In trying times, 20 wines under $20 that revive and restore
By Eric Asimov
The hours of daylight are shrinking, and the nervous tension grows.
These are strange days in which the daily cocktail of pandemic, politics, protest and natural disaster continually challenges the capacity to endure. “When you think that you lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more,” as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan once put it.
I’m not here to tell you that wine will make anything better. But good food, good wine and engaging conversation seem as necessary to getting through 2020 as riveting books, bingeworthy shows and walks among the trees. They relieve, heal and restore, because tomorrow will doubtless raise the ante again.
Of all these balms to the spirit, good wine may seem the most difficult to come by. The choices can overwhelm. Prices of old favorites keep rising (thank you, American tariffs on certain European wines). And just maybe, after months spent largely at home, the same old bottles are getting you down just as my own cooking is me.
Here’s the good news: Regardless of everything else that’s going on in the world, there has never been a better or easier time for escaping the wine rut. Great wine is being produced around the world, so much so that the moment everybody rushes toward one great wine and prices rise, a new one is ready to step in.
Just recently, shopping online in Manhattan retail stores, I found 20 wines, all under $20 a bottle, that surprised, delighted and, yes, fulfilled a restorative role they were not intended for but which I assigned to them.
These 20 bottles came from nine different countries, reflecting the rising level of quality just about everywhere. They were not merely sound wines that succeed by not offending. They were interesting, distinctive, even provocative, meaning that all of them will not be to everybody’s taste.
In pursuit of good wine, that’s a risk worth taking. The reward is bottles that will turn your head and demand your attention.
I’ve made the case over the years that spending a little more for wine, say $15 to $20 rather than $8 to $12, brings an exponential rise in quality and interest. These bottles again make that case.
Here are the wines, in order of price.
Dautel Württemberg Weissburgunder Trocken 2017 $15.99
Dautel, in the up-and-coming Württemberg region in southwestern Germany, is best known for its spätburgunders, or pinot noirs. Its rieslings are excellent, too. And so are its weissburgunders, or pinot blancs. Some might call a wine like this “neutral,” and they would not be wrong. You won’t get pronounced fruit or floral aromas or flavors. But what it lacks in extravagance it makes up for with delicious, textured creaminess. (A Terry Theise Estate Selection/Skurnik Wines, New York)
Pedro Parra y Familia Secano Interior Itata Vinista País 2018 $15.99
Pedro Parra is a Chilean geologist who consults with wineries around the world, leaving behind him a trail of freshly dug soil pits he uses to examine the geological underpinning of vineyards. He knows good terroir when he sees it, like this vineyard of old-vine país, better known by its English name, mission, planted on granite and quartz. The wine is fresh and alive, with flavors of red fruits and herbs along with a refreshing bitterness. (Skurnik Wines)
Fabre Montmayou Mendoza Cabernet Franc Reserva 2019 $16
Methoxypyrazines are the substances in wine that produce the aromas and flavors of bell peppers, which many people dislike. Cabernet franc wines are legendary for them, although they are much rarer today in the era of climate change and improved viticulture. Strangely, though, in cabernet francs from the Mendoza region of Argentina, like this one, I’ve sometimes found the aromas of jalapeños, which I find quite attractive, along with earthy flavors of red fruits. The grapes for this wine come from a high-altitude vineyard in the Luján de Cuyo area. (Petit Pois/Sussex Wine Merchant, Moorestown, New Jersey)
Domaine de la Bastide Côtes du Rhône 2018 $16.96
Côtes du Rhône was once a go-to choice at French restaurants, where it offered easygoing refreshment that could bridge many disparate dishes. This bottle is a throwback reminder of how good those wines were and perhaps another sign that Southern Rhône producers, who for quite some time have been aiming for power and impact, are returning to making wines of balance and restraint. It’s composed of Grenache, syrah, carignan and mourvèdre, smells like red fruits and flowers, and goes down easy. (Bonhomie Wine Imports, South Orange, New Jersey)
Storm Point Swartland chenin blanc 2019 $16.99
Chenin blanc is the leading white grape of South Africa, although it has not always been easy to find good bottles in the United States. The good news is that more have been reaching American shores over the last decade. This moderately priced bottle, from Storm Point in Swartland, is dry and crisp, floral and tangy, just right for seafood or poultry dishes. (Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, New Jersey)
Château la Grolet Côtes de Bourg 2017 $17.96
Not so long ago it was difficult, if not impossible, to find Bordeaux producers who farmed biodynamically. But more and more are converting to either organic or biodynamic viticulture. Château la Grolet in the Côtes de Bourg, however, is no newcomer. The Hubert family has been farming biodynamically since 2000. This wine — a blend of 70% merlot and 30% cabernet sauvignon — is plummy, spicy, herbal and elegant in the best Bordeaux tradition. (Summit Selections, Staten Island, New York)
A Los Viñateros Bravos Itata Pipeño Tinto 2019 1 liter $17.99
Pipeño is the quaffing wine of Chile, made to be consumed young and fresh and, until recently, almost never seen outside the country. This version is made from old-vine cinsault, grown in the Itata region of southern Chile, and it is absolutely delicious, bright and spicy with flavors of earthy red fruit. A Los Viñateros Bravos is a label of Leonardo Erazo, an exceptional Chilean winemaker who has several other projects in Chile, along with making the wine at Altos Las Hormigas in Mendoza. (Ripe Wine Imports, New York)
Trediberri Dogliani Bricco Mollea 2019 $17.99
Trediberri is a relatively new producer in the Piedmont region of Italy, although the proprietors, the Oberto family, have been involved in growing grapes and producing wine for generations. Trediberri’s Barolos are excellent, and I especially admire its Dogliani, a fresh, lively wine with a welcome touch of bitter chocolate flavor. Dogliani is considered a prime area for the dolcetto grape. Wines like this demonstrate why that’s true. (Vintus, Pleasantville, New York)
Foxglove Paso Robles Zinfandel 2016 $18
I’ve written about an older vintage of this wine, but as I’ve had zinfandel on the mind recently, I wanted to revisit it. I’m so glad I did. This is superb zinfandel and a great value, with plenty of dark, spicy, focused fruit flavors. At 14.3% alcohol, it is far from over the top. This is the sort of zinfandel I remember from the 1980s, forceful yet inviting, assertive yet balanced, and faintly tannic. Another winner from brothers Bob and Jim Varner, who also make wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains under the Varner label.
Roca Altxerri Getariako Txakolina Camino 2019 $18.99
This lightly sparkling wine, made entirely of the local hondarrabi zuri grape, comes from Basque Country in Spain. It’s delicate but intense, crisp and bracing. As you drink it, you can almost feel the stiff salt breeze blowing in off the Atlantic. It’s just the thing for oysters, clams and other light seafood preparations, or maybe for an aperitif. (Valkyrie Selections, Healdsburg, California)
Matthiasson Napa Valley Chardonnay Village 2019 $18.99
Twenty years ago, Steve and Jill Matthiasson were among those spearheading the movement in California to make more restrained, balanced wines. Back then, they were little known and practically had to give bottles away. Today, their wines are revered and predictably more expensive. Yet the Matthiassons make an effort to offer a few easily affordable bottles, like their Tendu wines and now this Village series. The 2019, the first bottling, is rich yet fresh, lively and unpretentious — simply a good, solid glass of Napa chardonnay.
Bodegas Hermanos Peciña Rioja Blanco Señorío de P. Peciña 2018 $19
I remember the first time I tried a traditionally made white Rioja, from the producer R. López de Heredia. It was thrilling. I had never had a wine like it before, made with the viura grape and aged in barrels of American oak. Demand for López de Heredia has gone up, as have prices. Nonetheless, few Rioja producers make old-school whites. Hermanos Peciña is one of them. This lovely wine is made of organically grown viura and offers rich, spicy, coconut-inflected, earthy apple flavors. It’s a lovely entry-level wine, not aged nearly as long as a López de Heredia. It will be delicious with fish or poultry in creamy sauces. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York)
Bodegas Yuste Aurora Manzanilla NV 500 milliliters $19.99
All seasons are sherry seasons. That goes especially for manzanilla, which by reputation is the lightest, most delicate form of fino sherry. But this example, from Bodegas Yuste, does not fit the stereotype of manzanilla as fragile. It’s amber-colored, scented with sea brine, almonds and chamomile, and richer and more robust than the typical manzanilla. It’s more fino weight, which makes it particularly appropriate for colder weather. It’s wonderful, just right for typical Spanish bar treats like ham or Marcona almonds, and would make an excellent aperitif. (Classical Wines, Seattle)
Keller Rheinhessen riesling Trocken 2019 $19.99
Julia and Klaus Peter Keller make sublime rieslings. Their high-end bottles are difficult to find, but this entry-level bottle offers a fine introduction to the precision and minerality that characterize their wines. It’s floral, complex, surprisingly rich for a wine of 11% alcohol, bone dry and a great value. (Petit Pois/Sussex Wine Merchant)
Aslina by Ntsiki Biyela South Africa cabernet sauvignon 2017 $19.99
Ntsiki Biyela is South Africa’s first Black female winemaker. She established her own label, Aslina, named for her grandmother, in 2016. The 2017 cabernet sauvignon is superb, full-bodied, fresh, balanced and complex, with lingering flavors that are more herbal than fruity. Take a moment to savor this wine and to toast a pioneer. By the way, Aslina also makes an excellent chardonnay. (Wines for the World, Dover, Delaware)
Compañía de Vinos del Atlántico Vara y Pulgar Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz Tintilla 2015 $19.99
I wrote about the 2014 vintage of this wine last year, and I very much wanted to try it again because it was so unusual. It comes from the Cádiz region of Andalusia in southern Spain, which is far better known for its sherries than for red wines. This is made of the tintilla grape, known elsewhere in Spain as graciano, which is often used in Rioja blends but only occasionally bottled as a varietal wine. The fruit flavors in the 2015 are a little darker than in the ’14, the tannins a bit more apparent, but this nonetheless is a fresh and original wine that would go well with lamb or sausages. (Olé & Obrigado, New Rochelle, New York)
Casa de Saima Bairrada Baga Bruto 2017 $19.99
The Bairrada region of Portugal has come into its own over the last decade, producing primarily graceful red wines made with the baga grape. It’s also an excellent source for sparkling wines, like this one, made with baga, using the same method as in Champagne. The wine is dry and refreshing, smells like grapefruit and oranges and offers a touch of salinity. (Savio Soares Selections, New York)
Feudo Montoni Sicilia Nero d’Avola Lagnusa 2017 $19.99
I often find Nero d’Avola a tough grape to love. While I have had some great varietal examples, like Arianna Occhipinti’s, too often the wines just seem heavy and thick. But here is another excellent version from Feudo Montoni, which practices organic viticulture at its vineyards in central Sicily and ferments the grapes in concrete. The result is a spicy, herbal, lightly tannic wine that might be nice with eggplant Parmesan. (Wilson Daniels, Napa, California)
Chiara Condello Romagna Sangiovese Predappio 2017 $19.99
I tried the 2016 vintage of this wine earlier this year and wrote about it in July. When the ’17 came out I was eager to try it again, as the ’16 had stayed in my mind as an excellent example of Sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna. The ’17, a hotter, trickier vintage, is paradoxically a little more floral than the ’16, generously fruity and energetic. The tannins are firm, so while this wine is enjoyable now, it should benefit from a couple of years of aging. (Bowler Wine, New York)
Xavier Weisskopf Le Rocher des Violettes Vin de France Chenin 2019 $19.99
Here’s another expression of chenin blanc, quite different from the South African bottle. Xavier Weisskopf is based on Montlouis, across the Loire from Vouvray, and makes a variety of wines, often from old vines. This wine, labeled Vin de France, comes from old vines in a section of Montlouis that is scheduled to be reclassified as Touraine next year, so Weisskopf decided to simply call it Vin de France. It’s dry and delicious, with aromas and flavors of lemon, honey and flowers, just right for scallops or other seafood dishes. (Skurnik Wines)