The $10 Challenge
Can you really get a decent bottle of wine for that price?
While wine snobs with raised pinkies are buying, swirling and sniffing hard-to-find wines that cost two arms and a leg, the rest of Canada is just drinking wine. Inexpensive bottles. But is all cheap wine vile swill?
It’s hard to tell, when a disproportionate amount of wine criticism focuses on big-ticket, small-scale bottles in infinite detail.
Frankly, one reason relatively little ink has been spilled on big brands is that there’s a stigma attached to acknowledging them. Among many wine critics and connoisseurs, they’re seen as less interesting. Too commercial. Too generic. Too industrial — as if quantity has an inverse relationship with quality, which of course it doesn’t. Single-note wines are made by big and small producers, but still this stigma persists.
Among some wine critics, it’s even believed big brands are simply a means for driving shareholder value, leading to marketing that overpromises, and bottles that under-deliver. Though this is the case sometimes, it’s certainly not always true. It makes better business sense to do the opposite: use economies of scale to make wines that over-perform at each price point, and then promote awareness with honest marketing.
Sure, big brands use economies of scale to muscle into the market, and it tugs at the heart to watch cold, hard market forces squeeze out smaller winemakers. With little money to toss toward marketing, merchandising and advertising, and without the quantities of wine or dollars needed to secure wide distribution, the little guy loses and the big guy wins — simple as that.
It’s especially difficult for wine critics to watch this happen when we spend much time visiting smaller winemakers, seeing the dirt under their fingernails, feeling the passion behind their words, and appreciating their daily struggle with those gnarled vines to produce wines of beauty, place, and often pedigree. On some level, it’s hard not to fall in love with these producers when they charm you with their honest lifestyle, take you into their homes, make you food and court you with their most treasured wines.
But the people behind the big brands work hard too, and their wines couldn’t be successful without consumer consent — without making bottles people like to drink, can find on the shelves, and count on for pleasure. Lower-priced big brands are there to turn to as reliable, go-to wines for Wednesday’s pasta, Friday’s hamburgers, or that upcoming wedding reception for 100 of your closest friends and family.
Trouble is, with relatively little criticism focused on branded wines, it’s hard to know which bottles to buy — which was why I wrote Good Better Best Wines — the first book to rank bestselling wines by grape variety and price up to about $20. And it soared to bestseller within weeks of release.
I’m happy to critique big brands. Just the same as any other wines, I taste them technically to assess quality — are they clean, balanced, and correct for their variety and style? Do they offer good value for the price? This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a first growth Bordeaux or vintage Champagne, but there’s a time, place, and market for all categories of wine and to argue otherwise is snobbery.
So for this article, I tasted a broad range of wines to reveal the 25 best value bottles for those looking for an unpretentious, tasty, good value quaff.
So here we go.
Citra Pinot Grigio 2009, Sicily, Italy
This pale yellow wine with subtle green reflections starts with a captivating whiff of white peach and fresh blossoms before moving to a racy palate of lime zest and tart lemon sorbet. Taut acidity tones the fruit of this well-balanced wine, offering solid value from a traditional Italian producer. Medium-bodied.
Flipflop Pinot Grigio 2010, California, United States
The floral and key lime aromas are quite fetching. Then, a compelling charge of electric lime, white grapefruit and tart tangerine races across the palate with some sea salt and fresh herb underpinnings. Quite concentrated and complex for the price, with a medium body and 13% alcohol. Expect this newly launched wine to be a runaway success. Snap it up.
Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2009, Marche, Italy
Lemon sorbet aromas lead to a bright zip of marble-smooth, understated fruit followed by a final note of bitter almond. Well balanced, good value quaff. Light bodied.
Citra Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2009, Abruzzo, Italy
Nose of talcy minerals leads to a crisp, refreshing palate imbued with delicate pear and floral notes. The result is a tight harmony of aromas and flavours in this refreshing, and beautifully balanced wine. Lighter side of medium-bodied.
Folonari Soave DOC 2009, Veneto, Italy
What a find! This charming little Italian blend of 80% Garganega and 20% Trebbiano is gently reminiscent of lime, and cool, wet stones. A classic, elegant dry wine everyone will enjoy.
Funf 5 Riesling 2009, Germany
Quiet candied lime peel aromas lead to an intense, tangy blast of mouth-filling lemon-lime sorbet. Medium-sweet but impeccably balanced with sharp acidity, so it finishes dry. Tantalizing and refreshing with serious fruit concentration. Fun stuff to drink on its own or with spicy fare. And at a light-bodied 9% alcohol, feel free to gulp.
Sutter Home Family Vineyards White Zinfandel 2009, California, United States
Gleaming silvery pink in the glass, the peach, orange, cantaloupe, and subtle strawberry flavours are delicate and off-dry with a good edge of incisive acidity.
Beringer White Zinfandel 2009, California, United States
Cheap, cheerful, and brimming with fresh ripe strawberry and peach flavours, this little number is off-dry and absurdly easy to drink.
Barefoot Merlot, California, United States
Aromas of homemade blueberry pie lead to a dry but full-on attack of sun-drenched black and red cherry, wild blueberry, raspberry and dark chocolate. Swings from cocktail alternative to versatile, mid-week food wine.
Trapiche Malbec 2009, Mendoza, Argentina
This vinous metaphor for black velvet cascades with a rich crush of concentrated damson plum and blackberries imbued with gentle vanilla and pepper spice. Firm ripe tannins on the finish hold the palate tight through the berry-rich finish. Seriously underpriced wine with a grownup feel about it. Full bodied with 13.5% alcohol.
Carlo Rossi California Red, United States
As the best-selling wine in the US — labelled Carlo Rossi Burgundy south of the border — and the third best-selling red in Ontario today, this red in the iconic jug offers serious value for money. Think one big gulp of round, juicy red wine imbued with smooth berry notes. Good, honest table wine, even with its touch of sweetness.
Citra Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2009, Abruzzo, Italy
Lush aromas of berries and plum lead to sweet-fruited black cherry and leather flavours with a soft, silky texture and fresh, palate-cleansing acidity. This stellar food wine finishes with peppercorn and a slightly bitter black olive note.
Barefoot Zinfandel, California, United States
Tasted blind, you’d never guess it costs less than a tenner. For me, the bold attack is disarmingly appealing, but it’s the mouthfeel that’s most compelling. Think smooth black forest fruits nuanced with smoke and vanilla, then a little grip on the finish. Charming.
Dubonnet Rouge, France
This blend of fortified wine, herbs and spice has been around for ages — since 1846, actually. And it’s still well loved. It starts with mixed berries on the nose and then attacks the palate with cherry, lemon zest, cardamom, red pepper, coffee, almond and the faintest hint of spearmint before tapering to a long orange oil finish. Quite complex and compelling. Love the polished mouthfeel. Full-bodied with 14.8% alcohol. Best served over ice with a big slice of lemon.