Two good cheap wines
Monday's discussion about my top wine values under $10 in the past year leads to an obvious follow-up question: How low can you go?
How low can you go in terms of wine pricing, that is, and still find enjoyable wines with sufficient aroma and flavor interest to catch the attention of wine enthusiasts who view this stuff as a hobby interest and not just a beverage-alcohol delivery system.
Some of you may remember the flurry of publicity that blew up around this time last year about the "Charles Shaw" wines, also known as "Two Buck Chuck." A bulk-wine label from Bronco Corp., it was available at the time only at Trader Joe's food-specialty stores, and sold for a surprising $2 price tag in the chain's California outlets (thus the nickname), although it went for about double that in the rest of the U.S.
Available in most of the standard varieties, "Chuck" was a moving target because it was reportedly made in several batches from different sources of fruit; but by and large, at least in my taste-tests - reported in our Jan. 20, 2003 edition - it was certainly drinkable but essentially boring, a little too simple to be of much interest to most wine enthusiasts.
I'm a sucker for a bargain, though, and from time to time I'll sample wines in the bargain-bin sector, in hope of finding an occasional rose among the thorns. For $8 or less - ideally much less - you don't have a lot to lose if you miss, and the pleasure of beating the system if you find a good one.
Today's reports feature two pretty good cheap wines: A low-end Rioja from Northern Spain, a category that spans a broad stretch from the low end to the high, but that rarely fails completely in the budget realms; and a very low-end Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a Central Italian region with a good reputation for affordable wines of value.
Set your expectations accordingly: Neither of these wines is a match for a great aged Bordeaux or "cult" Cabernet. The Rioja was a bit thin; the Montepulciano a bit harsh. But both wines presented sufficient flavor interest to make them credible bargains for the prices I paid, or even a few dollars more.
ABOUT MY TASTING NOTES DATABASE:
It's a fairly simple thing, though, and anyone who has a database or spreadsheet program ought to be able to come up with something similar. It's simply a spreadsheet with columns for wine name (which includes the producer, vintage and appellation all in one field, although you might prefer to categorize them separately); price, importer, date tasted, food match, Web URL for the producer or importer, and my personal "value rating" for the wine from 1 (worst) to 10 (best).
If you want to try a similar application, we have one available onsite, an Excel (or other spreadsheet) template built by my wine-loving pal Bob Ross, who uses it regularly for his own wine collection. Bob has made it available for free, and you're welcome try it out. The details are here:
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Castillo Labastida 2001 Rioja ($7.99)
This dark-garnet wine breathes typical Rioja aromas of ripe cherries and spice, backed by oaky vanilla and an appetizing whiff of orange peel. Medium-bodied on the palate, it offers simple fruit and oak in reasonable balance, with sufficient acidity for balance and food-friendliness. It's a bit light, a trifle short in the finish, but there's plenty to like here at a price that's right. U. S. importer: J & D Selections Inc. (Kysela), Winchester, Va. (Dec. 12, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Demonstrating Rioja's versatility with robust fare, it went very nicely with a leftover ration of mild Tex-Mex chili turned into pasta sauce. For a more traditional match, try lamb or beef.
VALUE: Hardly a memorable wine, but stands well above the competition at this under-$10 price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Enjoyable now, but should hold up well for at least a few years under good cellar conditions.
WEB LINK: The importer's parent firm has a simple Website at
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Locate vendors for Castillo Labastida on Wine-Searcher.com:
La Gioiosa 2001 "Duca Leonardo" Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($3.99)
Dark garnet, with reddish-purple glints. A distinct volatile note almost like acetone dominates when the bottle is first opened, but happily it blows off quickly to reveal dried cherries and spice. Light-bodied but juicy fruit flavors are snappy and fresh, with crisp acidity lingering in the finish. Simple and a bit rough, it's a "spaghetti wine" to be sure, nothing to collect or contemplate. But it's a fun wine, evoking memories of happy Italian meals, and blows away the competition in the low-budget niche. U. S. importer: La Gioiosa USA, Atlanta. (Jan. 5, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: A classic with red-sauced spaghetti or pizza; it went well also with a simple dinner of mortadella and provolone with hot, fresh-baked Italian bread.
VALUE: As noted, simple drinkability and freshness makes it a bargain at this price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Best drunk up over the next year or so.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Locate vendors for Duca Leonardo on Wine-Searcher.com:
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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2004