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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today's metaphysical question: How does Ricccardo Cotarella produce a wine of this quality, ship it to the U.S., overcome the high euro, and sell it for about $10? Most California wineries who do cheap wine can't even come close to this.
In other words, Riccardo Cotarella is still a genius.The Wine Curmudgeon has been drinking Falesco wines for almost 10 years, and I have never been disappointed, whether it's the red, white or pink. This vintage of the white, the Bianco ($10, purchased), is made with verdicchio and vermentino. They have produced a wine low in alcohol with tell-tale Italian acid and just enough fruit to appeal to American palates. Think of it as tart with a touch of lime, but fresh and clean and pretty close to fabulous. Highly recommended, and certainly in the $10 Hall of Fame.
Chill this and drink it on its own, with salads, or most any kind of chicken. Fried chicken, in fact, would be quite a nice pairing.
The Wine Curmudgeon, who usually knows no fear when it comes to tasting wine, was a bit wary of the Geyser Peak. A decade ago, when I started writing about cheap wine, this was one of the first ones that impressed me. It was in the first couple of $10 Hall of Fames, and I've always had fond memories of it.
But, for a variety of reasons, I haven't tasted the Geyser Peak ($8, purchased) much over the past several years, and wasn't sure what to expect this time. I didn't want to be disappointed if the wine wasn't what I remembered it being, or if my palate had gone in one direction and the wine had gone in another.
Not to worry, though. The Geyser Peak was all that it ever was — solid, dependable, $10 wine that succeeds in being more than some wines that cost twice as much. It has lots of lime, a bit of a middle (not something many $10 wines have), and a long, lime pith finish. Chill and serve with salads, grilled shrimp, and roast chicken — almost any white meat dish, actually. A candidate to return to the $10 Hall of Fame.