Eric Asimov has long been on a crusade to promote affordable wines that offer interest. Twice a year, summer and winter, he publishes a list of “20 under $20,” which is fairly self-explanatory—20 different bottles of wine, each $20 or under. His subtitle for the list published last week summarizes his point—“A Little More Money for a Lot More Wine.”
As we usually do when we reference Asimov’s list, we quote him at length, because he has said what I would say, only better.
It’s not hard to find bottles in the $8-to-$10 range. These wines will be sound. They will be solid. But for the most part they will not be particularly interesting or distinctive.
Finding those extra dimensions, in my experience, requires spending a little extra. I wish that were not so, but it is the truth.
Inexpensive wines are generally able to be so cheap because of technological manipulations, automation and economies of scale, which in most cases cannot help but compromise quality. Most of the wines on the list that follows are small-production, made by dedicated producers using traditional practices, without compromise or labor-saving automation. The question is not “Why are they so expensive?” It is “Why don’t they cost more?” That’s a pretty good definition of value.
We occasionally “publish” our own list of 20 Under $20 after Asimov releases his both because we do not have access to some of the wines that he includes and because our costs vary. Sometimes we are in the happy position of offering a wine for less than what Asimov lists as the price. More frequently, our costs are higher. We may have some of the wines he lists, but they are over $20 in Vermont and at Windham Wines.
We’ve created our own list again this winter, though it is a 22 under $22. Sixteen of the wines on our list are organic or biodynamic. Though we have several of the Asimov wines, we have only two overlapping wines that appears both on both our lists this time—the Ultreia and the Bonny Doon. Our regular customers will recognize the Ultreia. We recommended it to all who came in looking for a red during the first several months after which it was again available in Vermont.
We raised the potential price up to $22 so that we could tell you about three wines each of which is priced at $22. Those include both sparklings. We love sparkling, but very rarely do we find a sparkling under $20 with any elegance or gentleness. Those properties take time, and time, after all, is money.
We hope too that you will heed Asimov’s advice for the path to discovering wines of value: “find the best wine shop near you, even if it is not the most convenient.” At Windham Wines, we make every effort to bring wines of character to you. We hope that we are or can become the best shop near you, even if it means an extra stop.
Fibbiano, Fonte delle Donne, Toscana, 2016 $18 organic
A blend of 50% Vermentino and 50% Colombana Bianca, the latter is identified by Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz as “an ancient Tuscan white” of which there were only 376 acres, all in Italy, in 2000. Matteo Cantoni, whose family owns and farms Fattoria Fibbiano, a farm and winery committed to organic procedures and indigenous varieties, explained that the Colombana adds fruit to the more saline, mineral Vermentino. It is a winning combination that our customers love.
Gustavshof, “Kalkstein,” Riesling, Trocken, Rheinhessen, 2016 $20 biodynamic
Those of you who think that you don’t like Riesling, please try this wine. A 4th generation family-run, biodynamically and dry-farmed property located on the highest hill in the Rheinhessen, the grapes are hand-harvested, spontaneously-fermented with natural yeasts, with no fining and no sulfites added. This is minimal intervention at its best. As Andreas Gustavshof says, “we need not more than good grapes to get quality.” Beguiling fragrance of fresh apple, white peach, and a touch of ginger; aromatic, elegant, and dry.
Herencia Altes, Garnatxa Blanca, Terra Alta, 2017 $12 organic
We have been smitten with this wine for the past four years because it so over-delivers for its price. From Terra Alta, in southern Catalonia, home to literally 1/3 of the world’s Garnatxa Blanca, owner-vinetender Nuria Altes began bottling estate wines in 2010 when she bought her father’s grapes. The heat of 2017 makes this a decidedly winter white—riper fruit, weightier (14%!), but still decent balance between fruit and acid, picked 3 weeks earlier than usual. Peach and pear fruit are offset by an almondy-bitterness, mercifully unoaked to retain freshness.
Laberinto, Sauvignon Blanc, Colbun (Maule Valley), Chile $18 organic
Fifteen acres of vines that are planted on infertile, volcanic soils, farmed organically with low yields. Fruit—yes, some passionfruit and lime but minerality in spades. Flinty, crushed stones, briney—however your palate experiences minerality, you’ll get it in this high-voltage wine.
Moirots, Bourzeron, 2016 $20
Bourezon is a tiny (45 hectares/111 acres) appellation in the Cote Chalonnaise of Burgundy, south of the Cote d’Or. It is a white-grape-only appellation, and its only allowable white is Aligoté. Aligoté is Burgundy’s “other” white grape, a very distant second place in a two-grape contest (Chardonnay being the prominent white of Burgundy). And yet, . . . this is a beautiful, delicate wine. Fermented and aged in egg-shaped cement tanks for almost a year on its lees, it combines floral, melon and apricot with just a vague suggestion of anise; there is good, but not aggressive, acidity having been tempered by that time on its lees.
Terre Stregate, “Sveleto,” Falanghina del Sannio, Campania, 2017 $16 organic
Six people tasted this wine and it was two thumb’s up all around. Falanghina is a white variety indigenous to Campania. This is a family-owned, organically-farmed vineyard and olive orchard in the Sannio hills northeast of Naples. After years of producing only olive oil, the vineyards were revived and wines again produced beginning in 2004. I love to share humorous translations when I find them. The Terre Stregate website allows that the “rallying cry” or motto of the return of wine to the estate is “a log, a bottle.” Who wouldn’t rise to that? In any case, 2017 was a hot vintage, producing a fuller, richer Falanghina than last year’s, with more apricot and floral aromas and flavors, and a lusher, velvety mouthfeel. By the way, the Svelato is famous because it has “won a lot of international prices.”
Aviron, Chenas, Vieilles Vignes, 2016 $18
Sommeliers and wine writers have championed the merits of Gamay for the past ten+ years: it is low in tannins, lower alcohol, with bright acidity, and consequently pairs beautifully with a range of foods. Chenas is the smallest of the ten Beaujolais Crus. This Chenas comes from a 13.6 acre vineyard composed of limestone and clay whose vines average over one hundred years. There is impressive concentration of juicy fruit, accompanied by focused blue-black flavors of slate and peat, then intense minerality extended by that bright finish. This is value.
L’Argentier, Cinsault, Languedoc, 2016 $15
This Cinsault from L’Argentier is a bit of a siren song to most of our customers. The only red wine that outsells this one in our shop is the liter Coté Mas blend that lives on the value table and sells for just $9.99. Cinsault is planted throughout the South of France. Given its thin, lightly-colored skin, it is made mostly into rosé in Provence, while it is blended with some deeper companions in the Languedoc. Here these fifty year old vines are vinified into a medium-bodied, varietal wine that shows concentrated aromas and flavors of fruit, floral and just a hint of iron.
Bonny Doon, Clos de Gilroy, Grenache, Monterey County 2017 $15 biodynamic
Randall Grahm began winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1984, on a quest to produce the “Great American Pinot Noir.” He has abandoned that dream, but continues his “spirited adventure to make naturally soulful, distinctive, original wine.” Grahm sources this fruit from the biodynamically-farmed Alta Loma vineyard that, because of strong winds from the Monterey Bay that help moderate temperatures, make this a cooler site for Grenache. Grapes are hand-harvested, the winemaking transparent (see label for ingredients), and the resulting wine is light, with lively flavors of redcurrant, violets, earth and spice.
Domaine Coste Chaude, Madrigal, Cotes du Rhone Villages-Visan, 2016 $17 organic
This is a classic Grenache-Syrah blend from the Cotes du Rhone Villages. The domaine is located in Visan, one of only 18 communes (out of 90) that may put their village name on the label. Vintage 2016 was almost perfect in the southern Rhone, and it shows in this wine. Exuberant fruit (blueberry, raspberry and plum), smoky mineral notes, dried herbs and a nice baking spice finish. Not heavy but full-bodied, a comfort wine to enjoy with a good friend or a page-turner book by the fire.
Foxglove, Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, 2017 $15
Twin brothers Jim and Bob Varner have been making wine together since the early 1980s. Foxglove is their second label, offering just three varietal wines—Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandel. Picking which one to include is random. All are pure representations of the fruit—no oak, no manipulations. Here the cassis and leafiness of Cab are left to show its character. Is there a better value in California?
Guilhem, Pot de Vin , Merlot, Pays d’Oc, 2016 $13 organic
We were so excited when we tasted this wine. For years after Sideways, we wanted to defend Merlot. After all, if wine.com is any guide, apparently there are people willing to pay $4000 for a bottle of 2015 Petrus, a wine that is 100% Merlot (but you are limited to 6 bottles per person). Yet down here on the ground in 99% land, we just couldn’t find anything we could get behind that was affordable. Enter this Pot de Vin last year—an honest little Merlot. You can taste the grape, not just its cosmetics. Certified organic, working toward biodynamic, hand-harvested, indigenous yeast fermentation, fermented and aged in concrete, minimal sulfur. Juicy, red berry fruits are complemented by savory notes of fennel—this is Merlot.
Lunar Apogé, Syrah, Pays d’Oc, 2017 $17 biodynamic
Syrah, like Merlot, is a very underappreciated variety in the US. We love it. This is a terrific reminder of what makes Syrah so compelling— black berry fruits and a nice interplay of sweet and smoky, think frying bacon. The Leperchois family farms biodynamically, certified by Demeter since 2009; grapes are hand-harvested, spontaneous fermentation via ambient yeasts, fermented and aged in cement.
Montesecano, “Refugio,” Pinot Noir, Casablanca $20 biodynamic
A new project for which André Ostertag of Domaine Ostertag in Alsace partnered with Julio Donoso as winemakers for this 6 acre, biodynamically-farmed, single vineyard of Pinot Noir. Hand-picked, indigenous yeast, aged in concrete eggs—sweet red berry fruit, a whiff of floral and a lovely vein of something smoky like peat yet also sweet like balsamic, yet there is no wood anywhere around this wine. The wine has been minimally handled, including no sulfur. Give it lots of swirl in your glass to encourage any volatile aromas to dissipate before revealing its Pinot personality.
Sattler, Saint Laurent, Burgenland, 2015 $19
Saint Laurent is an Austrian red variety that can be beautifully aromatic so long as it is not overwhelmed by oak. This is an entry-level, pure Saint Laurent (all stainless steel, not a sliver of oak around) that lets you discover its charming personality—lots of fruit, blueberry and plums, dried Italian herbs and then just a soupçon of something earthy.
Selvapiana, Chianti Rufina, 2016 $16 organic
No surprise here—year in and year out, this is a Chianti for those who want to be transported back to Tuscany. This is old world style Chianti from the Rufina region east of Florence. Dark cherry, wild herbs, some cedar, delivered in this unprepossessing but so very authentic bottle of wine. Brother and sister team Federico and Silvia Giuntini Masseti pretty much do it all here, from managing the vineyards and cellar to marketing.
Sincette, Groppello, Garda Classico, 2016 $22 biodynamic
Grown almost exclusively on the western side of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, Groppello is low in tannins and relatively modest alcohol. Sincette makes just five hundred cases of this wine. Another biodynamically-farmed, hand-harvested, spontaneously-fermented wine aged in concrete and used barrels. Dried cranberries, violets, savory and spice, utterly charming. This is a wine that made me smile and want to spend time with it, casually, as I would with a friend.
Ultreia, Saint Jacques, Bierzo, 2016 $18 practicing organic
We loved this wine when it was in the state years ago, then it disappeared. We love it even more on its return—it is $7 less. Mostly Mencia, with Bastardo (Trousseau) and Garnacha Tintorera (Alicanté Bouchet). I guess this is what you get when you have vines that are 75-118 years old: elegance, intensity, purity, silkiness and yes, even energy.
Vina Zorzal, Graciano, Navarra, 2016 $14 organic
This is one of our sleeper wines. Zorzal is a family-owned winery in Navarra, contiguous to Rioja to the northeast. The grape, Graciano, is often blended with Tempranillo in Rioja, though in very small proportions, 5% or less. The Sanz family, of Vina Zorzal, “rescue” native varieties that have been “almost forgotten,” like Graciano, from which they produce single varietals. Organically grown, the Zorzal Graciano shows fragrant dried fruit and bittersweet chocolate aromas. It has medium weight on the palate, with dried cranberry flavors, slightly tannic and finishing with lots of spice, tart pomegranate and something like roasted coffee.
Zorzal, Gran Terroir, Malbec, Gualtallary, 2016 $17
Unrelated to the Zorzal above, this one is located in the Uco Valley southwest of Mendoza, tucked in the shadow of the Andes and more than 1000’ higher that the valley floor on which most of Mendoza’s Malbec is planted, Gualtallary is the “hottest cool spot,” in “currently the most exciting wine region in Argentina” (Tanzer, 2016). The resulting wine shows aromatic intensity—blueberry, blackberry and fig fruit, along with dried herbs and chocolate. The minerality characteristic of the calcareous clay in which these vines are planted comes through on the finish.
Castel Noarna Rethium, Dolomiti, $21.99 organic
Located in Alto Adige in the Italian Dolomites, this beautiful lightly bubbly wine is a blend of Nosiolo, an aromatic white indigenous to the area and Chardonnay, common to the area as well, farmed organically. The wine is natural, relying on ambient yeasts for fermentation, no sulfur added. The wine is not disgorged, which means that the lees are in the bottle still. Since the bottle is clear, you’ll see them. The tasting team found fruit and nuttiness, giving it two-thumbs’ up all around. We found everything from cream and caramel to a nuttiness and saltiness.
Raventos I Blanc, Blanc de Blancs, Conca del Rui Anoia $21.99 biodynamic
A blend of Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parallada, all estate grapes, farmed biodynamically, and aged at least eighteen months. The estate from which these grapes come is the original Cava house in the Penedes, yet you don’t see Cava on the label. They, and a select group of others—including Recaredo and Gramona, have given up the D.O. in favor of a more rigorous set of requirements—only Penedes estates, all estate fruit, organic, longer aging. It shows. This wine is laced with minerality and tiny, soft bubbles that refresh rather than bombard.