Finding $12 Wines That Punch Above Their Weight: John Mariani

Zachys Winestore
The exterior of Zachys wine and liquor store in Scarsdale, NY. Zachys opened in 1944 and is considered one of the best wine sellers in the U.S. Photographer: John Mariani/Bloomberg

Over the years I’ve spent very little time trolling through sales bins at wine stores because 90 percent of the time the offerings are poor sellers or excess inventory of undistinguished, already cheap wines.

But I’m not so flush these days that I can snub a good bargain, and out of professional interest I decided to check out some recent discount sales at fine wine stores and see what was worthwhile. I found that, as never before, much better wines are being offered at much better prices, owing to a huge post- recession wine glut.

Recent auction prices have shown that first-growth Bordeaux and the most illustrious Burgundies are going for record bids, but below that firmament, little is selling well, especially out of France.

More than Italy, Spain and South America, France has not been able to export enough interesting, full-flavored wines at moderate prices (under $15 a bottle) to keep sales from flagging, aside from a few successes like Gallo-owned $8 Red Bicyclette -- even after a French court convicted 12 members of the Languedoc wine industry last February of illegally blending cheap merlot and syrah into 18 million bottles of the pinot noir-based label.

So when I spotted an ad -- one of many these days -- for deep discounts at the fine-wine store Zachys in Scarsdale, New York, that read “The $12 Sale Is Back!” I thought it worth a drive to see what’s going cheap. I chose a dozen or so bottles based on what looked intriguing, hedging my bets by siding with Chile, Spain and Italy.

Summer Food

After tasting all of them, alone and with summer food, I have to say I was really delighted with the majority.

Some of the wines had been marked down from as high as $23, though most had been about $17. At $12 a bottle, I would certainly drink the good ones any night of the week and happily even pay list price for some. Most important, my tastings showed that producers are shipping quality matched to price in just about every kind of varietal, from barbera d’alba to shiraz.

One of the most impressive was a full-bodied, fleshy Altos de Luzon 2006 from Jumilla in Spain, made with 50 percent monastrell, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 25 percent tempranillo -- a blend normally found in more expensive bottlings. It showed bold tannins and enough spice for a meal of roast chicken with white beans and tangy-hot salsa verde.

From Spain’s Ribera del Duero region came a solidly knit Creta Roble 2006, 100 percent tempranillo grown at 850 meters (2,700 feet), where the coolness calms the grape and gives the finished wine a finesse as well as a nice bite of acid at the finish. I drank this with a very-rare porterhouse and nothing but a shake of sea salt and black pepper. Perfect!

Violet Notes

A third Spanish bottling, Borsao Crianza Seleccion 2006, is another example of how modestly priced wines need not be one-dimensional. This is a blend of 50 percent grenache, 25 percent tempranillo, and the remainder cabernet sauvignon, so that the violet notes of the grenache play off the softness and tannins of the other two varietals. Curiously, though it began with good backbone, its power faded after two glasses.

A 2008 Barbera d’Alba from Stefano Farina in Italy’s Piedmont showed how good this workhorse grape can be when handled carefully, even this young. The ripe fruit, lovely fragrance and peppery undertone make it excellent with red meats like lamb or veal.

Mas du Fadan Les Fees 2007, from the Cotes du Ventoux in the southern Rhone region, had a characteristic purple color and big rustic smell, which partially derives from its not being filtered. It’s a bawdy beauty of a red wine, made for barbecued ribs on the grill and corn-on-the-cob.

Not every wine I tasted was as good as these -- a Girard Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from Napa Valley was pale to the eye and palate, and a 2007 Lagone Aia Vecchia from Tuscany was all tannin and no taste. But for a dozen wines chosen more or less at random, I found a level of quality that puts much more expensive wines into focus.

Is a $50 bottle really that much better than a $12 bottle? The answer is not quite so easy as it once seemed.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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