20 Under $20: Wines that feed the soul
By Eric Asimov
Between the physical, emotional and economic miseries delivered by the pandemic, the continuing national debate over racial justice and the myriad daily shockers that have battered the national equanimity, I’ve learned it’s possible to feel hopeful and despondent at the same time.
Add to that, it’s summer, and although we’re no longer stuck indoors exactly, the usual seasonal pleasures seem a distant fantasy.
In these strange times, I find grounding in wine. Not through self-medication, although I do not disparage the buzz. But simply through the fascinating combination of grape, place and person that can make every good bottle either a new adventure or an old, beloved story.
I went in search of thrills and values late last month. Or rather, I did it pandemic style, letting my fingers do the shopping through the online inventories of New York wine shops. I tried them all at home and have come up with what I think is an excellent and unusual assortment of 20 wines under $20. They come from 11 different countries, in quite different proportion from my usual array.
For one thing, five of the wines are American — four from California and one from Washington. I don’t want to say that’s unprecedented, but California, for numerous reasons, is not usually fertile ground for good values. Perhaps bottles generally destined for restaurants ended up instead at retailers. Or maybe producers in California have finally taken up the challenge of making interesting, honest, moderately priced wines.
With these wines, don’t expect the most famous grapes from the most prized vineyard areas.
Indeed, the two reds from California are blends, leading with carignan and petite sirah from various sites in the sweeping North Coast appellation. One of two whites is a blend of pinot gris and pinot blanc. The other is a chardonnay, although from the wilds of Mendocino.
These 20 bottles include none from Spain, usually a wonderful source of great values. Why not? I don’t know. Earlier this year Spanish bottles dominated a roundup of wines under $15, so don’t hesitate to experiment with a few on your own.
Now, I can’t emphasize this enough: I am not asserting that these 20 bottles are the best values in the world under $20. They are all excellent deals, but they represent simply a cross-section of what I could find on the websites of Manhattan retail shops in June 2020.
That, I am sorry to say, will differ from what’s available in Atlanta or Dallas, or Milwaukee or Salt Lake City, to say nothing of all the countries within internet reach of this column. Some of these bottles you may find, others not.
What to do if you can’t find a specific bottle? I recommend these steps:
— Find a good wine shop. The most important step toward improving your drinking is to shop at a store that loves wine rather than treating it as a random consumer product. It will have assembled an inventory of scrupulously made wines from meticulously farmed grapes. These 20 bottles are not all big brands. You won’t find them at supermarkets.
— If a good retailer does not have a bottle, ask the merchant to suggest an equivalent wine. Most shops will be happy to take on this challenge. If they don’t have, say, a Croatian posip or a German weissburgunder, perhaps the two most esoteric bottles in this selection, they may find something equally obscure that they esteem. Why not try something new on a recommendation?
— Use an online tool, like wine-searcher.com, to track down bottles. You might find them in other stores. For American wines, dozens of states permit you to buy directly from wineries and have it shipped to your home.
— Consult previous 20 Under $20 columns. Most of these bottles are still excellent deals, although some prices may have crept up slightly.
— If all else fails (I don’t expect anybody to find all these bottles in one place. I sure didn’t) it’s nice to know that these wines exist in the world, even if they are not immediately available.
Seriously, in the days before theater and restaurants closed down, I enjoyed reading about a play that opened in London or a restaurant in Los Angeles without the immediate expectation of experiencing either. You may not find this bottle now, but it may show up in the future if you keep your eyes open. And it’s great to know wines like these exist.
Thinking seasonally, this list emphasizes whites, sparklers and rosés, but it does include eight red wines, because, well, one always needs reds. Here are the 20 bottles, in no particular order.
Zlatan Otok Hvar Posip 2018: This bottle from Croatia may seem obscure. But this sumptuous white, made from the indigenous grape posip, is rich, herbal, savory and deliciously refreshing. For now, wines like this, made from grapes little known to Americans in regions yet to achieve international popularity, are great values. Zlatan Otok, on the island of Hvar, was established in 1991. It’s now one of the larger wineries in the country. ($17.99, Vinum USA, Basking Ridge, New Jersey)
Le Vigne di Alice Vittorio Veneto Tajad Frizzante NV: This gently sparkling wine is a modern interpretation of the wines made in an era before the glera grape came to dominate Prosecco.
It’s a blend of indigenous varieties, including 40% boschera, 40% verdiso and 20% glera.
However, it’s not strictly old school. Cinzia Canzian, the winemaker, achieves the bubbles through the bulk-production Charmat method, also used for industrial Prosecco. But by comparison with mass-market bottles, this wine seems handmade, easygoing and perfectly refreshing. ($18.99, PortoVino, Buffalo, New York) Troupis Arcadia Moschofilero Hoof & Lur 2019: Moschofilero, like pinot gris and its Greek cousin, roditis, is a pink-skinned grape. If the juice sits briefly with the skins before vinification, it develops a pale salmon color, so let’s call Hoof & Lur a rosé. This wine, made without added yeast or filtration in the Peloponnese region of Greece, is fragrant and floral, bone-dry and lightly fruity. ($19.99, DNS Wines/T. Elenteny Imports, New York)
Broc Cellars North Coast Love Red 2018: Broc Cellars is one of my favorites among the new wave of California producers. Chris Brockway, the proprietor, specializes in tracking down well-farmed grapes, no matter how obscure, from undervalued vineyards around the state.
The wines in Broc’s Love series are lower-priced and made to quench thirsts. With its lively fruit flavors, this red, a blend mostly of carignan, with some valdigué and syrah thrown in, is perfect for an outdoor barbecue. Chill it up, pour it out and prepare to be refreshed. ($19.99)
Dirty & Rowdy North Coast Unfamiliar Red 2017: Dirty & Rowdy operates very much like Broc, prospecting California for grapes and vineyards off the beaten trail, although with a more puckish attitude. The 2017 Unfamiliar Red is more structured than the Broc Love Red. Its primary component is petite sirah, a notoriously tannic grape. The tannins are apparent here but very much in check. Zinfandel, carignan and mourvèdre round out the blend. It’s fresh and fruity and would be just right with juicy burgers off the grill. ($19.99)
Brand Pfalz Weissburgunder Trocken 2018: Daniel and Jonas Brand, two brothers, work in the northern reaches of the Pfalz region of Germany, where they farm organically and make a wide selection of excellent wines, many of them, like this one, sold in 1-liter bottles. This is made of weissburgunder, also known as pinot blanc. It’s a creamy, textured wine that feels so good in the mouth you just want to keep drinking it, rolling it around and seeking out nuances. (1 liter, $19, Vom Boden, Brooklyn, New York)
Niepoort Douro Tinto Twisted 2018: Dirk Niepoort is one of Portugal’s most interesting and influential producers. Based in Douro, port country, he pioneered the movement toward making lighter, fresher wines that aimed for finesse rather than power. Twisted is a perfect example. It’s a field blend of port varieties, a wine that maybe 15 years ago would have been heavy and jammy. It’s far more of a precise wine these days, lightly tannic and fresh, reminiscent of port but delightful now. It will improve for a few years, too. ($19, Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York)
Chiara Condello Romagna Sangiovese Predappio 2016: In Italy, sangiovese is not grown only in Tuscany. It’s the country’s most abundant red grape and has been cultivated in Emilia-Romagna for centuries. Chiara Condello, a young producer from a family of winemakers, makes this wine under her own label. It is 100% sangiovese, and it’s more overtly fruity than, say, a Chianti Classico. But it carries similarly dusty tannins and is nuanced and energetic. ($19.99, Bowler Wine, New York)
Meinklang Österreich Prosa Sparkling Rosé 2019: Meinklang, the biodynamic estate in the Burgenland region of Austria, almost never fails to delight. Whether blaufränkisch, grüner veltliner or anything else, the wines are always pure, fresh and delicious. This lightly sparkling rosé is made of pinot noir, tastes gently of red fruit and flowers, and will go with burgers, grilled salmon or even just by itself. ($17.96, Zev Rovine Selections, Brooklyn, New York)
Mother Rock Swartland Force Celeste Sémillon 2018: Sémillon makes wonderful wines, but you don’t see them often. It’s a crucial component of Sauternes and the dry whites of Graves, even as many producers there reduce the proportion in favor of sauvignon blanc. Excellent, age-worthy versions come from the Hunter Valley of Australia, while California and Oregon make a few. This, from Mother Rock, is the first South African sémillon that I’ve tried. It’s bone dry and full of the grape’s characteristic aromas and flavors of beeswax, lemon and honey. Bravo. ($17.99, Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, New Jersey)
Leitz Rheingau Sylvaner Trocken Alte Reben 2016: Sylvaner, or silvaner as it’s also spelled frequently, is a perpetually underrated grape. When conscientiously farmed and made with care, like this one, it’s a perfect spring or summer white. This wine, tangy and light, yet with flavors that resonate, won’t be easy to find. But I include it because it’s excellent, and perhaps it will inspire you to try a sylvaner, whether this one or from another producer like Stefan Vetter, Ostertag, Dirler-Cadé or maybe one you discover yourself. ($19.96, Schatzi Wines, Milan, New York)
Gaspard Vin de France Sauvignon Blanc 2018: Jenny & François is one of the pioneering U.S. importers of natural wines. Gaspard is the name of its private label, and this wine is delicious. Made from sauvignon blanc grown in the Touraine region of the Loire Valley, this wine will not remind you of the more pungent sauvignon blanc associated with New Zealand. It’s a more gentle, resonant style reminiscent of a restrained Sancerre. ($16.96, Jenny & François Selections, New York)
Familie Bauer Wagram Terassen Roter Veltliner 2018: What is roter veltliner, you ask, grüner veltliner’s whirling sibling? The grapes are actually unrelated, ampelographers say, although it does have some similarities, like a pleasing peppery spiciness. But this Austrian wine, made from organic grapes, is richer and rounder, pure, clear and deep. It would make an interesting alternative to chardonnay. ($16.96, Savio Soares Selections, New York)
Fabien Jouves Cahors Haute Côt(e) de Fruit Malbec 2018: Fabien Jouves is one of the best young producers in Cahors in southwest France. Those wines meant to reflect the characteristics of particular terroirs are bottled under the name of his estate, Mas del Périé.
Those intended primarily for thirst-quenching, like this one, carry his own name. The red grape of the region, malbec, is also known as côt, hence the pun on the label. Whichever name you choose for the grape, this is a less effusive expression of malbec than the familiar Argentine version, fruity yet tapered and lightly mineral. Chill a bit before serving. ($17.99, Zev Rovine Selections)
Porter-Bass Poco à Poco Mendocino County Chardonnay 2018: Poco à Poco is the budget label of Porter-Bass Vineyard and Winery, a producer in the Russian River Valley that is committed to biodynamic farming. This bottle, from a biodynamic vineyard in Mendocino County, is lean and lively with lovely citrus and herbal flavors, a blessed relief from heavy, oaky California chardonnays. ($19.99)
Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc 2018: Jim Clendenen is the man, or as he prefers to put it, the mind, behind Au Bon Climat. I’m not sure he is exactly unsung, but he is a hero for his advocacy both of the Santa Barbara region and for wines of restraint and subtlety. In the annals of American wine, where attention seems to gravitate to the newest thing, it’s always worth remembering what good wines he’s been making for years.
This white blend, two-thirds pinot gris, one-third pinot blanc, is savory and sumptuous, not at all heavy but quite refreshing. It would be great with richer fish or chicken off the grill. ($19.99)
Punt Road Airlie Bank Yarra Valley Gris on Skins 2019: Clear glass bottles are almost always unfortunate, as they expose wines to possible damage from light. But they seem irresistible to rosé producers as they show off the variety of pink colors possible in wine. This Australian one is a pale maraschino, and it is quite beautiful. More important, it’s absolutely dry and refreshing, with the faintest rasp of pleasant tannin to scrub the mouth clean. Made of pinot gris fermented with its skins, which accounts for that lovely color. ($19.99, Little Peacock, New York)
Seresin Marlborough Momo Pinot Noir 2018: Inexpensive pinot noir is often a dicey proposition. Too often the money-saving compromises mean that this difficult-to-grow grape was planted in the wrong place, or that the production process cut multiple corners. But this wine, made from organic grapes grown in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, is true to the spirit of pinot noir, resulting in a fresh, graceful, refreshing wine redolent of flowers and red fruit. Drink lightly chilled. ($18.99, The Sorting Table, Napa, California)
Rasa Vineyards Occam’s Razor Columbia Valley Red Wine Blend 2017: This blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah calls for steaks grilled over coals. It’s got the substance and body — 14.5% alcohol — to handle fatty, juicy beef, yet it wears its heft easily without feeling heavy or syrupy. As befitting the name Occam’s Razor, which postulates that the simplest explanation is the most likely, this wine is not complicated, it’s just satisfying. ($19.99)
Pierre & Rodolphe Gauthier Domaine du Bel Air Bourgueil Jour de Soif 2019: Domaine du Bel Air, run by a father-and-son team, makes fine, age-worthy wines from organic cabernet franc.
Jour de Soif is their entry-level bottle, made from younger vines, which are nonetheless still 20 years old. Yet this is no mere vin de soif. You can sense the structure of the other cuvées in the fine tannins that give shape to this otherwise fresh and juicy wine. Not shy at 14.3% alcohol, it, too, would be great for grilled meats. ($17.99. Polaner Selections)