Fine Wines For Less Than A Tenspot

When he's lecturing on wine, Michael Green often begins with a blind tastetest. Green places a $5 bottle of cabernet sauvignon in one brown bag and a $30 to $50 bottle in another. He then quizzes students to see which they prefer. "Half the people think that the $5 wine is the more expensive one. And a majority like the less expensive one," says Green, who also is a partner in Best Cellars, which hopes to open a store in New York City that carries only under-$10 bottles.

Connoisseurs may scoff, but the experiment suggests you don't have to take a second job to afford delicious wine. The market is flooded with "value" wines, fine-tasting varieties that sell for under $10 a bottle. Why the glut? For starters, an abundance of decent wine is available from long-overlooked or fast-improving regions around the world, whether in Chile, South Africa, or parts of France and California. Moreover, winemaking techniques have gotten better. "You can spend a happy life drinking and never spend more than $10" on a bottle, says Hugh Johnson, author of The World Atlas of Wine ($50, Simon & Schuster).

Besides price, inexpensive wines have other advantages. Great wines demand commitment. You need storage. There's the troubling decision of when to drink them. Is the wine at its peak? Do you need an ideal occasion to break open a bottle? On the other hand, you can sip low-cost wines immediately.

However, wine lovers give something up when they make pedestrian choices. Value wines usually are less complex in character than their glamorous cousins. "The flavors of great wines always last a long time in the mouth, with a lovely, sweet afterglow," says Johnson.

Indeed, it's a good idea to keep your expectations in check when you're searching for laudable but low-cost wines. Superb pinot noirs, for one, are hard to find for less than a tenspot--the finicky grape is expensive and difficult to grow.

Where then to point your nose? Bargains may be found in the Languedoc region in the south of France, says wine consultant Steven Olson. "The entire area has made incredible strides towards making better wines," he says. Many vineyards make respectable $5 to $8 merlots, chardonnays, even cabernets. Olson also recommends the tempranillo red wines from the Navarra and Ribera del Duero areas of Spain. You can find surprisingly dry wines from Germany and Austria. Among his best bets: the Koberner Weisenberg Riesling from Freiherr Von Schleinitz in Mosel, Germany, and the Weissburgunder Pinot Blanc from Heinrich in Austria.

On my own recent wine-buying mission, I picked up a $6 bottle of Chilean Santiago "1541" Chardonnay at Sherry-Lehmann, a big Manhattan wine merchant, but alas, the wine tasted cheap. I had better luck with a pleasant Chateau Peyraud 1990 Premires Cote de Blaye ($7.49), from one of Bordeaux's lesser-known vintners, as well as an old standby, the aromatic beaujolais from Georges Duboeuf for $7.49.

But for those who find beaujolais a bit too much like "liquid fruit loops," a better selection might be red zinfandel, says Howard Padgett, a wine consultant at Beltramo's in Menlo Park, Calif. "You get a lot of fruit intensity to them, they're generally soft, and they work well with a real range of foods." A terrific value at around $5.49 is Cuvee X Zinfandel from Rosenbloom, a vintner's blend of different appellations throughout California. Or you might sample the Montevino 1993 Zinfandel from the Gold Country, for around $5.

Online oeneophiles can swap advice on America Online and CompuServe. Both services have forums on $10 wines. Such publications as Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator also run value-wine issues. Wine Spectator recently covered $10 cabernets and chardonnays. The magazine's favorites were an $8 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley from Canepa in Chile, and a $7 1994 Chardonnay McLaren Vale from Seaview in Australia.

One of my favorite low-priced wines also originates Down Under. It's the spicy, soft Rosemount Estate Shiraz, available for about $9. But don't rely on my palate. At $10 a bottle, it's easy to take your own risks.

Tips On Finding Value Wines

-- Ask about undiscovered wineries or such fast-improving regions as Austria, Chile, or South Africa

-- In a great vintage year, buy from lesser-known producers: Nearly everyone can make good wine from exceptional grapes

-- When the vintage is off in an area, buy from an established winery that might lower prices and maintain quality

-- Try large vineyards' secondary labels: The wine, sometimes made from excess grapes after an abundant harvest, may be virtually identical to that found in premium bottles