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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

20 wines under $20: Bottles for all seasons

A variety of wines under $20, in New York, Sept. 13, 2023. Conventional wisdom on when to drink whites or reds can result in missing out on many great choices.

By Eric Asimov

I don’t believe in drinking seasonally. I believe in eating seasonally, and that largely dictates which wines I drink.

With fresh vegetables in hot weather, and with plenty of seafood, I tend to pick lighter wines, not always white but mostly. In the dead of winter, I eat more stews, meats and heavier preparations. The bigger, richer wines come out, more reds but not altogether.

It’s not so much a matter of color but of weight, which encompasses the full spectrum of wines. But weight does often correlate with color, and that’s where the specious shorthand, “reds in winter, whites and rosés in summer,” may have originated.

A simple formulation like this seems useful because it eliminates the need for thought. You don’t have to know anything except what’s apparent visually. And often, because of the correlation between weight and color, it works.

But what gets lost are great options that don’t fit easy categories. Light, fresh reds that can be chilled are as good in the summer as a white. They have their place in the winter, too, as do whites and rosés.

For this fall edition of 20 Under $20, which looks ahead toward the cooler weather, I’ve picked mostly reds. But I’ve also included a half-dozen whites and a couple of sparkling wines, and the reds are hardly heavyweights.

Here are the 20 bottles, almost all farmed organically or biodynamically, in order of increasing price.

Ramilo Wines Jackpot Vinho Regional Lisboa 2021, 13%, $10.99

This juicy, textured, modestly tannic Portuguese wine, from the area outside of Lisbon, is one of the best values I’ve seen recently. Bottles this cheap rarely offer this level of depth or pleasure. The Jackpot cuvée, made of organically farmed castelão and aragonez, better known as tempranillo, was developed for the U.S. market by Ramilo and their U.S. importer as an example of a typical Portuguese taverna wine. (NLC Wines, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Celler Credo Penedès Miranius Xarello 2020, 11.5%, $15.99

Ton Mata, the steward of Recaredo, which is among a handful of excellent Spanish sparkling wine producers who have left the cava appellation behind, believes deeply in the greatness of xarello, one of the traditional cava grapes. Under the Celler Credo label, Recaredo is making a variety of still wines, including this lovely, dry, savory, slightly creamy xarello, made of biodynamically farmed grapes. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York)

Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie La Pépie 2022, 12.5%, $16.99

La Pépière is one of the best and most progressive Muscadet producers, even as it’s undergone a leadership transition. Marc Ollivier, the longtime proprietor, retired a few years ago and passed on the reins to Rémi Branger and Gwénaëlle Croix, who have kept Pépière on an upward trajectory. La Pépie is the label’s introductory bottle, a blend of all Pépière’s different terroirs. It’s rich, deep, dry and soulful. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)

Fabien Jouves Cahors Haute Côt de Fruit, 2022, 12%, $16.99

Fabien Jouves is part of the vanguard trying to make sleepy Cahors relevant in the 21st century. He makes superb wines for his family estate, under the Mas del Périé label, and equally distinctive wines like this one under his own name. All are biodynamically farmed and made with minimal intervention. Haute Côt, made of côt, as malbec is often known in France, is fresh and delightfully fruity, with an underlying mineral core. (Zev Rovine Selections, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Vaona Valpolicella Classico 2022, 12.5%, $17.99

Valpolicella over the years has gotten bigger and richer. Those bottles are generally labeled Ripasso, but I gravitate to the lighter, more delicate Classico style. I’ve particularly been a fan of Vaona’s Valpolicella. It comes and goes in the market, so when I see it available I snap it up. The 2022, made with organic grapes, is fresh and fragrant with a touch of richness but well balanced. (Massonois Imports, New York)

Brunnhilde Claux Notre Terre Vin de France Rouge 2021, 13%, $18.99

Minervois in the Languedoc used to be a source for cheap jug wines, but a fresh grenache like this, resonant, energetic and refreshing, demonstrates what can be done with biodynamic farming and sensitive winemaking. Notre Terre is a project within the excellent Domaine de Courbissac in which Brunnhilde Claux, the vigneronne, uses a selection of the estate’s old vines. (Terrestrial Wine Company, Manhasset, N.Y.)

The Whole Shebang California Fifteenth Cuvée, 14%, $18.99

This longtime favorite value is a modern version of a California field blend from Bedrock Wine Co., which releases more expensive wines under its own label. It’s generally a blend of zinfandel, carignan, syrah, petite sirah and others from multiple vintages, hence the labeling Fifteenth Cuvée rather than a vintage year. The result is unpretentious, fresh, fruity and robust.

Torre Alle Tolfe Chianti Colli Senesi 2020, 13.5%, $18.99

Chianti Colli Senesi is one of the satellite regions around Chianti Classico that together make up the greater Chianti region. This bottle, from Torre Alle Tolfe, is made entirely from organically farmed sangiovese aged in concrete. It is rich and fruity, all held in place with dusty tannins. It would be just right with a skirt steak or pasta with long-simmered, meaty tomato sauce. (Bowler Wine, New York)

Brand Riesling Trocken Landwein Rhein 2022, 11.5%, $18.99 (1 liter)

The brothers Daniel and Jonas Brand make a variety of terrific wines in the Pfalz region of Germany. This delicious dry riesling, made with organic grapes, is an old favorite. The ’22 is somewhat rich, yet bright with lively acidity. (Vom Boden, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Carlos Raposo Dão Impecável Tinto 2021, 13%, $18.99

Impecával, which means impeccable, is an apt description for this fresh, pure, floral, herbal red made of biodynamically grown touriga nacional from the Dão region of Portugal. Carlos Raposo, the winemaker, served an apprenticeship making wine with Dirk Niepoort, the groundbreaking Portuguese producer, before establishing his own label. (Grossberg/Kopman Selections, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.)

Domaine de Majas Côtes Catalanes Blanc 2021, 11.5%, $18.99

Alain and Agnes Carrère, of Domaine de Majas in the Côtes Catalanes area of Roussillon, were conventional winemakers who came under the influence of Tom Lubbe, a natural vigneron in the region. They converted to organic viticulture, and began to make wine with fewer manipulations. This white, made of macabeu, also known as viura; rolle, also known as vermentino; and carignan blanc, is herbal, floral, textured and savory. (Louis/Dressner Selections)

Aphros Vinho Verde Loureiro 2021, 11%, $19.96

The Aphros wines from Portugal are almost always both good and interesting, and this white, made of biodynamically farmed loureiro, is no exception. It’s fresh and bone-dry, with tart fruit flavors and a succulent texture. It’s a great wine for shrimp and other shellfish. (Skurnik Wines, New York)

Hornillos Ballesteros Ribera del Duero Mibal Joven 2021, 14%, $19.96

Fifteen years ago, Ribera del Duero was primarily known for its powerful, intense red wines, but as in many wine regions, the pendulum has swung toward much more nuanced wines. The region’s reputation has yet to evolve with the wines, but bottles like this rich but fresh and well-balanced example from Hornillos Ballesteros are convincing. It’s made from biodynamically grown tempranillo grapes and would go well with many grilled meats. (La Luz Selections, Portland, Ore.)

Château Peybonhomme-Les-Tours Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux Le Blanc Bonhomme 2021, 12.5%, $19.96

I don’t know any producer in Bordeaux that offers better values than the Hubert family, owners of Château Peybonhomme-les-Tours and a handful of other labels. They farm biodynamically, and the wines always seem far better than their prices might indicate. This is a terrific white Bordeaux, rich, textured, stony and intriguing, made of 45% sémillon, 45% sauvignon blanc and 10% colombard. (Summit Selections, Staten Island, N.Y.)

Domaine Yohan Lardy Vin de France Poppy Gamay 2021, 12.5%, $19.99

Yohan Lardy is an excellent Beaujolais producer who farms organically. This light-bodied, easygoing red, with fresh, tart flavors of red fruits, could easily be labeled a Beaujolais-Villages, but instead Lardy chooses to label it Vin de France. It’s an archetypal chillable red and is just right for drinking with friends while watching a football game. (Bonhomie Wine Imports, South Orange, N.J.)

Jasci Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2020, 13%, $19.99

Jasci has farmed organically for more than 40 years, and is one of the small producers in Montepulciano that is making the region so exciting. This is a rich, fruity wine balanced with pleasant tannins. It’s not the sort of bottle you’d open as an aperitif — it needs food, preferably juicy meats or, as Jasci suggests, pasta with beans. (Massanois)

Lise and Bertrand Jousset Vin de France Éxilé Rosé Pétillant 2022, 12%, $19.99

This bone-dry rosé pétillant naturel from the always reliable Lise and Bertrand Jousset, is a pure expression of the Loire. It’s made of gamay and grolleau, local grapes that are too rarely seen. The wine is light and refreshing with the faintest floral tinge. It would be a lovely choice with cheese and charcuterie. (T. Edward Wines, New York)

Mongarda Colli Trevigiani Glera Col Fondo Frizzante 2021, 11%, $19.99

Most proseccos are highly processed wines, made in vast quantities, often a bit sweet and immediately forgettable. This dry, savory, delightful wine is not called a prosecco, but that’s essentially what it is, if a prosecco were made of conscientiously farmed grapes carefully vinified. Unlike most proseccos, which are carbonated in big pressurized tanks, this received a second, bubbles-inducing fermentation in the bottle, which can produce finer, more distinctive wines. (Bowler Wine)

Domaine Dupeuble Père et Fils Beaujolais 2022, 13.5%, $19.99

Domaine Dupeuble is situated deep in southern Beaujolais, the less prestigious part of the region. But Beaujolais as a whole has come a long way in recent decades, both the more prestigious crus to the north and just plain Beaujolais, like this bottle, a textured, almost gritty wine, figuratively speaking, with grip and substance. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif.)

Filipa Pato and William Wouters Bairrada Dinamica Baga Tinto 2022, 12%, $19.99

A few years ago, this bottle cost around $13. Is the price rise evidence of the legacy of inflation or of the growing demand for the distinctive baga wines of Bairrada in Portugal? I’m not sure, but even at $19.99, this bright, lively red is a good value. It’s a blend from various limestone plots. Filipa Pato and William Wouters, a husband-and-wife team, want the bottle to be an introduction to the region and to their range of excellent wines. (Skurnik Wines)

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