Friday, September 3, 2010

Modest Proposals: Drinking Good Wine On The Cheap

With our economy battered, bruised, and reeling, the incredible shrinkage of the middle class, and the general tightening of budgets all around, most of us have to fix a keen eye on wine purchases as well.

As a down-at-heels former connoisseur (he was in real estate...) told me recently, "Hey, they can't all be 100 pointers anymore, you know?"

Erm, actually, I don't think I have any 100 pointers, since I don't pay attention to that, and when I did I didn't care for most of what got those kind of points anyway.

But I digress.

Most of us still love the great, and even the very, very good, wines.  But outside of special occasions or irresistible temptations along the lines of I Really Shouldn't But What The Hell, we've learned to value the value wines.  (And some of us never stopped.)

Good news is of course it's a great time for value wines.  Sure there's a lot of plonk out there, in almost every category, but there's also real value too.  Even a guy like Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator and the local newspaper column is spending more time touting the bargains and the modest priced section more than ever before.  And if he can find good stuff out there for around $10, by god I can too!!!

So herein are four wines---two at modest regular prices and in good distribution; two found in a closeout basket at a local grocery store (And who doesn't love a bargain, heh heh heh?  No wine lover I've ever known.)  And guess what:  paraphrasing Meatloaf and allowing for inflation, three out of four ain't bad!

The Xarmant Txakoli 2009, Arabako Txakolina/Txakolina de Alava, from the Basque region in the Pyrenees, is one of the closeouts.  My only mistake was not immediately buying every single one---there were only about four---when I could.  By the time I'd opened the bottle I did buy, and ran back to the store, the rest were gone.  So this will go down in my notes as one of the more spectacular wines I've ever had...for the princely sum of $8.99.

Txakolina (pronounce it chah-koh-lee-nah and you'll be close enough), or Txakola, is the standard Basque white wine of the region, made from the workhorse varieties of Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarribi Beltza, and three other varieties that are even more obscure to outsiders than that.  It is stainless steel fermented, bottled with obvious carbonic to give it a decided spritz, never sees any oak, and is about as fresh and lively and lovely as a wine can possibly be.

It's brisk and slightly bubbly, palate cleansing, with a lean, light structure and a powerful snap of acidity.  But mostly it's a bright, pure expression of fruit.  Honest, this wine is almost compulsively swillable, and the fact that it is a mere 11.5% alcohol makes it possible to drink even more of it.

I'll tell you how good it is:  if you're serving it, plan to have two bottles for every one of the other wines you're used to drinking.  Yeah, it'll go that fast.

"Xarmant" is the Basque spelling for "charming".  And that's what this wine is:  Charming.

The second wine is the Roza Ridge Merlot, Rattlesnake Hills, over in Eastern Washington.  It's a 'second label' of the Hyatt Vineyards and Winery, reserved for those wines that are a blend of the three estate vineyards that all lie within the Rattlesnake Ridge AVA.  The Roza Ridge wines are priced below the Hyatt Estate-designated wines, so they present a pretty good bargain.

Hyatt was one of the pioneers of the Washington wine revolution; in consequence, they have older, more well-developed vineyards and vines and so good stocks to draw on for their Roza Ridge.  This Merlot is a modest typical representation of what made Washington Merlot a favorite.  It's meaty, rich, chocolaty and not overloaded with scratchy tannins.

Hyatt, from their beginning vintages, has always espoused to produce good quality wines that show what Washington can do, and at affordable prices.  The Roza Ridge Merlot continues in that tradition.

The other closeout special was Mas des Aveylans Cuvee Prestige Syrah 2004, Vin de Pays du Gard.
I'm going to hedge a bit on this one.  The producer has gotten good reviews from various sources (including Parker) as making dependable value-priced Syrah.  This one was decent, but obviously tired and past its prime---and it's only a 2004; it should have lived longer.  Obviously made for quick consumption, and quick flushing through the system, which is okay by me and perfectly respectable, they waited just a bit too long to stamp the closeout price of $6.99 on it.  At that price, it was....okay.  Any more and it would not have been okay.

It has good pedigree; after all, it's a Robert Kacher Selection and its from that area in the far west of the Rhone that is capable of producing some very good wine.  Still and all, this 2004 is lackluster, with simple cherry flavors popping up...and that's about all.  Before I make any final judgments though, I'll try a newer vintage, if I can find it under that $10 barrier.

There are few wines better, on average, than a good sturdy Cotes-du-Rhone Rouge.  For red wine, the Rhone is the uncontested "go to" wine region in my book.  Within this framework, though, there are as many expressions of Cote-du-Rhone as....well, as many as there are Cote-du-Rhone labels, for every producer has his own particular blend of the many grapes and choice of the many styles that exist.  Reserve Perrin Cotes-du-Rhone 2007 is a good, basic, down-to-earth expression of the category, and at a good price.

Mind you, the Perrin won't send you into flights of epiphanetic delight, and you won't likely put it on your list of 'best evers', but it will deliver a pleasant, meaty mouthful with good berry flavor, a touch of oak, and a good representation of this popular and pleasing region and its red wines.

It is a blend of predominantly Grenache---which shows readily with its up-front strawberry---abetted with Syrah cherries, and inky-dark pungent Mourvedre to plump it up, round it out, and add a little earthy, smoky complexity.

The Perrins are a well-respected family of Rhone winemakers, owners of the Domaine Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, various other Rhone properties, and the modestly respectable table wine brand of La Vielle Ferme Rouge and Blanc form the Cotes Luberon and Ventoux in the Rhone/Provence, so you're assured of a high standard of consistent quality at a good price.

So to borrow shamelessly from an old acquaintance now known as The Ghost of Chris Coad, a quasi-phantom of earthly delights (private joke but real guy; google him if you want to know more), I'll rate these wines as:

Txakoli: Like, in a heartbeat!
Roza Ridge Merlot:  Yep. My wife liked it.
Mas des Aveylans:  Maybe a younger one, sure.
Reserve Perrin C-d-R:  Yup.


  1. I have no reservations about drinking good old Perrin Reserve.

  2. And that's because you've always been an eminently sensible kinda guy.

  3. We love Txakoli, and have several in the shop at all times, including the Xarmant.

  4. Good! Then every time some one wants another bland and featureless Pinot Grigio or a clunky Chardonnay, you can say, "Hey, try something with a name you can't pronounce but that is the best bargain we have right now!" :^)

    As good a sipper Txakoli is, it is a marvelous food companion, innit?

  5. Ahhhhh, if only it were that easy! We don't have many people coming in for Chardonnay of any sort (that market is very nearly as dead as Aussie Shiraz), but I can't imagine someone coming in looking for the steroetypical Chardonnay going out happily with a spritzy acid-bomb. That's just a recipe for losing a customer. The Pinot Grigio drinker might be a possibility, but still, I think I'd have to qualify them a bit. Anyway, I have some GOOD Pinot Grigio to recommend. Fortunately we have a young and impressionable clientele, and that gives us a great chance to promote wines like Txakoli.

    I'm not that much of a seafood guy, so I end up mainly sipping Txakoli. I can't think of another wine that evokes relaxing on a beach with a bit of salt spray so effectively!

  6. BTW, if you like the Xarmant Txakoli, try to get your hands on the Ameztoi. A couple $$ more, but SO worth it!