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Dirt-Cheap Reds Can Surprise You PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Citara - BT Contributor   
January 2012


Red, white, and you: Agreeable wine for $12 or less

Vino_2I pulled my MasterCard from my wallet and it burst into tears. Then I went on my computer to find out the balance in my checking account and the hard drive crashed. So I went to the bank and asked the teller to check how much I had in savings. She laughed.

The holidays will do that to you. Or more specifically, to your finances. After Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and gifts and parties and dinners and traveling, I’m busted. Broke. Flat. Terminal. Deader than Mitt Romney’s personality.

And when the going gets tough, the tough turn to strong drink. At least, whatever strong drink we can afford. Which brings up the subject of this month’s Vino: good wine for the economically challenged and financially impaired.

I think that covers just about all of us.

So what we did about it was to go looking for inexpensive, food-friendly reds. We even knocked two bucks off our price limit, meaning all of this month’s wines retail for $10 or less, which is about as cheap as strong drink gets before sliding down the slippery slope of rubbing alcohol, formaldehyde, Drano, and beer.

What’s really encouraging about our selections isn’t just their penny-pinching affordability, but their quality. In fact, four of our seven wines -- two from California, one from Chile, and one from Argentina -- are wines I’d happily buy a case of and drink throughout the year.

For example, the surprisingly elegant, full-flavored 2009 Nieto Senetiner Reserva Malbec, a wine that drinks a lot better than its $10 price tag. It starts off with a complex blast of aromas -- black and blue fruit, toast, cloves, mint, leather -- cradled on the palate by soft tannins and a tangy cherry acidity. If you’re looking for a wine to go with your grilled vacio with chimichurri, this is it.

Just as Malbec is the iconic grape of Argentina, Carmenère is the same in Chile. At a saintly $8, the 2010 Anakena from Chile’s Rapel Valley is even cheaper than its Argentine counterpart, but it doesn’t pinch pennies in terms of flavor. It, too, is an aromatic wine, giving off whiffs of blueberries, blackberries, and cassis, with the grape’s characteristic earthy-dusky qualities. Relatively low alcohol (13 percent) helps keep its dark, ripe fruit in check; pour it at your next barbecue or with a hearty tomato-sauced pasta.

Inexpensive California wines can be very hit and miss, but reds from Castle Rock and Gnarly Head were smack on. Castle Rock’s 2009 Central Coast Pinot Noir delivers an astonishing taste of true Pinot character for a quite reasonable price. In the nose it’s all raspberries, strawberries, and cherries, with a pronounced whiff of tea. On the palate it adds a touch of spice and approachable tannins and acidity.

I approached the 2010 Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel with more than a little caution. Even pricey, old-vine Zins can be bloated, overwrought fruit bombs with enough alcohol to spontaneously combust. But this low-cost endeavor showed off the balance and drinkability so many of its competitors lack. True, there’s not much subtlety to its intense blackberry-plum fruit and thick, almost viscous texture. But if you taste really hard, you’ll get notes of cloves and white pepper giving nuance to all that luscious, ripe fruit.

Of course, there always is one outlier, and this time it’s the Hoya de Cadenas 2007 Reserve Tempranillo. Age has not been kind to this puppy, whose fruit has withered into an aggressively tart, puckery palate, leaving behind unpleasant flavors of oak, earth, tobacco, and leather. You might smoke it or wear it, but you don’t want to drink it.

Thankfully, that was the only stinker. A pair of reds on the leaner, lighter side were the La Tancia 2009 Chianti and 2010 Cave de Rasteau Ortas Cote du Rhone. The La Tancia tasted younger than its years, with candyish red cherry and raspberry fruit, hints of black pepper and mint, and the elusive smoky quality of Chiantis. The Ortas opens with a shot of candy apple-plum-red cherry fruit, but then a bracing acidity bearing faint traces of pepper and cloves kicks in. Stiff acidity and a long, tangy finish will cut through the richness of fatty meats and lusty sauces.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear my MasterCard crying.


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