The Allure of Cheap Wine

Paul Blow

For the first time in my life, my tastes in wine have been going down the price scale rather than up. I have an apartment full of expensive Cabernets, Super Tuscans, and American Pinot Noirs—on wine racks, stacked on closet shelves, piled in boxes under the kitchen table—but on most nights I just can’t bring myself to open one. Why? Because I already know what it’s going to taste like. Instead, I go to the store and find something idiosyncratic and inexpensive from Europe and find happiness in a bottle of the unknown.

To be fair, price has little to do with my preferences: It’s really a question of style. Too many wines taste too similar. A plush Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley is almost exactly like one from Coonawarra in Australia or Chile’s Maipo Valley or Washington state. Just naming these wines, I can taste them: big cherry, cassis and plum fruit, the sweet aromas of vanilla and spice, and a cedary, toasty haze. Which makes me realize that it’s not even the fact of the similarity I’ve come to dislike, it’s the way it’s being accomplished: the drippingly ripe fruit, the overly soft tannins, the surfeit of new oak. These winemaking techniques produce a veneer of modernity that, even when applied to different grapes from different countries, makes distinct wines feel the same. It’s a blatant admission of conformity: People make their wine to pander to what they think consumers want or to appeal to international critics, not out of a desire to represent their terroir in as direct and unmediated a way as possible. Cabernet Sauvignon from different places should taste different. New French oak, no matter where it’s applied, tastes the same.

Wine producers who don’t spend all their money on new oak barrels every year can afford to charge less for their wines. And the wines also taste more of themselves: A Beaujolais will have that taut berry fruit and joyful smell of freshly turned loam, a Friulian Tokai will have bright acidity and the aroma of bitter almonds. To be priced at under $15 a bottle, some of these wines might have an occasional flaw: Maybe they are a bit simple or have a little funkiness from an old and musty cellar. But I’m happy to forgive imperfection if the wine is not buried under layers of makeup. In the past year, I’ve discovered loads of new, wonderful appellations: Italy’s Marche region, France’s Bergerac, Portugal’s Alentejo, Greece’s Peloponnese.

More of these wines I’m enjoying now tend to come from Europe—France, Italy, and Germany, primarily, as well as Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Greece—than from the New World simply because these places have been making wine longer, and for a local population, with no need to compete with a worldwide conspiracy of sleek, oaky wines. Most new-world wines were never local staples but business ventures first and foremost.

Here are a couple of basic, inexpensive, honest wines I’ve been enjoying lately.

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine “Vieilles Vignes” Clos des Briords 2006. That rather long set of words describes one of the finest Muscadets on the planet. The white wines from this region can be insipid, but this is not one of them. It comes from almost 80-year-old vines—a rarity anywhere in the world—with roots deep in the granite subsoil. Vigneron Marc Ollivier, a wild-bearded Frenchman, hand picks the grapes and ferments with wild yeasts, which yields gentler fruit and more complex wines. The wine achieves a degree of concentration and intensity rarely found in Muscadet; its calling card is minerality. Laser sharp, it smells of lemons and green apples (not a trace of oak), with more than a whiff of rock dust after a light rain. I found this bottle recently for $13.99, an astonishing price for a wine with this level of craftsmanship.

Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2004. I love the Montepulciano grape, which makes its most famous wine in the Marche region on Italy’s east coast, about midway down the boot. This may not be Italy’s most famous tourist area, but its reds and whites can be distinctive in their rounded, earthy deliciousness. Montepulciano tends to make dark purple wines that have tannic blackberry and blueberry fruit along with some dark plum and often a hint of earth and meat. The Masciarelli family has been making this basic wine for about 30 years (the family makes two other, more expensive versions), and its simple directness, accessible sweet fruit, and incredible versatility are inspiring. The wine goes as well with a hamburger or stir-fried pork as it does with squid-ink pasta. And for $7, it’s just about unbeatable.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.