The Sicalia Terre Siciliane isn’t very Sicilian, but it’s still worthwhile when you need a red wine for a weeknight dinner
Italian wine producers, even though they have thousands of indigenous grapes to work with, are fascinated by what they call “international” grapes — those we know as cabernet sauvignon, melot, chardonnay, and the like. Their efforts can be uneven – for every great Super Tuscan, where international grapes are blended with sangiovese, there are dozens of $8 and $10 washouts. Which is where the Sicalia Terre Siciliane comes in.
On the one hand, the Sicalia Terre Siciliane ($8, purchased, 13%) doesn’t taste especially Sicilian. There is little earthiness or dark fruit or Old World complexity. And why should there be, since it’s a red blend, featuring the Sicilian nero d’avola and the and merlot?
On the other hand, it’s an enjoyable weeknight wine. Who knew? That certainly wasn’t the case the last time I tasted it: “ashy and unpleasant.” This time, though, the Sicalia Terre Siciliane was juicy, with enjoyably tart red fruit, a clean finish, and tremendous value.
No, it’s not very Sicilian, and yes, it needs food. But given the state of cheap wine these days, you could do a lot worse when you want a $10 red wine for a weeknight dinner.
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.
• Luis Felipe Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Autoritas 2018 ($8, purchased, 12%): Something very odd going on with this Chilean white — either that, or lots of winemaking to get it to some point I can’t figure out. Not especially Chilean in style, with barely ripe grapes and almost no fruit at all — just some California style grassiness. Imported by Pacific Highway
• Trader Joe’s Merlot Grower’s Reserve 2017 ($6, purchased, 13%): This California red, a Trader Joe’s private label, is a bit thin on the back and a little too tart. Plus, the residual sugar shows up after three or four sips. Having said that, it’s easily one of the most drinkable and varietally correct wines I’ve had from TJ — for what that’s worth.
• Oliver Winery Creekbend Chambourcin 2016 ($22, sample, 13.4%): Professionally made and varietally correct, this Indiana red shows how far regional wine has come. I wish it showed more terroir and less winemaking — it too much resembles a heavier wine like a cabernet sauvignon and it doesn’t need this much oak.
Does this guy know how lucky he was not to drink wine with me last week?
The $3 wine challenge 2018: The wines were awful again — how can anyone drink this junk?
The worst part of the $3 wine challenge 2018 is that I wanted to like these wines. I wanted to find something that cost $3 that tasted like wine and that I could buy and enjoy.
Like last year, and the year before, and the year before, the wines were mostly hideous. This group was made to resemble grape juice with alcohol. Think Welch’s — an overwhelmingly grapey aroma, a little less sweetness, tartness instead of acidity, watery and thin, and without the tannins that every wine should have. These are wine for people who don’t like wine.
Which the producers understand. The bottle — with a cork, for crying out loud — cost more to produce than the wine itself. This should tell you how much appearance matters, and how little quality counts.
The $3 challenge 2018
I drank a $3 merlot with dinner every night last week to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any redeeming enological value? Each of the wines was purchased, and all but one was American and non-vintage.
• Two-buck Chuck merlot 2014 ($1.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label had the blueberry aroma it should have had, though a little forced. Very fruity, with sweet berries, plus unexpected tannins. They weren’t especially natural (liquid tannins, perhaps?), but at least they were there. Surprisingly drinkable and merlot-like, and the only one that tasted anything like wine. But not as well made as the Black Box merlot, which is about the same price.
• Three Wishes merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. How can a retailer that prides itself on quality sell something this wretched? Smelled like expensive grape juice, and tasted like it, too. No tannins, no acidity, and a dirty chocolate fake oak taste on the finish.
• The Winking Owl merlot ($2.89, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere) had a thick and heavy taste, even though it was surprisingly light in color. Smelled like merlot, with some blueberry, but that was as palatable as it got. There was noticeable residual sugar, even though the wine claimed to be dry; the usual missing tannins; and battery acid-style acidity.
• Oak Leaf merlot ($2.96, 12.5%), the Walmart private label was more of the same — the Welch’s grape juice approach, both in aroma and taste; so of course, no tannins. Plus, and oddly, it was a little heavy in the back. A very annoying effort.
• Bay Bridge merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label and sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. This, as it usually is, was the worst of the five. Smelled like blueberry Kosher wine, and a little tinny for good measure. Charred chocolate from the fake oak (oak powder?), plus a little varnish-like taste in the fruit.
You asked for it, so the Wine Curmudgeon will endure. I’ll drink $3 wine with dinner every night next week to see if ultra-cheap wine matters
Each night next week, I’ll drink a $3 wine with dinner; can they offer quality and value for so little money? I don’t do this to break new enological ground, given how crappy most of the wine was in the first three $3 challenges. But this remains one of the most popular features on the blog, and I regularly get emails asking me to do it again.
The details about the first three $3 challenges are here, here, and here. This year, it will be five merlots (all purchased in Dallas):
• Two-buck Chuck merlot ($1.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label was the first — and remains — the most famous of the very cheap wines. It’s a California appellation from the 2014 vintage, and made for Trader Joe’s by Bronco Wine. The price surprised me; it has been $2.99 for a couple of years.
• Winking Owl merlot ($2.89, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). It’s a California appellation but non-vintage, so 75 percent of the grapes came from California but from different harvests. It’s made by E&J Gallo, the largest wine producer in the world.
• Oak Leaf merlot ($2.96, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Also made by The Wine Group, American, and non-vintage. The price is a penny less than the last time I did this.
• Bay Bridge merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label; sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. It’s American and non-vintage, and the third of these made by The Wine Group.
The $10 Veni Vidi Vici merlot shows Bulgaria knows a thing or two about making fine cheap wine
The Bulgarian Veni Vidi Vici merlot was one of the most wonderful surprises in the history of the blog, an amazing $10 wine that disappeared from the U.S. after I wrote about the 2009 vintage. It was everything a great cheap Old World merlot should be – earthy, almost rustic, and with just enough fruit so you could tell it was merlot and not zinfandel.
So imagine my joy when I got an email from the importer saying the 2015 vintage was available in this country. And if this version of the Veni Vidi Vici merlot ($10, sample, 13%) is a little softer and not quite what the 2009 was, it’s still a terrific cheap wine.
The Veni Vidi Vici merlot remains a quality Old World style effort, where a little earthiness combines with fresh and not too ripe berry fruit. The oak isn’t overdone, and the tannins are merlot-soft. Drink this on its own, since it’s a red wine that’s light enough for summer, as well as with any hot weather grilled meat or barbecued chicken.
Finally, that this wine can be so well made and come from Bulgaria – hardly the center of the wine making universe – speaks volumes about how sad so much cheap California wine is.
The McManis merlot ($10, purchased, 13.5%) was a revelation. And I say this not just because I don’t enjoy merlot, but because it’s almost impossible to find California merlot at any price that tastes like it’s supposed to. Too many are jacked up with so much sweet fruit and fake oak (yes, even the pricier ones) that they make me sigh and reach for a glass of Spanish tempranillo.
The McManis, though, tastes like merlot – blueberry fruit, just the right heft for merlot (not as much as cabernet sauvingon, more than pinot noir), and a little of the silkiness that I expect to find in New World merlot. Plus, the finish isn’t bitter or too short, and even shows a little earth.
Highly recommended, and headed for the $10 Hall of Fame this week to join the McManis petite sirah. Perhaps more important: It goes into my red wine rotation, the wines I buy regularly. It’s perfect for a Tuesday night takeout dinner, and can even hold its own if I feel like cooking.
Pinot noir isn’t necessarily the reason; how about sweet red blends?
Eight percent of the wine produced in California in 2013 was merlot, up from four percent in 1993. So why does it look like merlot may be on its way out as a varietal?
Think sweet red blends, the hottest California wine trend. There was no red blend category in 1993; in 2013, one out of every 7.4 bottles of California wine was a red blend, about 13.5 percent. That’s a staggering statistic, and speaks to the industry’s ability to give consumers new products on the turn of a dime. Who would have thought that about the tradition-bound wine business?
One can argue that I’m over-reacting, and that merlot is no worse off than cabernet sauvignon, whose share increased just two points in 20 years. But cabernet remains the most popular red varietal and the second most popular overall, and its U.S. sales (including imports) remain strong.
• Chardonnay, long the most popular California varietal, fell from one of every three bottles to one of every four.
• Chardonnay almost certainly lost market share to pinot grigio (13.1 percent) and moscato (9.8%), neither of which were in the 1993 numbers. Would anyone have thought 20 years ago that California would make more of those than merlot?
• Pinot noir, once thought to be nearly impossible to grow in California, was almost as popular as the red blends. This isn’t so much the infamous “Sideways” affect as it is to the way inexpensive California pinot noir is made – fruity and more like a red blend.
• The “other”category accounted for more than one-quarter of the wine produced in 2015, also staggering. Is our chardonnay and cabernet world changing so quickly that we aren’t noticing? The varietals included in the other category aren’t listed, but I assume it includes rose. In which case, the numbers may not be quite so surprising.
Much of this has to do with the change from the smaller and more traditional producers who dominated the market in 1993 to Big Wine’s control of production today. But that’s a post for a different time.