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.
The most difficult thing to do as a wine writer is to keep an open mind. It's essential not to judge wines before you taste them, and it's even more important not to let a wine's pedigree — who made it, the size of the company, and the like — influence your opinion.
Which is the polite way way of saying that I didn't want to taste the Bivio ($12, sample), which had all the earmarks of an overpriced, poorly made corporate wine. The press materials used the term "refreshingly modern style," something that scared the hell out of me. In fact, the Bivio sat in the wine closet for eight months before I was brave enough to taste it. Stupid me.
The Bivio was much better than I thought it would be (which, again, is my fault, and not the wine's). It's a solid, dependable, inexpensive red blend (mostly sangiovese, with some cabernet sauvignon and merlot) with a bit more red fruit in the middle than traditional Italian wines. I'd drink it again. Yes, it's not quite up to the Tormareca Neprica or Faleseco Rosso, but how many wines are? Pair this with any red sauce kind of food, and even something like roast chicken. And don't let your prejudices get in the way of enjoying it.
Reviews of wines that don't need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.
? Michel Torino Malbec Ros 2009 ($12, sample): Surprisingly disappointing, given how well-made so many Argentine wines are at this price. There's nothing especially wrong with it; rather, it doesn't deliver anything that most $8 or $10 roses don't.
? Grgich Hills Estate Grown Merlot 2006 ($42, sample): The kind of red wine that helped California establish its reputation as one of the world's great wine regions — and, best yet, it's not overpriced. Holiday gift? It's still young, with cherry fruit in the middle, but a mushroomy nose and lots of finish. Should improve with age.
? Domaine de Carobelle Gigondas 2008 ($20, purchased): A terrific value at $15 and an excellent example of the Rhone's Gigondas region, with dark fruit and pepper. But the weak dollar (or a greedy retailer?) has done this red wine in, given that one can buy really nice wine for $20.
? Le Jaja de Jau 2007 ($11, purchased): This red is New World-style wine wine in Old World clothing, with a lot of fruit and not much subtlety. It's not bad, just not what it was when it was one of the world's great cheap wines (and it's also twice the price).
It's not easy to find quality, inexpensive cabernet sauvignon. There's plenty of cheap cabernet out there, but most of it is either too tannic, too green (with flavors resembling bell peppers), or too grapey to bother with. In fact, this is one of the few areas where the Wine Curmudgeon has mostly given up finding decent wine for $10 or less.
When you raise the price bar to $15, the standard has always been Avalon's Napa cabernet, which offers a bit of sophistication and style with plenty of quality California fruit. I've always thought the Avalon was superior to wines that cost $20 and more.
Which is why the 337 (about $15, sample) was such a pleasant surprise. I had tasted a previous vintage a couple of years ago when my Cordon Bleu class did its red wine extravaganza, but had not thought much about it until last week. That's when I saw this bottle in the back of the wine closet and remembered that my class had enjoyed the wine. If the 337 is not up the level of the Avalon, that's not an insult. It has cherry fruit that isn't overdone and the requisite varietal characteristics — zingy tannins and a decent finish. It's a red meat wine for cooler fall nights. One note: You might find some of the 2008 vintage, which should be OK.
And the name? 337 refers to the name of the clone of cabernet used to make the wine. What's a clone? It's a version of cabernet that has been bred for a specific purpose. In this case, 337 is the clone of cabernet used to make the wine.
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.
The setting was Fearing's, the restaurant in Dallas' Ritz-Carlton hotel that is run by Dean Fearing, one of the top celebrity chefs in the country and where you can drop $100 a person for dinner without even thinking about it. The Ritz, of course, is the Ritz. And, if that wasn't enough, some of Dallas' top wine collectors would arrive in a few minutes to attend a re-corking clinic for their vintage bottles.
Which just goes to how dedicated the Wine Curmudgeon is to his craft. I was about as far as possible from my $10 wine. But this was a chance to taste Penfold's Grange ($500, sample), an Australian shiraz blend that is one of the world's great wines. And how often does that happen?
I needn't have worried. Winemaker Peter Gago, like so many Australians, is not overwhelmed with his self-importance. How many California (or even French) winemakers who make super-premium wine would have had a thoughtful discussion about whether a $500 wine was worth $500? How many would have said, as Gago did, that the wine business needs to do more to educate consumers — to demystify how wine works. "We have a challenge globally," he said, "about spreading the word about wine, and at whatever level of wine we make."
So how was the wine? Impressive, if not nearly ready to drink. Much Australian wine is loud and boisterous, with concentrated fruit and high alcohol. It slaps you on the back. The Grange, on the other hand, was almost unfriendly, as if it wanted to size you up first. The fruit was there, and in another five or 10 years will start to show itself. Gago says the wine is hiding a lot up its sleeve, to be revealed as it ages. In all of this, the Grange truly is a great wine, a bottle to be appreciated not for immediate pleasure but for what it will become.
Texas winemakers and grape growers are slowly moving away from the traditional European varietals, like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, in favor of lesser known grapes that are better suited to the state's hot, dry climate.
The favorites of the moment are viognier, a white grape from the south of France, which several wineries have turned into an attractive alternative to chardonnay, and the Spanish tempranillo, which has produced some fine wines in limited use. I'm not as sold on tempranillo as many others in Texas are, for it can be a difficult grape to work with in the winery and it may have ripening problems in the state.
All of which is a roundabout way to get to the Don Gabriel. Zinfandel is a grape that has been overlooked in Texas, which is kind of surprising. It's a warm climate varietal that has enjoyed great success in California, and we know much more about growing it in this country than we do tempranillo.
Because, based on the Don Gabriel ($13, sample), we should be growing more of it in Texas. Winemaker Gabe Parker makes some very interesting wines, and I've even had a pinot noir blend (unheard of in Texas) that was quite pleasant. The Don Gabriel is a fruity — yes, the traditional blueberry — with low alcohol and black pepper. It's not as jammy as California zinfandel, but that's not necessarily a problem. Unfortunately, the Don Gabriel doesn't have retail distribution, but it is available through the winery. Pair this with fall barbecue and tomato sauces.