The surfeit of affordable, appealing wines has nothing to do with the sputtering state of the economy; it is the result of vast improvements in winemaking worldwide, a quality revolution that in the last decade or so has spread to a number of previously unheralded or underachieving wine regions (the Languedoc in France, large swaths of both Spain and Italy). From cleaner barrels to lower crop yields to a less industrial approach in the cellar, more and more vintners are becoming quality-conscious. And because the United States now also has a surfeit of first-rate importers, the best wines from these up-and-coming areas have been finding their way here at very fair prices.
In the $15-and-under category, I have a few favorites. Dupeuble Beaujolais is a wine I've raved about before. Given all the flavored water being produced in the Beaujolais region these days, it is amazing to find a non-cru Beaujolais (meaning it comes from the humblest vineyards) of this quality. With its tart cherry flavor, earthiness, and sprightly acidity, Dupeuble is simply delicious.
Taurino Salice Salentino is the world's greatest pizza wine. Produced in the Apulia region of Italy from two grapes, negroamaro and malvasia rossa, it sports cherry and raisin flavors, a good kick of earthiness and herbacity, and a fine acidic backbone. Rustic in the best sense of the word, it is a wine that begs to be paired with a sausage or pepperoni pie.
I hesitate to recommend Domaine d'Andezon's Cote du Rhone only because there appears to be a history of bottle variation with this wine (reports of people cracking open a bottle and detecting flaws—volatile acidity, for instance). I personally have had only great experiences with d'Andezon, and the current release, the 2001 vintage, is terrific. Unlike most Cotes du Rhones, which feature a blend of grapes, d'Andezon is straight syrah, ranging in age from 40-60 years. Darkly colored, with a gorgeous nose and palate of black fruits and Provençal herbs, it is a wine that makes you understand why syrah is now the trendiest of grapes.
All of the above wines are red. As white goes, I also have a few budget-friendly favorites. Domaine Delaye St. Veran "les Pierres Grises" is a chardonnay-based wine from an appellation in the southern end of Burgundy. An elegant wine redolent of citrus and white fruits and with a nice burst of acidity, it is the tightwad's antidote to all that buttery-oaky syrup that passes for chardonnay in California.
Domaine Boudin Chablis is a wine from of the northern tip of Burgundy. At its best, chablis is one of the greatest white wines in the world, but there are only a few wineries that consistently make it well, and the prices tend to be high (although not nearly as high as top-notch white wines from other parts of Burgundy). Boudin is the exception: It produces archetypal chablis—slightly austere, brimming with citrus fruit, mineral flavors, and acidity—that sells for a lot less than it should. This wine is a guilt-inducing steal.
Unfortunately, not all these wines are easy to find. They are made in limited quantities, and depending on the part of the country in which you live, the wines might not even be available. But there is another way to find first-rate bargain wines: Look for the name of the importer on the bottle's back label. As I mentioned, there are a number of excellent importers in the United States, most of whom excel at both ends of the price spectrum. Here, then, a list of top-notch importers, along with the countries or regions in which they specialize:
Kermit Lynch (France)
Michael Skurnik (everywhere)
Marc de Grazia (Italy)
Leonard Locascio (Italy)
Louis/Dressner (France, the Loire and Beaujolais in particular)
Eric Solomon (France, Spain, Italy)
Neil Epsom (Italy)
Alain Junguenet (Southern France)
Kysela Pere et Fils (France)
Robert Kacher (France)
Neil Rosenthal (France, Italy)
Robert Chadderdon (France)
North Berkeley (France)
And inexpensive domestic wines? Sorry, none to recommend. This is a story in itself, but one that will have to wait for my next column.