The San Juan Daily Star
20 wines under $20: Finding bargains amid inflation
By Eric Asimov
Inflation may have eased in recent months, but the shelves of retail wine shops show no evidence of such economic calming.
Wines that used to fit comfortably in my 20 under $20 series have shot upward in price like a teenager growing out of last year’s favorite jeans. Or maybe the selection I chose in early January had not fully recovered from holiday bingeing, when people buy far more wine than they do at any other time.
Either way, this list for winter 2023 looks different to me. Staples like cru Beaujolais? I could not find good bottles under $20. Bottles from Germany? Nope. Italy? I found plenty of French and Italian wines, but not from popular, higher-status regions.
The hardest hit country in my selection was the United States, with only one American wine, a chambourcin from Virginia. It was a delicious wine, but no American cabernet sauvignons, pinot noirs, chardonnays or rieslings made the list.
My choices were limited because I wanted to branch out from American producers whom I’ve cited repeatedly. These producers have been a great source of inexpensive wines year after year, names like Broadside and Foxglove from Paso Robles, The Whole Shebang and Tendu, which sell under the California appellation, Montinore Estate in Oregon, and any number of bottles from the Finger Lakes region of New York. We’ll revisit them another time.
I’ve long believed that the best values in wine can be found in the $15 to $25 range. Myriad wines sell for less than $15, including many American bottles that younger Americans are apparently no longer buying, according to a recent report on the U.S. wine industry from Silicon Valley Bank in Santa Clara, California. But to sell bottles for under $15, producers, especially those in the United States, where labor and land costs are often higher, must compromise.
They scale up, industrializing both the farming and the winemaking. The wines they make are sound, and might even be delicious, but something is often lost, a sense of place, soulfulness or whatever you want to call it.
A little bit more money, though, say $15 to $20, can buy those qualities in wines from lesser-known places, made often from little-known grapes. It takes a spirit of adventure to try, say, a blend of grasevina and grüner veltliner from Austria, a país from Chile or a chambourcin from Virginia. Some people are not interested, which is fine, but the rewards are many.
For more than a decade I’ve been offering selections of 20 bottles under $20. Some people have suggested that I raise the price cap to reflect the effect of inflation. But I resist that because plenty of these less-familiar values are still in a $15 to $20 sweet spot.
Because these wines are not mass-produced, they will not be available everywhere. That can often prove frustrating to people who want a particular bottle immediately.
I get that, but I think that it’s simply good to know these wines exist in the world, even if they are not right at hand. You might see some of them on a restaurant wine list next month, or in the nearest good wine shop next vintage. You never know.
If you have a good wine shop, ask the proprietor for suggestions if a particular bottle is not available. Often, you might find something akin to it.
This winter list is weighted toward red, though I think whites and sparklers will always have a place no matter what the season. Here are the 20 bottles, beginning with the least expensive and rising up to $20.
Maris Pays d’Oc Rouge I.G.P. 2020, 14%, $14.99
Pays d’Oc is a large region in southern France for wines that don’t conform to the stricter rules of the Languedoc or Roussillon appellations, which makes sense for Maris, something of a maverick producer that farms organically with careful attention to biodiversity and the environment. This bottle (70% merlot, 30% syrah) is juicy, focused, refreshing and an excellent value. (Vintners Alliance, New Rochelle, N.Y.)
Bertha Cava Brut Nature Reserva 2020, 11.5%, $15.99
Good cava is one of the best values you can find in sparkling wine. All cava must be made the same way as Champagne, with a second, bubbles-inducing fermentation in the bottle. Bertha is made from the trio of classic Catalonian cava grapes — xarello, macabeo and parellada — and it’s bone dry, a little bit creamy, with attractive herbal and citrus flavors. (Classic Wines, Stamford, Conn.)
Domaine Faillenc Sainte Marie Corbières 2020, 13.5%, $15.99
I’m drawn to Faillenc Sainte Marie because, in a world of overly polished wines, this is an old school, rough and rustic red that reminds me of the sort of bottles I used to find from the south of France when I was learning about wine in the 1980s. Call it nostalgia if you like, and maybe it is. But this bottle, an equal blend of syrah, grenache and cinsault fermented together, is herbal, fruity and tannic, a wine without makeup or artifice. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York)
Pedro Parra y Familia Itata Vinista País 2020, 13%, $15.99
Pedro Parra of Chile has a day job, traveling the world as a terroir and geological consultant for an all-star roster of winemakers. But he is also an excellent producer in his own right, specializing in making wines from old vineyards in the Itata region, an area that has recently been threatened by forest fires. This one is from 100-year-old vines of país, also known as mission, a grape brought to the New World by the Spanish. It’s herbal and refreshing with just the slightest sandpapery rasp to the texture. (Skurnik Wines, New York)
Brigaldara Valpolicella 2021, 13%, $15.99
Classic Valpolicella is a straightforward style, made without the added power and richness that comes with the increasingly popular ripasso method, in which the wine macerates with grape skins left over from Amarone production. Good classic examples, like this bottle from Brigaldara, are pure and easy, with floral aromas and flavors of sweet cherry that resolve with a refreshing bitterness. Pizza and Valpolicella is an excellent combination. (Vinifera Imports, Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y.)
Luis Pato Portugal Baga Espumante Bruto Rosado NV, 12.5%, $15.99
Luis Pato is one of the pillars of the modern wine industry in the Bairrada region of Portugal. This rosé sparkling wine, like the Bertha cava, is made with a second fermentation occurring in the bottle, producing the carbonation. It’s made of the region’s best red grape, baga, and is fresh and lively, with light fruit and herbal flavors. (Wine In Motion, Newark)
Gaia Retsina Ritinitis Nobilis NV, 12.5%, $16.99
Retsina is a style, made since antiquity, in which wine is blended with the resin of the Aleppo pine. Serious retsinas, like this one, are great. Gaia uses mountain-grown roditis grapes and fresh resin to produce this fresh, sharp and savory wine. Try it with any sort of Greek or Middle Eastern food, or simply experiment. (Winebow, New York)
Michel Guignier Beaujolais 2021, 12.5%, $17.99
I especially like the ’21 Guignier Beau-jolais, which rises above the potential of the straightforward Beaujolais appellation, the lowest level of the region’s hierarchy of potential. This bottle, made with organically farmed fruit, has beautiful flavors of red fruit underpinned by earthy minerality that gives it unexpected depth. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, N.Y.)
Muga Rioja White 2021, 13.5%, $18.96
This white Rioja from Muga, one of the region’s leading estates, is wonderfully appealing. It’s made of viura, garnacha blanca and malvasia, a traditional blend, and, though it’s aged in oak, it’s fresh and lively, with just enough of a rub of tannin to give it a bit of texture. (Fine Estates From Spain, Dedham, Mass.)
Giordano Lombardo Gavi 2021, 13%, $18.99
This energetic white, made with organically grown cortese grapes, has all the liveliness you’d expect in a Gavi, with the added bonus of lemon and mineral flavors and a satisfying weight to the texture. This is a good one for all manner of seafood. (Massanois, New York)
Altos Las Hormigas Uco Valley Terroir Malbec 2019, 13.5%, $19
This is one of the most reliable malbec producers in the Mendoza region of Argentina, with wines that are always balanced and tapered rather than sweetly fruity. Intended to express the character of the high-altitude Uco Valley, this bottle is intense yet fresh, lightly tannic and fruity, just right for burgers or skirt steak. (Skurnik Wines)
Jasci Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2021, 13.5%, $19
Jasci is one of a growing number of small producers who have turned Abruzzo into a great source for exciting wines. Its Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is made out of the high-quality trebbiano Abruzzese grape, rather than the more run-of-the-mill trebbiano Toscano. The grapes are farmed organically and trained on overhead pergolas, a traditional method that many have rejected as out of date, though some thoughtful producers are finding that older generations might have had excellent reasons to prefer it. The wine is clear, pure, textured and refreshing. (Massanois)
Château Peybonhomme-les-Tours Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux Le Blanc Bonhomme 2020, 13.5%, $19.96
Château Peybonhomme-les-Tours is one of my favorite Bordeaux producers. The wines are always excellent, they are great values and they’re made from biodynamically farmed grapes. That’s the way the owners, the Hubert family, which has a stable of labels, does business. This terrific white, from the sandy soils of Blaye (45% sauvignon blanc, 45% sémillon and 10% colombard) is uncommonly rich, deep and textured, yet dry and perfectly refreshing. (Summit Selections, Staten Island, N.Y.)
Château de Chaintres Saumur Champigny Les Sables 2020, 13.5%, $19.96
This is the first bottle I’ve had from Château de Chaintres, but it will not be the last. The 2020 Les Sables is an excellent Saumur Champigny red, made entirely from biodynamically farmed cabernet franc grapes. It’s rich yet focused, with earthy flavors of dark fruits and flowers, and it has just enough tannic structure to stand up to a steak or juicy roast. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant)
Orto Vins Montsant Les Argiles d’Orto Vins 2019, 14.5%, $19.96
Montsant is often a great source for value in rich, structured wines from Catalonia in northeastern Spain, and Orto Vins is one of my favorite Montsant producers. It farms biodynamically, practices regenerative agriculture and makes its wine carefully. Les Argiles is mostly garnacha with about 10% carignan grown on clay soils, which gives the wine volume and power. Nonetheless, it’s fresh and tapered, and would go well with roasts and stews. (Hogshead Wine Co., Weymouth, Mass.)
Château Puech Redon Vin de France Apparente Rouge 2019, 12%, $19.96
Cyril Cuche, the proprietor of Château Puech Redon in Languedoc, maintains a polyculture at this large estate, a mix of grains, organically farmed grapes, woods and fields. Cuche, with the aid of Éric Texier, the excellent Rhône producer, makes this red, mostly cinsault, without any added sulfur dioxide, a stabilizer and antioxidant omitted by only the most militant natural producers. It is delicious, lightly tannic with fresh flavors of red fruits and herbs. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
Nittnaus Burgenland Anita Red Blend 2018, 12.5%, $19.96
Hans and Anita Nittnaus make beautiful wines in the Burgenland region of eastern Austria, including this juicy, deeply fruity blend, mostly zweigelt with blaufränkisch, St. Laurent and merlot. Natural wine fans might call it “glou glou,” a French phrase meant to convey the sound of wine rapidly pouring down your throat. I’ll settle for thirst-quenching and straightforwardly delicious. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant)
Meinklang Burgenland White 2020, 11%, $19.96
This striking white, from eastern Austria near the Hungarian border, is nothing like the usual white wine that might be served by the glass in a restaurant. It’s got personality and character, and it won’t appeal to everybody. It’s made of 50% grüner veltliner, 40% grasevina (also known in Burgenland as welschriesling) and 10% muscat, which may account for its powerfully fruity perfume and cornucopia of flavors. It’s pure and alive, typical of Meinklang, a mixed-use farm that grows everything biodynamically. (Zev Rovine Selections/Fruit of the Vines, Long Island City, N.Y.)
Early Mountain Vineyards Virginia Chambourcin Young Wine 2021, 11.5%, $19.99
I haven’t had great luck with wines from Virginia or with chambourcin, a hybrid red grape. But this is an excellent example of both, a wine that makes the most of what it is rather than trying to be something it is not. By that I mean it’s fresh, fruity and gentle, unimpeded by intrusive winemaking, a refreshing, low-alcohol delight that would be just right for friends watching a game. I’ve had some very good wines from Early Mountain, which is owned by Jean Case, whose husband, Steve, used to be the chief executive of something called AOL.
Domaine Tatsis Macedonia Xinomavro-Negoska Young Vines 2017, 13%, $19.99
The Tatsis brothers, Periklis and Stergios, farm biodynamically in the Macedonia region of northern Greece and make wines with minimal processing. This bottle, made of a blend of xinomavro and negoska, is a lovely introduction. It’s fragrant with aromas of menthol and licorice and, though made of young vines, is structured enough for lamb chops or roasted meats. (DNS Wines/T. Elenteny Imports, New York)