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The Cheap Wine Report


“Life is too short to drink bad wine.” That does not always mean it’s too short to drink cheap wine. And that’s what the wife and I were looking for when we set out to stock up for a recent party. Sure, I had some Rhône reds on hand for close friends. But we also wanted wines that would serve the common guest (as if there is such a thing) as well as the discerning drinker: i.e. wines that would neither break the bank nor disgust the palate. Between some reassuringly great bin-end bargains at Miron Liquors, on a Kingston strip mall, and the venerable Hurley Ridge store in West Hurley, I’d like to believe we succeeded.

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First, to the wines recommended by Hurley Ridge, arguably the finest store in our region. The Vignabaldo Pinot Grigio 2008 came in a 1.5 liter bottler for just $12, with an added bonus: an Umbria designation. A light straw color in the glass, I was instantly attracted by its lemony nose, which also offered hints of newly cut grass. Suitably light, refreshing and zippy, it was also green, in a positively Loire-like manner. None of our guests stopped to compliment it, but nobody stopped to question it either, and the bottle was gone in mere minutes. A winner.

The Tisdale California Chardonnay 2007 came in even cheaper, just $5 a 750ml bottle from Hurley Ridge. I was hardly swayed by news that the store sells it by the case, nor that it comes from the Gallo empire: while at the top end of the market, Gallo has made strides to meet quality, its myriad brand names at the bottom end are the kind I normally avoid. Sure enough, the nose was a little sharp, but it certainly tasted like Chardonnay, what with its redolent apples and pears, even some citrus and melon to balance it out. Far from subtle – I used the word “cloddy” while taking notes – it was still hard to argue with as a quick quaffer, especially when served chilled to the bone.

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Gallo is also behind the various André Champagnes that routinely sell for under $5. Of course, they’re not from Champagne, but a company as big as Gallo doesn’t care for distinctions like that; they just hope a French-sounding name will confuse those who don’t know better. (It does state that it’s from “California” on the bottle, but then, by law, it has to.) Enough bitching: what does the André Extra Dry California “Champagne” taste like? Well, I blended mine with orange juice, in which scenario it tasted just as good as most mimosas you get served at a fancy brunch: it was fizzy, it was fun, and it gave me a brief high. Champagne – the real stuff, from Reims and Epernay in France – can be truly ethereal, but for the most part, I’m happy to go cheap and mix it with juice, and if, in the current recession, you don’t have more than $5 to throw at your fizz budget, you won’t do better than this.

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I was excited for the Vinho Verde Gazela – from Portugal, of course – which comes in at a typically light 9% alcohol, and an average retail price of $9, though the wife picked up hers up for only $6 at Miron in Kingston. I was confused, however, to see a 2009 label on the back, because even though Vinho Verde translates as “young wine,” I can’t believe that these grapes could have been picked, fermented, bottled and exported already. (Research suggests that Vinho Verde is typically not marked by vintage, so I remain uncertain as to the meaning of this label.) Pumped with carbon dioxide to give it what’s known as “petillance,” this particular Vinho Verde poured with such a fizz you’d be have been mistaken for thinking it was methode champenoise (as Gallo should call their California stuff), though any such impressions were quickly cancelled out once it settled in the glass. About as light in color as possible for a white wine, there was a sugary sweetness on the front end, and a serious tang at the back end, which carried with it a real prickle. I found it all under-ripe, over-sweet and a little bit sickly, but the wife told me she liked it and both bottles emptied out quicker than you could say “Vinho Verde is Portugal’s largest wine region, some of it is made with the Albarinho grape and reaches up to 13% alcohol, and half of it is red wine that rarely goes to export.”

The Greenpoint Pinot Noir Rosé 2006, from Victoria in Australia, should have been our winner, based on price point: it was secured at Miron for just $6, though it typically retails for $17 and I found it selling for $10 a glass out in LA. (Actually, Google found it priced like that; I didn’t go out to LA myself.) Unfortunately, it was mistaken for a red and not put in the fridge until too late. Rosés are often served too damn cold, but this was evidence that they should not be served too warm: the fruit felt hefty and unbalanced and there was that nasty acidic tang to the finish that you get under such circumstances. I’m not convinced that Pinot Noir makes the best rosé to begin with, and Australian wines are not always known for their subtlety, but still, I may go back to Miron and see if we can try again.

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Finally, the Torres 2006 Catalyuna Garnacha San Valentin from Spain was the biggest steal of our day, picked up at Miron for just $4. (It regularly retails for $11.) Indeed, placing it on the bar made us look like generous hosts indeed. A medium red-purple, with a light brick already, it offered up a menthol nose with definite vanilla overtones. Extremely easy on the palate, soft, juicy, oaky and ultimately innocuous, this was, to my mind, a good example of a bad international wine – one that had, in theory, everything in the right place but in reality, offered no distinguishing factors, no individuality. I know my Garnacha/Grenache and I expect it to have more character than this. In a recession, at a party, at $4, it’s hard to fault, but for $11, I’d lean to my Côtes du Rhône or similarly southern French Vins de Pays.

All in all, our experiment proved revealing: with a little digging around the bargain bins, a little questioning at the counter, you can come away with perfectly drinkable wines for just $5-$6 a bottle. Sure, a couple of them were Gallo brands, but as well as the most industrial of California, we also drank honest and unpretentious wine from Spain, Italy, Portugal and Australia. Life’s too short to drink bad wine, but it’s just long enough to enjoy the mediocre stuff when it’s priced right. Cheers.

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