21 Wines Under $21
I taste a lot of sock squeezings disguised as wine that sell for way too much dosh but I don’t write them up. Nor do other critics. We tend to focus on what’s good instead. How badly do you really want to read about a $50 bottle of wine that tastes like under-ripe raspberries crushed in someone’s armpit, steeped in black tea for 32 hours, and then strained through a pair of used boxer briefs?
I assure you, under par wines are out there and, though they’re annoying to come across at trade tastings where the spittoon is a discreet saving grace, nothing’s worse than paying good money for a poorly made, past-its-best, flawed, or just plain overrated bottle. Reverse that and spend, say, less than $21 on a wine that can make you believe in God, and we’re talking wine appreciation.
There are serious deals to be had if you know where to look. Any of the following wines that cost less than $21 could sell for much more. They tend to hail from reliable producers known for rigorous quality control from vine to bottle. So this list does two things: it points out best buys, and it reveals some of the most trusted names in the business.
1. William Fèvre Chablis Les Champs Royaux 2008, Burgundy, France ($20)
Killer wine with classic aromas of wet stones and flavours of pear, pebbles and cooked apple. Sleek mouth feel. Medium-bodied with 12.5% alcohol.
Domaine William Fèvre is a traditional Chablis producer with a winemaking history in the region that dates back 250 years. Wedded to the concept of terroir, this maker produces focused wines centered on minerality and freshness.
2. Chavet Menetou-Salon Blanc 2008, Loire, France ($19)
If you like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, you’ll love this wine. You get all the flinty minerality, lacy acidity and delicate-tight citrus fruit of these more famous appellations at a fraction of the price. Medium-bodied.
The Chavet family has been tending vines in Menetou-Salon since the 17th century. Set beside Sancerre, Menetou-Salon offers many of the same characteristics as the more famous appellation at a better price.
3. Château St Jean Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma County, California, USA ($18)
Full-bodied and beautifully integrated aromas and flavours of crème caramel, sweet melon and cooked pear with an appealing weight in the mouth.
Chateau St Jean — pronounced “Jean” as in “blue jean” — is highly regarded for its single-vineyard Chardonnay. The entry-level wine noted above is a nod to that acknowledged expertise.
4. Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, New Zealand ($16)
When I crave Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with its hallmark full-throttle exuberance of gooseberry, key lime and grapefruit, I reach for this wine. It’s consistently delish with silky texture, crisp acidity and impeccable balance. Medium-bodied.
Regarded as one of the leading producers in New Zealand, Villa Maria consistently spins out some of the best Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs but also makes excellent Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
5. Yalumba Y Series Viognier 2008, Barossa Valley, Australia ($18)
With rich flavours of full-bodied peach edged with musk, honeysuckle and cinnamon, this wine offers an almost oily texture balanced by cleansing acidity. Terrific wine for the money.
Yalumba is Australia’s oldest family owned winery, founded in 1849. It is one of the world’s leading Viognier producers, styled after those of Condrieu, in the Rhône region of France.
6. Cave Spring Estate Bottled Riesling 2008, Beamsville Bench VQA, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($18)
Quite a refined, stylish wine. Wet stones, aniseed, white peach and floral notes imbue the nose and palate before finishing with a palate-cleansing bitter twist of lime, and dash of sea salt.
Cave Springs is considered one of Canada’s leading makers of Riesling, producing a world-class style that is distinctively elegant and mineral.
7. Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2008, South Australia ($18)
Explosive flavours of blackberry purée, blackcurrant, plum, rawhide, bonfire and peppercorn. Marble-smooth and rich with an appealing tannic grip. Full-bodied with 13.5% alcohol.
Established in 1844, Penfolds is one of Australia’s oldest and most dependable wineries, offering good value for money at every price point. Its top wine, Grange, is widely regarded as the country’s top wine.
8. Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenère 2007, Maipo Valley, Chile ($20)
Warm, mouth-coating flavours of black plum nuanced with bell pepper, toasty oak, cigar box, bitter chocolate and blueberries. This is textbook Carmenère with opulence, elegance and succulence.
Concha y Toro is the largest wine producer in Latin America, and it’s one of the best. Founded in 1883, the winery offers superb quality from its entry-level wines to its super-premium selections.
9. Wolf Blass Yellow Label Victoria Pinot Noir 2008, Victoria, South Eastern Australia ($19)
Classic Pinot Noir aromas and flavours of beetroot, cranberry and violet appear in this impeccably balanced wine with reverberating length. Medium- to full-bodied.
Wolf Blass is an eccentric German who started this Australian winery in his own name in 1973. The Wolf Blass name is synonymous with fruity, oaked red wines that are approachable and ready-to-drink upon release.
10. Trapiche Broquel Malbec 2007, Mendoza, Argentina ($16)
Full-bodied with voluptuous aromas of grilled beef, creamy mocha and dry liquorice root lead to intense flavours of black and red berries, flame-grilled beef, bitter chocolate, espresso and dry earth. Long brambly fruit finish.
With more than 120 years of history, stringent quality standards, and a reputation for excellence, Trapiche is known for making some of the best Malbecs in Argentina.
11. Mission Hill Family Estate Five Vineyards Cabernet Merlot 2007, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($17)
Warm, sweet-talking, liqueur-like aromas lead to blackberry, dark chocolate, and black olive flavours underpinned by an almost gritty mineral core. Attractive texture. Real depth and brilliance. Full-bodied with 13.5% alcohol.
Mission Hill is undoubtedly one of the largest and most-recognized names in BC wine — and for good reason. Its wines are frequently among the best in their categories.
12. Rodney Strong Sonoma County Merlot 2006, California, USA ($20)
Ripe cherries and blueberries on the nose lead to cherries, plums, blueberries, creamy vanilla and toasted spice on the palate. Exactly what a great Merlot should taste like, with impressive concentration, complexity, and length.
Don’t be fooled by the fact Rodney Strong is a large production winery whose wines are widely available. The wines pack a thrill — solid proof quantity doesn’t always have an inverse relationship with quality.
13. Perrin & Fils Peyre Blanche Cairanne 2007, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, France ($18)
I wasn’t the only one struck by the value of this wine. Respected critic James Suckling, while with Wine Spectator, scored this bottle a 91, and Robert Parker gave it a 90. Black cherries, peppercorn, grilled meat and earth notes make for a savoury and seductive sipper. Full-bodied with 13.5% alcohol.
The Perrin family owns the négociant Perrin & Fils, as well as the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate Château de Beaucastel. Perrin is one of the most reliable names in Rhône valley.
14. Ravenswood Vintners Blend Petite Sirah 2007, California, USA ($18)
Tightly-wound flavours of black forest fruits, dark chocolate, leather, nutmeg and peppercorn create an intriguing wine. Velvety texture with a firm structure.
Although Ravenswood built a reputation for big, bold, Sonoma Zinfandels over the course of the last three decades, I think their Petite Sirah offers the best value for money.
15. Masi Campofiorin 2006, Veneto, Italy ($20)
From the stellar 2006 vintage, this full-bodied wine seriously over-delivers. It is one big swirl of cherries, earth, cocoa, vanilla and spice. For added richness, Masi re-ferments this wine with semi-dried grapes so it tastes much like an Amarone, but costs much less.
Masi produces premium wines that are consistently approachable and traditional — not all Italian wines can make this claim.
16. Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Washington State, United States ($20)
This wine is like the best Black Forest cake you’ve ever eaten: tart cherries, rich chocolate, and cool whipped cream with just a hint of espresso somewhere. The flavours are refined, silky, and precise, finishing with a lingering milk chocolate aftertaste.
Wine Spectator recently named 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington the best wine in the world for 2009. Having recently tasted dozens of best-selling Cabernet Sauvignons for the book I just finished writing — Good Better Best Wines — this news doesn’t surprise me. Columbia Crest is doing good things with that grape.
17. Murphy-Goode Zinfandel Liar’s Dice 2007, Sonoma County, California, USA ($19)
Dense flavours and aromas of black bramble fruits — black raspberry, blackcurrant and blackberry — are edged with black pepper and an appealing earthy minerality. 14.9% alcohol and very full-bodied.
Established in 1985, Murphy Goode is a family-run vineyard in Sonoma with a reputation for excellence.
18. Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva 2005, Rioja, Spain ($20)
26 months in oak imbue this richly-fruited wine with cedar, cinnamon, balsamic, chocolate and toasty wood notes. Fine tannins, Old World charm and considerable length. Full-bodied with 13.7% alcohol.
Founded in 1860, Marqués de Riscal is one of the oldest wineries in Rioja. It was also the first to introduce Bordeaux-style winemaking to the region. It is unquestionably considered a leading Rioja producer among wine professionals.
19. Warre’s Warrior Reserve Port, Douro, Portugal ($15/375 ml)
Starts with a rich perfume of stewed berries and plums before striking the palate with flavours of black cherry, dried fig, plum pudding, milk chocolate, mixed spices and vanilla. Velvety, intense and sweet with a long, smoked cinnamon finish. Full-bodied with 20% alcohol.
Warre’s was the first British-owned Port house, established in 1670. And the Warrior Reserve Port is the oldest brand of Port in the world, with its traditional style maintained since the 1750s.
20. Lenz Moser Prestige Trockenbeerenauslese 2007, Austria ($19/375 ml)
When I first tasted this wine, I made a mental note to buy a case. Buttercream, oranges, marmalade and super-ripe cantaloupe flavours build on the palate before tapering to a satisfyingly clean tang. Lusciously sweet and light-bodied.
Lenz Moser, established in 1849, is well-known for high-quality wines at reasonable prices. It is a go-to name for Austrian wine.
21. Napoleon Amontillado Sherry by Bodegas Hidalgo, Jerez, Spain ($20)
This undervalued pour brims with coffee, toffee and nuts. It’s lush but bone dry. Who needs chocolate when you’ve got this and the cheeseboard? Full-bodied with 17.5% alcohol.
Bodegas Hidalgo is one of the top Sherry producers in Spain. It has remained a quality-minded family operation through six generations, since 1792, and is definitely a name to trust.