January calls for resolutions, and the first one that comes to my mind is: Where are the under $10 wines that I can really enjoy while my budget slowly rectifies itself? They are out there, and many will bowl you over with their quality and affordability.
Bargains reinvent themselves every year, and for each Chianti that skyrockets in price, there is another Chianti-like character to fill the void (see "Vitiano" below). Every wine-growing nation has some, and it's my job, and pleasure, to remind you of them. Here then, a vinous smorgasbord of "worldly" wines to please and sustain.
2002 Arneis, Funtanin $10
The mysterious white grape of Italy's Piedmont district. This vine of ancient origin was used in blending for centuries. It now (in the right hands) produces a wine that is dry, refreshing and all sunshine. Wonderfully fragrant and complex in the mouth, this "stony," cleansing drink has a touch of almond and a big touch of class. Try with of fish or poultry.
2002 Entre Deux Mers, Chateau La Grande Metairie $8
An effortless, balanced sauvignon blend from the environs of Bordeaux. What many American sauvignon blancs would like to be--agile, nervous, invigorating and oh-so-clean. Will grace shellfish beautifully.
2002 Touraine, Michaud $9
From the Loire valley, this wine is a richer example of the previous Entre Deux Mers. Ripe, with substance, flavor and depth, this wine is great as a "welcome home" sipper. Famously accompanies fresh-water fish and veal.
2002 Chenin Blanc, Reserve des Vignerons $7
A truly dry Chenin blanc, yet retaining its fruity inviting bouquet. This co-operative produced wine is delicious on its own, but loves to cuddle up to appetizers, non-oily fish or turkey.
2002 Samling 88, Anton Bauer $9.50
As you may know, Austrian wine has made large inroads into the American market ever since a wine "doctoring" scandal in the 1970s obliterated trade for years. This beautiful wine is made from the Scheurebe grape, long a staple in Germany for fat, round-textured whites. This is minerally and vibrant with up-front fruit and an almost dry finish. Fun to sip and a terrific match for Thai or Indian cuisine.
2002 Gruner Veltliner, Berger $8.50 (one liter)
Dryer than the Samling with a "smoky" distinctive bouquet and excellent, generous mouth feel. Gruners are in, and this one is cool! A frugal way, in a larger bottle, to see if this grape is to your liking. Very versatile with foods--think Chardonnay substitute.
2002 Silver Halbtrocken, Gysler $9 (one liter)
Another Austrian pleaser. Fun is the key to this blend of fragrant, overt fruit that drinks in a "no brainer" party style. Soft, yet well-defined flavors. Would be grand with sliced fruit and creamy cheese appetizers, or any dish that has a cream sauce or a glaze upon it.
2002 Grecanico, TreVini $8
From the deep south of Italy comes a permutation of the ancient Greco vine. Why shouldn't each clone produce a memorable wine if well vinted? This is a hearty, sun-drenched white with full body but excellent acidity to make it refreshing. Try as a pinot blanc or Chardonnay substitute with oily fish or pasta Alfredo.
2002 Soave, Fattoria & Graney $10
Forget the past--Soave Bolla and all the insipid versions that flooded America in recent years. This is a classy wine that showcases the Soave grape as refined, delicate and one of the "prettiest' whites you will ever enjoy. Beautifully made and dandy for lighter vegetarian fare or filet of sole.
2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, Kimball $10
This second label of Elizabeth Vineyards shows how strong the 2001 vintage is in California. Classic aromas, ripe, with a rich mouth feel and a simple, but delicious, aftertaste. This is the kind of American red that can blow away most cabernet competition for $10. Try with steaks, chops or roast beef.
2001 Pinot Noir, Haley's Mill $8
Another California showoff, and pinot noir at that! Amazing roundness and varietal qualities in the bouquet. That "sweet," soft and supple mouth texture that makes pinot so sensual and yet easy to comprehend. Try with any medium weight meal.
2001 Pinot Noir, Indigo Hills $9-10
Two quality American Pinots at $10 or under--what a concept! Indigo Hills has made a string of delicious pinot noirs from North Coast vineyards; their 1999 is drinking heavenly right now. This bottle could be even better. Marvelous texture on the nose and palate. An ample red that is terribly satisfying and generously built. Excellent. Note: Indigo Hills, a division of the ubiquitous Gallo family, is found predominantly at supermarkets.
2001 Vitiano, Falesco $9
Yes, there are still recommendable Chiantis under $10 (see below), but as they shrink and disappear, here is a dynamic replacement that is almost too good for words. Made in Umbria, just below Tuscany, this sangiovese bottling from a very strong vintage is remarkable. Still young, its bouquet and flavors need a bit of coaxing from the glass; but what qualities are there! A terrific middle-weight red with roses, leather and spice throughout. Drink as you would a Chianti and open it a few hours before dinner. Best Buy.
2001 Chianti, Sant' Appiano $9
A new arrival in our market, Sant'Appiano has delivered, in a terrific vintage, a dark, brooding wine with admirable weight, elegance and a degree of individuality. This isn't faint praise. It's not one of those rough and tumble, dirty styles usually found at this price point. It's a well delineated sangiovese with the elusive Tuscan character intact. Well done. Try with roast chicken or a nice olive oil and parmesan dip with crusty bread.
2000 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Masciarelli $8
A perennial favorite, southern Italian red from a reliable producer. Still young, this is a bold red, robust in nature with tannin, yet a bountiful suppleness that makes it great to drink young. Matches with the heartiest of pastas, sausage or game.
2001 Shiraz, Warburn $9
Australia lives and breathes shiraz (whether they like it or not). Here is a prime example of how good this grape is from Down Under, at a price that's hard to match. Purple, peppery and mouth-coating flavors. Berries and cedar dominate. Delicious with pork, lamb or well aged cheddar.
2001 Shiraz. Bulletin Place $7
Very popular in the Triangle. An even better buy than the Warburn (above), if not quite as impressive.
2001 Cabernet-Merlot, Kelly's Promise $7
This popular blend from Australia's shores seemingly improves nationwide each year. Ripe, with less of that steely, hard edge that so many examples possessed in the past. A good choice for a meat and potato evening.
1998 Penedes, Clos de Toribas $8
A tasty Spanish red with just the right amount of bottle age. Wonderfully fragrant and forward. Perfect middle weight texture that reminds me of an Iberian, full-flavored Chianti. If you like a dry, satisfying, refreshing red, please try.
2001 Mourvedre "Old Vine," Castagno $8
For an earthy, sappy, wintertime red, this fills the bill. Old vine Mourvedre can produce a deep, palate-warming drink. For those not-so-subtle meals, or even a "loaded" pizza, this is a satisfying choice.
2002 Malbec, Santa Julia $8
Another grape and country (Argentina) that seem to be made for each other. This grape, which makes the famous "black wine" of France's Cahors district, seems to grow like a weed down Argentine way. Plummy, chocolatey with a smoky, lingering flavor, Malbec is a treat from this fine producer. Try with a hearty stew.
2002 Malbec, Bodega Norton $9
Another beautiful wine, different from the Santa Julia and perhaps better for some palates. 2002 is clearly a great year here, and this wine explodes with black cherry, coffee-like aromas and super-ripeness. It's a little "cleaner" than the Santa Julia, perhaps more elegant. Altogether special--try them both!
Ask and beware
Maybe I'm getting old and cynical, but I couldn't help but be disappointed by some advice being spouted by wine personnel as I attended tastings and browsed through various stores in recent months. Some simply had no idea what they were talking about, and so they delivered lies, or at least misleading information. More than once I wanted to shout (to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan's response outside the movie theater in Annie Hall), "You don't know anything about that wine. How you ever got to be doing what you're doing is unfathomable." Just like in that film, what I wouldn't give for a sock filled with horse manure to flog those who pontificate from an empty script.
If you don't know the answer to a customer's query then shut up, except to say--I don't know. Somehow these pseudo-experts think they will look bad if they don't know the answer, and so they further confuse open-minded people whose only sin is wanting to learn. Fie and a pox on all of those who fit this sketch. There are plenty of great shop owners and dedicated staff who do terrific service and a wonderful job. Still, for those of you seeking knowledge, read, and ask deliberate questions like: "Have you tasted this wine?" You can usually tell by facial expression if the employee is honest or if he's pulling a Pete Rose on you.
Questions or comments? Arturo Ciompi can be reached at email@example.com.