Tag Archives: Value Wines

Italian Reds For Value?

I was working in an Italian restaurant when I fell in love with wine so it was only natural that Italian wines were my first favorite genre and my first area of relative expertise. The thing about restaurant wine lists is that they don’t often feature the every day wines that one would typically enjoy at home. These wines fall in the $8 to $15 retail price range; meaning that if a restaurant were to sell them, they would be $16 to $30. This is less money than the restaurant wants you to be able to spend, so they simply don’t offer wines that cost less than $20 retail. Thus, when I was first getting into Italian wine, I was exposed to a great number of excellent bottles, but none that would find their way onto the average wine drinker’s dinner table on a Tuesday night. My exposure to the high-end wines gave me a great respect for the wines of Italy, but when I made the switch to retail I found the general perception of Italian wine to be a far cry from mine.

In retail, it’s all about volume. Lower priced wines move out the door quickly and our greatest challenge is to find wines under $20 that really impress us. The perception among my fellow employees was that Italian wines, the reds in particular, could reach heights of excellence, but they cost a great deal and rarely if ever were worth what you paid for them. Italian wines of even acceptable quality under $20 were a rarity in the store. When I first started at the shop I took a sabbatical from Italian wine. I was being exposed to so many new things that the Italians seemed a bit old-hat to me. I couldn’t afford the things I was used to drinking and the everyday stuff was wretched. But the tide is turning.

There are three regions that are the best known for red wine production: Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto. I’ll be brief in my summation of their wines under $20 – avoid them. If you are unable to try the wine before you buy it, then you will more than likely be wasting your money. Of the three, Piedmont is far and away the best bet. As in every region throughout the world, this is not an absolute rule. Good wine under $20 does exist, but it is not something to take chances with.

Why is this? I think that there are two main factors at work. First, the land is expensive in these areas, so the grapes have that extra cost built into them. The other is the level of prestige that the great wines of Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto have lent to the regions as a whole. Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico (which have problems of their own) have enough prestige that they have created the impression that Tuscany as a whole produces great wine. Many producers rest on these laurels and depend on the regional reputation to sell their product, rather than improve their practices.

The Italians realized that they were well behind in this most important of market sectors. If they were unable initiate new drinkers with acceptable products on the low end, why would they try the high end wines when they wanted to splurge? A new source of quality fruit had to be found. Thus began the move to the South.

The southern and island regions are poised to be the next major player in the value wine sector. The inflammatory Euro will pose some problems for the American market, but the land in the south is so cheap that the producers will be able to compensate. I am very excited about this development. I feel it will help to fuel the quality revolution that producers in the traditional regions sorely need.

It is a story that draws many parallels to the state of Spanish wine in the eighties and early nineties. Outside capital comes to a backwater region that has been growing native grape varieties for centuries. The modern winemaking methods reveal the true potential of the grapes. The positive results inspire others to do the same and soon you have a revolutionary new player on the world scene. If we look twenty years to the future do we see a $200 Nero d’Avola from Sicily? It is entirely possible. In the mean time let’s discuss the places and the grapes.

All these regions have the definitive Mediterranean climate. During the growing season it is very dry and windy. This eliminates threats of disease and rot due to moisture, which greatly increases the potential for organic and biodynamic farming.

Puglia is often cited as the region most at the forefront of this value movement. It occupies the heel of the boot between the Adriatic Sea and the Gulf of Taranto. The two red grapes that have come to define Puglia are Negroamaro and Primitivo.

Negroamaro produces fleshy reds with a mixed berry nose. My new favorite producer is of the wine is Cantele. Yesterday their Salice Salentino DOC was the hit of our weekly tasting at the store. This wine is $13 and is one of the first products to arrive from their new wine making facility. According to those who have followed the winery throughout the years, the new equipment is making a world of difference. Previously they had to pump their wine to move it from one place to another. Pumping exposes the wine to an extreme amount of oxygen and the wines were best described as being “rustic”. Now they are very clean and very enjoyable.

Primitivo is the more famous of the two Puglian grapes. It created a stir in the 1990s when it was genetically linked to Zinfandel of California. The majority that I have had are still best given the “country wine” moniker, but I imagine that the strides in quality will yield a Cali-Zin-style wine sooner rather than later.

On the opposite side of the peninsula is Campania. This region was the primary provider of wine for the Romans and created the world’s first legendary wine which was called Falernian. It is rumored that Falernian was made from the grape variety Aglianico, which is still the basis of Campanian red wines. It produces rich, deeply colored wines that are quite full-bodied. The primary sub-region for Aglianico production is the Taurasi DOCG, which is referred to as the Barolo of the South.

In addition to Puglia, Sicily is considered to be the future for value wine production. It has long been the most productive region in Italy, often sending bulk grape must for distillation to mainland Italy and France. It is also home to the much maligned Marsala region. Many producers here have experimented with the “international” (i.e. French) grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah, which has yielded the best results thus far. Still, the best hope for the Sicilians to make their mark is with the local Nero d’Avola. In fact it is often compared to Syrah for its peppery characteristics and black fruits. Colosi is one of the producers to seek out.

Lastly, I have to mention Sardinia if for no other reason than I can’t think of another situation when I would get to write about it. My experience with these wines is limited, but very positive. The island was under the rule of the Kingdom of Aragon in the 1300s. During this time, the Grenache and Carignan grapes were brought to the island from modern-day Spain. Here Grenache is called Cannonau and Carignan is Carignano.
The only wines I have extensive experience with are from Argiolas, which is a producer that should be widely available. Their “Costera” Cannonau combines the fleshy red fruits of Grenache with just the right amount of Italian stank and at $17 it is one of the best wines around under twenty bucks.

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My Favorite Wine Under $15

Juan Gil

The Juan Gil Monastrell is my favorite wine under $15. I certainly hope that the price is the same next year, but I imagine that the tumbling dollar will take its toll. Many of the wines we regularly see from Spain are poised for price increases. This winery is located in Jumilla, on the central plateau called the Meseta. The region is a virtual desert, which makes for interesting wine production.

Usually vines are trellised to allow air to flow over the grapes, which prevents mold from growing on them. This is not an issue in arid Jumilla, so they have bush vines (like the one on the label). The dry conditions prevent diseases from thriving in the area, so the vines grow to be very old. Older vines produce less grapes and more concentrated wines. The lack of water also restricts yields, so these grapes are packed with flavor. The Monastrell grape is native to this area. It has a very thick skin, so it requires abundant sunshine to become fully ripe. In France it is called Mouvédre, and is mainly used as a blending grape in the wines of the Southern Rhone and Provence.

The wine is opaque violet and its fruit profile reminds me of dark-skinned berries like blackberry and black cherry. The wine has some oak influence, mainly with used barrels. The used barrels impart earthy flavors in the wine – a damp, autumn forest and mushrooms. There are chalky, mineral flavors in the wine as well. The tannins are very soft and the acid is low, so the wine has no edges; it coats the entire palate without focusing on one area, which is the mark of a well-balanced wine.

This is the second wine from Spanish Importer extraordinaire Jorge Ordoñez that I have covered. He does not have a website.

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My Favorite Wine Under $50

Over the past couple of decades, the market for fine wine has increased dramatically. What has not increased is the size and production capabilities of the world’s best wineries, which leaves most customers priced out of the classic, great wines. So what are we to do? Should we resign ourselves to the idea that we cannot afford to be intellectually stimulated by our wines? Certainly not! We simply have to be better informed than our fellow drinkers.

The best wine under $50 that I have come across is Finca Sandoval. For those who know me, it will come as little surprise that this wine is Spanish, as I am obsessed with the country’s wines. Now is the time to buy the wines of Spain. Demand for their product is rising and the Euro is killing us. I can’t imagine that this wine, currently $37 a bottle, will be under $50 much longer.

Finca Sandoval hails from a sub-region of Castilla-La Mancha called Mancheula. It is the only wine from the region I have ever come across. The wine is a Syrah-based blend, with a variety of other grapes used from year to year including Bobal, Tempranillo and Monastrell. I discovered the wine over two years ago during a Syrah tasting. There were excellent Syrahs available from around the world. The Finca was the last of the night and it was the best of the tasting, regardless of price.

Since then I have had wines from the ‘02-‘05 vintages. It throws a great deal of sediment, even in its youth, but it ages gracefully. I am currently revisiting the 2005. For those familiar with with Syrahs of the Northern Rhone, which are earthy and peppery, and those of Australia (Shiraz), which are bold and rich, you will find a combination of the two in the Sandoval. The climate in Manchuela is much warmer than the Northern Rhone, which results in a riper, fuller-bodied and more fruit forward wine akin to the Aussie Shiraz. But this is a high quality producer in Spain growing grapes in arid conditions, which makes the wine highly concentrated, and aging the juice in French oak barrels, which softens the wine and imparts additional spice character. The palate is lush and full. The alcohol is well integrated and does not burn. The finish is very long, the wine hangs around. All in all, it is the complete package and worth snapping up if you can find it.

Importer: Jorge Ordoñez

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