton Cadet Blanc 2009

A long time ago, before livestock wines and malbecs from Argentina, Americans drank cheap French wine. And one of the most important cheap French wines came from Mouton Cadet. Mouton was part of Le Famille Rothschild, which included Mouton Rothschild, a Bordeaux first growth that was (and still is) one of the great wines of the world. I'm not sure those of us who drank the Cadet understood what that meant, but the label was classy and we were drinking French wine — which was a big deal 30 years ago.

These days, Mouton is not what it used to be. It's still a major brand, but it's just another of many major brands. Much has changed since Mouton's heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Australians, Chileans and Argentines have mostly replaced the French as the world's source of cheap wine.

In fact, I have been debating whether to review the Cadet for a couple of months, and have always passed. I didn't have the heart to buy the wine, taste it, and discover that another part of my past was gone. Still, when Mouton sent samples this fall, I decided to take a chance.

I'm glad I did. The Cadet ($10, sample) has changed significantly since the old days. It's more fruit forward, with a lemony-grapefruit flavor more reminiscent of Chilean sauvignon blanc than the typical slate and minerality of a white Bordeaux. This change is aimed at the modern American palate, and it pretty much works. I don't know that I like the new style better than the old, but the Cadet offers $10 worth of value. And that's the important thing.

Wine of the week: Cristalino NV

Regular visitors here will notice that there is no picture of Cristalino. Welcome to the wonderful world of American jurisprudence and the foolishness of the wine business.

In August, a federal district court in Minneapolis ruled that Cristalino, which is a much beloved $7 Spanish sparkling wine, infringed on the trademark of Cristal, a Champagne that costs about $200 a bottle and is favored by people who drive Escalades. Or, as the attorneys for Champagne Louis Roederer, the French luxury brand that owns Cristal, wrote: “The Defendants ? use of CRISTALINO on their sparkling wine product is an illegitimate brand extension that trades on the reputation and image of the famous mark, CRISTAL. Consumers likely believe that CRISTALINO sparkling wine is associated with, sponsored by, or is in some way connected with the maker of the prestige champagne CRISTAL.”

Sigh. And people wonder why the Wine Curmudgeon is so cranky. The Champagne business has been in tatters since the recession started, and Roederer decided to spend money on this lawsuit? The judge, in deciding the case, wrote that there was evidence that consumers could be confused, and if my reading of the law is correct, that was enough to decide in Roederer’s favor. It didn’t matter whether Cristal lost sales to Cristalino (which was unclear). Cristalino had to redesign and re-label its bottle, which is now white and includes a disclaimer that says it isn’t affiliated with Roederer or Cristal.

So this is what I’m going to do: Never drink a bottle of Cristal (which isn’t a problem, since I can’t afford it). Never, after this moment, write about or review a Roederer product, which include Roederer and Scharffenberger sparkling wines in California, a half a dozen or so French still wine brands, and the Portuguese Ramos Pinto label. And, of course, welcome Cristalino (purchased) into the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame, because it offers everything Cristal doesn’t — quality and value. And, yes, it would quite nice at Thanksgiving.

Wine of the week: Bogle Petite Sirah 2008

Consistency is the difference between great cheap wine and ordinary cheap wine. Two Buck Chuck, for all of its acclaim, does not taste the same from year to year, and its quality goes up and down with regularity. Even better made wines, like Meridian, suffer from this problem. One vintage will be terrific and the next will be much less than that (which is why its chardonnay is dropping out of the $10 Hall of Fame next year).

Bogle's wines, on the other hand, do not have this problem. I have been writing about cheap wine for almost 20 years, and for almost 20 years I have always depended on Bogle. It has never let me down. The petite sirah ($10, purchased) is the winery's showpiece, an outstanding example of the producer's quality and consistency. It is always clean and always varietally correct, which means it's not the same thing as a syrah and is not made to taste like one. This is saying something given the current trend toward blending varietal wines to make them sweeter and fruitier in a misguided attempt to appease the American palate.

Look for berry fruit, a touch of oak, and tannins at the end that give the wine some welcome oomph. This is a burly red meat wine — pot roast and gravy, stews that have been cooking all day, and the like. Highly recommended, and the kind of $10 wine to drink to celebrate the blog's third birthday. It's the kind of cheap wine that makes writing about cheap wine a pleasure.

Sicilian wine: Value and quality

One of the biggest changes in the wine business over the past couple of decades or so has been in cheap wine. When I started doing this, cheap wine was mostly French, and we drank a lot of Beaujolais. Then, in the late ’90s, the Australians arrived, and we started drinking $10 shiraz with cute labels.

In the last 10 years or so, Chile (cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc) and Argentina (malbec) have become known for their cheap wine. Meanwhile, the French are stuck with warehouses of lousy cheap wine that they can’t sell, and the Australians have their own crisis — too many vines and not enough demand, with important producers on the cusp of bankruptcy. Which would seem to mean that the Chileans and Argentines will have cheap wine to themselves for the foreseeable future.

But that’s not necessarily true. Slowly — practically in stealth mode, in fact — Sicilian wine has arrived in the U.S., and it offers better value and better quality than almost any other cheap wine in the world. So why haven’t you heard about Sicilian wine? First, because it’s Italian, and the Italians may be the worst wine marketers in the world. Second, because the wines are made with grapes like nero d’avola and grillo, which most of us have never heard of. Third, most of the island’s grape production was traditionally used to make wine in other parts of Italy, and it’s only in the last couple of decades that the grapes were used to make wine for export.

But the wines are worth looking for, despite those obstacles. After the jump, a few suggestions about what’s available.

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