The New York Times recently reported that the sputtering economy and soaring food costs are forcing Americans to become thriftier at the table. Among other things, restaurant alcohol sales are down, and discount domestic beers are gaining at the expense of pricier imports. Wine went unmentioned, but strapped oenophiles are also scaling back. That is not such a hardship in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, which are home to sophisticated wine boutiques carrying toothsome Bourgeuils, Brouillys, and other inexpensive elixirs. But does this QPR cornucopia (QPR stands for quality-price ratio and is an acronym often used by wine buffs to denote good value) extend to the suburbs and the sticks? What's the cheap stuff like out there?
To find out, I visited a Total Wine & More outlet in Wilmington, Del., last month. Total claims to be the country's biggest independent wine retailer (meaning it's not part of some larger enterprise, like Costco), and given the chain's 52 locations in 10 states and its combined sales of more than 33 million bottles a year, I'm inclined to take their word for it. The Wilmington store was cavernous, with an enormous selection of discount wines. My self-assigned mission: to see whether there were any $15-and-under wines, domestic or imported, that I'd be willing to recommend.
Twenty-two bottles and $298.21 later, I can report that I discovered some good wines and had an unexpectedly edifying experience. Over the last decade, international demand for lower-priced French wines has fallen sharply, which helps explain why thousands of French vintners are now struggling to stay in business. The French are not being beaten on price. They are being beaten on taste, and I now understand more than ever why that's the case. The Total store was filled with exuberantly fruity cabernets, Syrahs, and sauvignon blancs from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and other countries. Many of them are not to my liking—I prefer leaner, drier, more mineral-driven wines—but it's easy to see why they are so appealing, particularly relative to what was on offer from France.
There was no shortage of $15-and-under French wines, but the choices were uninspired. I liked the warm, spicy 2005 S.C.V. Castelmaure Corbières Col des Vents ($9.99), a red from a cooperative in the Languedoc, but the other French wines I tasted were decidedly limp. There was nothing interesting from the Loire, and the Beaujolais section appeared to be composed almost entirely of Georges Duboeuf bottlings. It is not that France doesn't produce good cheap wines; the Loire is a QPR nirvana. Ditto Beaujolais, the Languedoc, Mâcon, and the Rhône Valley. But the better ones are generally made in small quantities, and while they are readily available in New York and other big cities, they were not on the shelves in Wilmington.
Conversely, I was struck by the depth of the Spanish section. I knew that Spain had become a popular source of budget wines; nonetheless, I was surprised by the size and quality of Total's Spanish inventory. There were a number of $15-and-under offerings, for instance, from estimable importer Eric Solomon, who has a vast Iberian portfolio. One of his wines, the 2006 Artazu Artazuri ($11.99), a Grenache from the Navarra region, was superb. It packed plenty of ripe, dark fruit, nicely offset by a subtle herbal kick and terrific acidity—all in all, an excellent red for the money. Another winner was the 2004 Cune Rioja Crianza ($13.99), a pleasantly juicy wine that hit all the right Rioja notes (cherries, plums, tobacco, a whiff of nuts).
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