A $45 Burgundy can be a beautiful thing, but for most of us who like a good bottle with our roast chicken on an ordinary Monday night, a solid, $10 Cote du Rhone is gorgeous.
Faced with aisles of unknown European bottles at Trader Joe’s or Costco, though, or the dozens of bargains on the front table at Silverlake Wine, or the open case specials near the register at the Wine House or Wally’s, how do we wine civilians tell the promising from the plonk?
You might take a cue from chefs; their shopping savvy comes from years of holding down food costs in the kitchen. Every few days, former Bastide chef Alain Giraud checks out the wine aisle at his local Trader Joe’s, searching for bargains. While the chain store’s Two Buck Chuck may not deliver the insouciant complexities that connoisseurs crave, fork over an extra five bucks for a European wine, and you might be in for a pleasant surprise.
“The way I do it is to buy one bottle and try it,” says Giraud. “If it’s good, I rush back to buy what’s left.” (Other bargain hunters have been known to open a bottle and taste it in the parking lot, then dash back into the store to buy more.) An encouraging number of times, Giraud says, he lucks into a decent Cotes du Rhone.
Cotes du Rhones are often safe bets, in fact. They’re well made and easy to drink and come from a region that, unlike say, Bordeaux, has not been progressively overpriced and overvalued. Growing up in the south of France, Giraud knows as well as anyone that there are good wines in the world for everyday drinking that don’t cost an arm and a leg.
Don’t overlook the obvious: Buy the wines that made that region famous. These are the wines with which they have the most experience.
From Italy, buy Chiantis rather than Merlots. If you see a Rioja from Spain, chances are good that it will be decent. Turn to Germany for whites, particularly Rieslings.
Avoid European wines that carry California varietal labels like Chardonnay and Cabernet. Merlot from Sicily, for instance, is probably more of a corporate marketing gimmick than an effort by an individual to make good wine. Instead, advises Silverlake Wine owner George Cossette, “pick labels that reflect the European system of wine identification -- with its emphasis on place.”
Buying wines from lesser known or less prestigious regions is another good strategy. The South of France is a safe bet at $10 because winemakers there actually intend to make $10 wine. In Burgundy, on the other hand, producers can inflate prices hoping to cash in on the wine’s cachet. A cheap bottle can mean bad grapes or some other nasty surprise.
In any region, look for wines with governmental designations -- AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) in France, DOC (Denomnazione di Origine Controllata) or DOCG (Denomnazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) in Italy, DOC (Denominacion de Origen Calificada) or DO (Denominacion de Origen) in Spain. These are the wines whose production is most closely controlled, as well as appreciated, in their home countries. (That’s not always true for wines labeled merely as table wine -- vin de table or vino da tavola.)
Another way to go is to keep track of the best vintages -- the years when most wines from a particular region are good. Buying the “little” wines from lesser-known producers in great vintages is a way to limit mistakes, says Burgundy wine critic Allen Meadows.
For instance, 2000 was well-known as an outstanding vintage in Bordeaux, and any inexpensive 2000 Bordeaux is likely to be pretty good.
On the other hand, says Meadows, you can seek out the big names in “little” vintages, regardless of the region or sub-region. “The great domaines and chateaux can almost always create something interesting,” he says. “Plus you have the benefit of the class and refinement of the great terroirs.”
By the same token, a well-known producer in an inferior vintage is likely to divert fruit intended for a high-priced wine into a lesser label. While the fruit doesn’t meet the higher expectations, it can be far superior to the typical bargain fruit that goes into that label.
Giraud says he is fond of the well-known Rhone producer Guigal’s better-than-average table wine, and so he buys Guigal’s basic Cotes du Rhone whenever he sees it.
But unknown vintners also offer opportunities for bargain hunters. They don’t have money for marketing and so fall through the cracks in distribution even when they are good.
Cossette suggests looking for the words “mis en bouteille au chateau” or some other indication that the wine was made by an individual producer at a specific location and not made by a generic factory winery. “It doesn’t mean it’s a good chateau, but it’s made by a person not a corporation,” he says.
Off the beaten path
Search for unknown regions in Spain, Italy and France. These places have a wine culture and the old vines that go with it, but they’ve made little if any wine for export. Updated winemaking has brought wines from Spain’s Galicia and Rueda regions up to international standards, and many are reasonably priced.
“The La Mancha area around Madrid never produced great wine,” says Randy Kemner, owner of Wine Country in Signal Hill, “but they’ve always had local wine. Now that they have modernized, they are producing lovely, fruit-dominated wines.”
From South America, avoid the over-hyped Chilean wines, says Kemner; look instead for the Argentinean wines that have more recently come onto the market. “They are a country of serious wine drinkers,” he says. “It’s pretty exciting down there now.”
If all of this is too overwhelming and still requires too much education, there are three rules that anyone can follow:
One, avoid dusty bottles; there is probably a reason they’ve never sold. Two, check the alcohol level: lower is better.
And three, at all costs, avoid cheesy-looking labels. “Too much shiny stuff” on the label is a dead giveaway that the wine won’t deliver, Cossette says. “You can feel the marketing.”
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Making plonk palatable
What if you get that bargain wine home and you really don’t like it? You might be able to improve it. Really! Here are a few easy-to-execute tricks of the trade.
A dash of salt. This maneuver was revealed to us several years ago by Bonny Doon Vineyards owner Randall Grahm, who said that he learned the trick in the tasting rooms of France. When you have a wine that tastes “green,” he said, with “blocky” tannins (traits not uncommon in inexpensive, young wines), add a touch of salt. We’ve tried it with inferior wines of all kinds, and often as not, they taste better. “Salt can change the volatility of aroma molecules,” explains food science author Harold McGee; in effect, it releases aromas. In a wine that’s lacking character, he adds, salt fills in the hole with a substitute taste. Careful not to use too much, though -- six or seven grains should do it.
Give it air. To quickly “age” an immature wine, decant it -- vigorously. When a wine is “closed,” contact with air can open it up, releasing aromas and flavors. You may not want your guests to see you throwing wine into a pail (you don’t need a fancy decanter), but double or even triple decanting should aerate it sufficiently.
Chill out. Experts know that chilling wine can hide flaws. For both reds and whites, it tones down harshness and too much alcohol and mutes unpleasant flavors. Red wines should be slightly chilled -- 58 degrees is optimal. For whites, leave them in the fridge until they’re colder than you’d normally want to drink them.
-- Corie Brown