Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Guest Post: Life's Too Short to Drink Cheap Wine!

I'm so pleased to welcome Dinitro as a guest blogger on Pocket Blonde, to post what I hope will be his first of many observations on wine, Life's Too Short to Drink Cheap Wine!  Dinitro has been blogging about wine for some time, but took a break to do something frivolous, like attend to his business and silly things like that.  I hope you'll give him a big welcome in the comments section, and don't hesitate to talk wine or ask questions.

A page from Dinitro's Journal
Life's Too Short to Drink Cheap Wine!

The title to this post is both in jest and at the same time in all seriousness.  I firmly believe that given our short life spans, and perhaps even shorter periods of good physical and mental health, one may wonder why: waste what little time we have on really cheap wine?  The other side of the coin of course is that if I blow all my money now on really freakin' awesome expensive wines, I may not have enough to enjoy wine in my later years.

So with that backdrop what should a wine lover do?  Well, as much as I rail on cheap wine, most of us serious wine nuts (not snobs mind you) do in fact look for good values out there.  The trouble in some sense is the plethora of wines on the market - more than 300,000 different wines produced each year, many at prices under $20, and some amazingly so, like Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck to things like Gallo's Barefoot Cellars.  Both of these (as examples) can be drinkable, but as much as I'll try anything once many of these wines I will not buy again, because they lack character.  Of course you will now ask what character means.  To go there will take another blog piece, but for now think in terms of complexity, various tastes to the wine, combined with an interesting aroma, and so on.

I should also mention that, for the most part I am talking about red wines; white wines for me having less character overall and certainly less interest (to me) in the colder months.  White wines are often chilled, and that alone can mask many flaws (and the finer points as well) in a white wine; though I prefer they mask the flaws.

To me, tasting wine is a highly personal experience - the admonitions of others, while maybe helpful, are no substitute for your own taste buds. My wine drinking friends and I spend endless hours and many glass pours of inexpensive wines in search of age worthy, awesome wine gems that won't break the bank. So what do we mean by "cheap" or "inexpensive" wine?

Many people have used the $20 mark as a threshold, with wines above that price being too expensive. Those below $20 are in the "won't break the bank" range. We can take that to a further extreme, with many bargain hunters looking at wines below, say, $12 (or $11.99 in the parlance of the retail arena) to below $10 ($9.99), as being in the super affordable territory.  Wines priced well below that, like the two I noted above, can be had in the $3-$5 range, which is clearly in the cheap.  Unfortunately, as I have experienced, these wines, while able to deliver a consistent, almost drinkable wine, they lack substance or character. Too many other wines in the "below $10" range often are too acidic (think battery acid), weak, or watery.

So as we step along in this merry journey of searching out wine deals or values, one question I am often asked is: do they even exist?  And indeed they do - but again never forget the personal taste bud experience issue.  What tastes good to me may not to you and vice versa.  We have proven that over and over again among many tastings.

With the advent of Fall, my wine nut friends and I are now squarely in the hunt for good red wines with character but priced between $10 and $17 (the higher end price here is somewhat artificial, but is based on what we are seeing and experiencing).  What we have found already is a number of great wines that will provide awesome taste bud experiences at reasonable prices and will accompany a wide variety of foods, beyond the Chianti for pizza routine.  So here are some recent "value" picks in no particular order - and if you have some ideas, please share them with us!

Secco Bertani Valpolicella Ripasso, Italy ($16-18) - prices for this wine can vary by store, but these are the latest I have found them for.  This wine comes from the Valpolicella wine district of Northeast Italy around the city of Veneto.  Three red grapes are commonly used: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara.  Not your household variety like Merlot or Cabernet, but nonetheless are among the largest productions in Italy.  Most valpolicellas are light table wines, but the "Ripasso" moniker on this one signifies something much better.  Here the wine is made from partially dried grape skins that have been left over from the fermentation of Amarone or recioto wines of the same region.  This gives the Ripasso more intensity and bite, darker colors, and greater dryness.  Some like to call Ripassos a baby Amarone; the Amarone wines a story unto themselves.  This Secco Bertani version is also an awesome one; so much so I buy it whenever I see it.  Of course almost any producer's version of Ripasso will be interesting; it’s just that you don't see many.  Another brand I often get is Santi Solane Valpolicella Ripasso, which can be a little less in price ($10-13) but about as good.

Luzon Jumilla, Spain ($8-11) – This is a major repeat wine buy for me.  Bodegas Luzon is the maker and Jumilla is the region in Spain where the wine is made.  They don’t tell you what grapes go into the wine, but a search on Google will reveal all – 70% Monastrell and 30% Syrah.  Most of you clearly have heard of Syrah, but not many I bet have heard about Monastrell, which is actually just another name for Mourvedre, a common French Rhone varietal.  Enough of the education for now and on to what this wine tastes like.  It is a red wine, typically a deep purple or eggplant in color with a dark rich almost earthy aroma.  The wine is drier than many American counterparts – a component of wines I certainly like, but not too much.  Overall it is fairly smooth with flavors of dark fruits and licorice and a reasonably long finish.  It is surprisingly complex for such an inexpensive wine, and highly enjoyable.  I have been finishing up my 2008 vintages, with the 09’s, 10’s, and now 11’s on the market I will need to try.  This wine is perhaps one of the best deals in the market, scoring high 80s to very low 90s on several wine ratings for almost every vintage.  If you are adventurous, you can step it up a notch to their Altos de Luzon wine for about $15-18 that incorporates some Spain’s classic Tempranillo grape and some Cab Sav.

So up to now I have been pointing out some Old World area wines and have seemed to avoid the New World wonders.   Well then, you should consider the Phantom by Bogle ($17-20).  This is a bit of a cult wine in some areas of the wine world, and for good reason.  It blends Petite Sirah*, Zinfandel and Mourvedre (see above) to make a rich, luscious, almost sinfully slutty wine.  Not unlike the Luzons I noted above, I am pouring off my 2007 vintages of Phantom right now.  These are actually better when aged for a year or more, assuming you can hold off drinking them.  The Phantom’s come and go from stores wickedly fast.  I have seen some shops advertize that the Phantoms are coming, and if I don’t get there that weekend – bam they are gone!  They do command a higher price and close in on the mystical $20 threshold I talked about earlier, but I have seen them on sale periodically for $16.99.

A recent tasting of a weirdly named wine: Boom Boom -  a syrah from Washington State provided some boom boom taste experiences. This clearly works to be a more slutty** wine than the average and the name is somewhat indicative of what to expect when you taste it.  It’s dark and rich with more intense upfront fruity flavors.  Made by Charles Smith (he aptly named his wine business Charles Smith Wines – how innovative is that!), he seems to focus on crazy wine names and labels, but not so crazy in the bottle.  His more infamous wine Kung Fu Girl has won many accolades, if not for the name.  Wine makers from Europe find this type of branding and wine making something of a cowboy attitude – how American!  And awesome.  Anyway, Boom Boom is a good solid wine that someone managed to give 90 points for.  Not sure it gets that high, but it is still a pretty fun wine to drink with more intense flavorful foods, not to mention some very ripe and stinky cheeses.  Prices for this wine are all over the map ($12-19), depending on sales and such, so keep a mindful eye out for a better price.

Not to be stingy on white wines, I will mention one that remains through the colder weather:  Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($11-15).  Savy B’s” as we call them can vary widely in tastes depending on where they come from and what the winemaker is trying to do with them, but this one from Spy Valley has tickled our throats and taste buds with its interesting citrus and grapefruit appeal.  When on sale I buy loads, and for party’s it has been a crowd pleaser among the Savy B quaffers.  It’s no top of the line SB, but pretty damn good for the price.

*Dinitro's explanation when I questioned him about the spellings:  "Syrah and Sirah are two different grapes.  The former is the common grape of the southern Rhone Valley and big in Australia where they call it Shiraz....Sirah is actually Petite Sirah, a grape that originated as a cross of Syrah pollen germinating a Peloursin plant.  It is also called the Durif grape, though no one uses that name.  Petite Sirahs are not very common but can be simply awesome."

**Second Dinitro explanation:  "As for 'Slutty,' it is indeed a common wine term used by many folks including the infamous Robert Parker.  It means all of what you might think it means, but commonly to wines that have a high alcohol content, and powerful over-ripe intense dark berry and super juicy flavors."