Great cheap wines.

July 22 2003 12:16 PM

Wine for Tightwads

Cheap wine you can actually drink.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

There are a few things you should know about Two-Buck Chuck:

1. It is a wine, not the street name of a Mafia don or pimp.

2. Its price actually ranges from $1.99 to $3.50 a bottle.

3. It sucks.

4. In spite of this, sales are brisk.

Charles Shaw, as it is formally known, is the hottest thing in the wine world at the moment. It is the brainchild of a publicity-shy Napa Valley winemaker named Fred Franzia, who shrewdly decided to cash in on California's current grape glut by going downmarket—as low as you can go, in fact. Two-Buck Chuck, which debuted last year, is sold exclusively by the Trader Joe's supermarket chain and comes in four … well, let's just call them flavors: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay.

Two-Buck Chuck has found a loyal audience among the many Americans who drink only dirt-cheap wines (part of its appeal is surely aesthetic: It comes in a proper bottle, rather than a box or a jug, so people probably feel they are getting a more upscale product). But its renown has also spread thanks to some rather glowing press coverage. The media seem to have an unquenchable thirst for stories that somehow cast doubt on the worthiness of expensive wines and the wisdom of those who drink them; the subtext of many of the articles about Two-Buck Chuck is that the swill-guzzling masses have once again outfoxed the snobs by finding a wine that offers both value and quality.

The success of Charles Shaw is also being portrayed as a sign of the times: Feeling a little less flush, people are cutting back, and one way they are economizing is by drinking cheaper wines.

Yet there is cheap wine and there is undrinkable wine, and while many oenophiles are surely more cost-conscious these days, it is doubtful they are doing their wine shopping at Trader Joe's. Having recently tried the Charles Shaw merlot, I can unequivocally state that I would switch to beer or go on the wagon before making a habit of this plonk.

Fortunately, it is not a choice that has to be made; all the hoopla surrounding Charles Shaw has obscured the fact that there is an amazing amount of inexpensive but good wine on the market these days. If you are willing to pay $8-$10, you can drink reasonably well; if you are willing to pay up to $15 a bottle, you can drink really well. (As wine has found a bigger audience in the United States, the definition of "cheap" has been revised slightly upward; $10-$15 is now considered a bargain.)

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)
Weygandt-Metzler (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.