Good wine, cheap
There's an empty bottle at the American table
by Thor Iverson
There's a monkey on my back, and its
name is Cheap Wine. Whether it's someone asking for good wines at a
can't quite provide, or my editor complaining that wine costs more than it did
10 years ago, I'm on a constant but desperate
quest for excellent under-$10 wines. Unfortunately, that sort of wine value is
almost impossible to find in this country. (I know . . . the
truth hurts my wallet, too.)
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
Partly for the usual reasons: inflation, greed, and so on. But the
primary cause is deeper: the absence of an American wine tradition.
Prohibition, which destroyed most of our wine industry, gets part of the blame.
And, of course, we didn't benefit (as Europe did) from the Etruscans, Greeks,
and Romans planting wine grapes everywhere they went.
Today, because we didn't "grow up" with wine, we're at a disadvantage. In
Europe, wine is an everyday product, no more special than bread or vegetables;
here, it's considered a luxury item with an aura of snobbery attached.
Elsewhere, there are multiple tiers of production and consumption, ranging from
bottles for grand occasions to anonymous bottles for
everyday quaffing; in the
US, our "good" wine comes almost entirely from what are, in other countries,
the upper levels of the wine hierarchy. We completely lack the vast lower tier
of European wines, usually known as table or country wine. In
France, for example, vins de table and vins de pays are purchased
for a few francs in the supermarket, or poured into plastic jugs that one
refills at the local co-op winery.
To help illustrate the problem, look at the chart below. It lists types of
wine with approximate prices, and how those wines might (hypothetically) be
labeled in France and the US.
As you can see, there are no US equivalents to the two bottom levels. If
you're spending less than $10 in the US, you're probably getting 1.5-liter
bottles of bulk wine (which are sometimes rejected grapes or wine from other
wineries), jugs of indeterminate and dubious content, and wine-in-a-box.
So what's the difference between a $6 bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône and
a $6 jug of "pink chablis"? For one thing, the Côtes-du-Rhône is
made with grapes and techniques mandated by French
appellation law, and doesn't
change much from year to year. "Pink chablis," on the other hand, doesn't
really exist (the "Chablis"
is stolen from a region in France that actually makes
whites from chardonnay); any grapes might
have gone into the wine, and the style changes based on the results of market
research. The grapes don't even have to come from this country.
Furthermore, the Côtes-du-Rhône is essentially a natural wine, not
one carefully crafted,
chemically adjusted, and flavored (in the
style of the "blackberry merlot" you've probably seen in ads and in stores).
The Côtes-du-Rhône is wine as it has been made for centuries; "pink
chablis" is lab science.
But the most important difference is in the taste and quality. Concoctions
like "pink chablis" are specifically designed to entice soda aficionados with
sugar and vague suggestions of fruit. In that they succeed, but what they don't
do very well is go with food. European table wines are made for drinking with
meals, and have developed through the centuries to match the cuisines of the
regions in which they're made;
simple wine for
So is there hope for American wine lovers on a budget? Not much. Prime
grape-growing land is insanely expensive, and grapes from cheaper land are
manipulated so much (acid,
sugar, grape concentrate, and
oak flavoring are
often added, while water and alcohol are removed) that they retain little of
their intrinsic character. A $5 generic California merlot could be a tasty
quaffing wine if rescued from over-engineering and over-manipulation, but few
producers have the necessary courage.
If you're ever in another country, try some of the bulk wines and table wines
available in stores. Or order a carafe of some anonymous
rosé in a
bistro or trattoria. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality, and you'll
wonder why we can't do as well. Meanwhile, watch this space for some great wine
bargains . . . such as the following:
1995 Barone del Murgo Etna Rossa ($7.99, Wine & Cheese Cask). Fully
mature, with a pastis and prune nose, a blueberry marshmallow palate, and a
finish. Sounds strange, but I loved this wine. As an
accompaniment, sprinkle a few cloves around some meatballs and cheese and bake
-- this wine (grown in the shadow of the famous volcano) will erupt with
1996 Gallo of Sonoma Merlot ($9.50, available everywhere). This is
definitely not in the style of grapey, dull merlot that one expects in this
price range. Seriously structured,
with dark berries, black pepper,
almonds, and dry tannins,
this really only started to show its fruit after
three days of air. Decant it that far ahead, or
cellar it for a few years, and
serve it with grilled meats and vegetables.
1985 Baumard Coteaux du Layon ($12.75, Brookline Liquor Mart). Yes,
that's right, less than $13 for a 14-year-old wine. Rich and intense, mango and
corn syrup with a succulent
and quinine rigidity. Entices the nose with
cinnamon and nutmeg in sea spray, finishes with saffron and pine forest. This
moderately sweet dessert wine
defines complexity -- look how carried away I got with the description!
NV Alain Renardat-Fâche Vin de Bugey Cerdon ($14.99, Wine &
Cheese Cask). Made from gamay (the grape of red
Beaujolais) and poulsard (an
obscurity from the Jura region of France), lurid pink,
semi-sweet, and utterly delicious. This wine evokes the freshest of berries,
and it's the perfect summer wine.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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