The Pour: 20 Wines Under $20: A Little More Money for a Lot More Wine

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For quite a few years I have argued that the greatest values in wine are found around $15 to $20 a bottle. For just as long, I have heard the persistent objection that $15 to $20 is too much to spend for a bottle of wine, and the suggestion that I instead focus on wines that are $8 to $10.

Inevitably, somebody always chimes in that the canny French, who are born knowing about wine, never spend more than 5 euros a bottle.

I’m not one to advise anybody on how they should construct a budget. 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.

What do you get? In this latest round of 20 Under $20, I picked up a beautiful sparkling wine from the Savoie region of France, a gorgeous Barbera d’Alba, an exceptional sémillon from the Margaret River in Western Australia, five excellent American bottles, a lovely fino sherry and three very different rieslings, each superb.

Many of the people who object to my suggested price range have found cheaper wines that they like. These are generally bottles produced in the millions, like La Vieille Ferme, a straightforward, unpretentious blend available in red, white or rosé from the southern Rhône Valley that costs less than $8 a bottle and can be found just about anywhere.

Don’t get me wrong, La Vieille Ferme and wines like it are fine. You cannot do much better for the price, and you can do a lot worse. But these are not transporting wines. You are not likely to wonder where they come from, where those flavors have been all your life or what sort of people made that wine.

As for those French people, forgive me for dispelling the myth that the French are all in on some colossal joke about the money other people spend on wine. Visit any French supermarket and you will find a universe of wretched bottles for around 5 euros each, and plenty of French consumers who are happy to buy them.

The fact is that most French people, like most Americans, do not want to spend much on wine and are happy with what they drink, even if critics do not think much of these bottles. But a smaller group of consumers wants something more, and these avid wine lovers are willing to spend a little extra.

These 20 bottles, from eight countries on four continents, are for them. And they are for everybody else, too. If $20 seems too much, consider it an occasional splurge. You may conclude that these wines still are not worth the money, or you may find them exciting enough to begin restructuring the budget.

Nothing in principle is wrong with large-scale wine production. Some of the greatest wines of all are made in quantity. Château Lafite-Rothschild, the legendary Pauillac, produces about a half-million bottles a year, while Dom Pérignon, the great Champagne, is said to make a couple of million bottles a year. Even at that scale, they are works of great craftsmanship.

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.

For those who are frustrated that they cannot find all these wines, there are good reasons that may be true. I can’t change that. But I can make the following suggestions (which I hope will be helpful) for finding a wine of value:

  • Find the best wine shop near you, even if it is not the most convenient.

  • View these 20 bottles not as a hard-and-fast list but as an outline of types to seek out. If your merchant does not have one, maybe she can suggest an analogous bottle. Dozens of them are out there.

  • Use internet tools like wine-searcher.com to help you find bottles.

  • Don’t be bound by vintages.

  • Do not underestimate vicarious pleasure. There is great value to knowing these bottles are out there, even if not immediately available. Think of it as if you are bookmarking a particularly intriguing recipe or a review of a restaurant in another city. You may not be able to cook the dish right away, or get to that restaurant this week. But you may find an opportunity in a few months or next year, and if you see that bottle on the list, you have most likely found yourself a deal.

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Oddero Barbera d’Alba 2014 $16.96

This is a beautiful Barbera d’Alba from an excellent Barolo producer, full of the grape’s typical bright fruit flavors and lively acidity. It is bracing, delicious and unblemished by oak flavors. Though it’s verging on five years old, it’s absolutely fresh. The 2015s are also on the shelves, and I’ll warrant they are just as good. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, N.Y.)

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Happs Margaret River Sémillon 2014 $16.96

Sémillon is one of Australia’s unsung heroes. Those already in on its distinctiveness prize the long-aging expression from the Hunter Valley, but this one comes from Margaret River, all the way on Australia’s West Coast. Sémillon is what often gives texture and body to white Bordeaux. This one from Happs, already more than four years old, is not an extravagantly scented wine, but subtle, nutlike, silky, herbal and richly mineral, and a pleasure to roll around in the mouth. (Little Peacock, New York)

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Lambert de Seyssel Petit Royal Seyssel Methode Traditionelle NV $19.99

Seyssel, deep in the Savoie region in eastern France, is barely known beyond its borders. That’s also true of the grapes, molette and altesse, that go into this lightly floral sparkling wine. It is made much as Champagne is, undergoing a second fermentation in the bottle, and is aged for two years before release. The result is delightful and refreshing. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif.)

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Raúl Pérez Bierzo Ultreia Saint Jacques Mencía 2016 $19.99

The mencías from Bierzo tend to be richer than those of Ribeira Sacra, and this, from one of Spain’s finest winemakers, is no exception. It’s complex and energetic, with intense, lingering flavors of spicy fruit. Serve with lamb chops or beef. (Skurnik Wines, New York)

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Fernando de Castilla Fino Classic Dry $19.99

Good fino sherry is a wine for all seasons. It’s always refreshing, yet its penetrating flavors sometimes have a density that can warm the soul on a cold night. This is one of those, from a great small producer. Its unvarnished almond flavors seem to go on and on. A remarkable value. (David Bowler Wine, New York)

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Keller Rheinhessen Riesling Trocken 2017 $19.99

German riesling is among the world’s most thrilling wines, and because only a small but steady fraction of the wine-buying public realizes this, great values abound, particularly among dry cuvées. Klaus-Peter Keller is one of the leading producers who have helped to revive the Rheinhessen region. This entry-level wine offers gentle fruit and floral flavors galvanized by rippling acidity. Delicious. (Petit Pois/Sussex Wines, Moorestown, N.J.)

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Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Pfalz Wachenheimer Dry Riesling 2016 $19.99

By contrast to the Keller, the Bürklin-Wolf, from a long-established producer in the Pfalz, is leaner and more linear, with a savory, salty edge and pulsing with almost electric minerality. Old, single-vineyard Bürklin-Wolfs are among the best dry German rieslings I’ve ever had. This is a good introduction to the style. (Verity Wine Partners, New York)

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Empire Estate Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2017 $17.99

You can never have enough riesling. At least, that’s what I believe. It’s especially interesting to compare the German rieslings with this one, from the Finger Lakes of New York. It’s a little softer, less mineral and more floral, with citrus and peach flavors, but still with a spine of the acidity for which riesling is famous. The Finger Lakes is now arguably the best American region for riesling, and this is a delicious example.

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La Palazzetta di Flavio Fanti Rosso di Montalcino 2016 $19.96

This is a big, powerful, generous wine with flavors of bright cherry that seem to overflow the glass. The fruit is tempered by plenty of the sangiovese grape’s characteristic acidity, a slight but welcome bitterness and dusty, focusing tannins. A fine winter red for cold nights and warm stews. (T. Edward Wines, New York)

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Sidónio de Sousa Bairrada Reserva Tinto 2015 $18.99

Wines from the Bairrada region, particularly the reds made with the baga grape, are among Portugal’s most exciting bottles and best values. While baga can be made in a light and fruity style that I would gladly guzzle in the summer, this bottle from Sidónio de Sousa, an excellent family producer who ages the wine for about 18 months in 100-year-old oak barrels, is sturdier and more tannic. Open this with a juicy roast or a plate of sausages. (NLC Wines, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

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Domaine Bru-Baché Jurançon Sec 2015 $19.99

I love the white wines of the far southwest of France regions like Irouléguy and Jurançon, the source of this wine. It’s made purely of biodynamically farmed gros manseng, which, with its sibling petit manseng, is vastly underappreciated. This wine is bone dry, with flavors that remind me of spiced apricots, if you can imagine such a thing. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant)

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Bonny Doon Vineyard Clos de Gilroy Monterey County Grenache 2017 $16.96

The focus of Bonny Doon is increasingly on the wines from its Popelouchum Vineyard, which have been fascinating. But it continues to offer greatest hits, made from purchased grapes, like the perennially winning Clos de Gilroy, a Monterey grenache made with a blessedly light hand. With its flavors of red fruit and earth, this wine is thirst-quenching and goes down easy.

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Rogue Vine Itata Valley Grand Itata Blanco 2016 $19.96

Southern Chile gets far less attention than the famous regions of the center and north, but with stands of old vines and interesting terroirs, southern regions like the Itata Valley have great potential. This wine is 55 percent of moscatel, most likely a synonym for muscat of Alexandria, and 45 percent riesling. It’s exuberantly floral and exotically fruity, and bone-dry and earthy on the palate. Rogue is a partnership between Leonardo Erazo, the winemaker at the excellent Altos Las Hormigas in Mendoza, Argentina, and Justin Decker, a wine enthusiast from Indiana who moved to Chile. (Brazos Wine Imports, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

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Broadside Paso Robles Margarita Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 $19.96

The Broadside Margarita is an old favorite, a great value year in and year out. This is cabernet sauvignon that tastes like cabernet used to taste, darkly fruity but with discernible herbal aromas and flavors that are essential to the complete cabernet experience. The 2016 is perhaps a bit riper than other vintages, with maybe a touch of oak, but it’s balanced and lovely.

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Guillaume Clusel Coteaux du Lyonnais Traboules 2017 $18.99

The hills outside Lyon, just north of the Rhône Valley, are home to a light, juicy red made from the gamay grape. This excellent example from Guillaume Clusel of the fine Côte-Rôtie producer Clusel-Roch, is aromatic and pure, simple, direct and just plain delicious. (A Daniel Johnnes Wine/Grand Cru Selections, New York)

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Domaine Filliatreau Saumur Champigny 2016 $19.96

The reds of the Loire Valley are almost always great values, particularly those from Saumur Champigny, a region that was once taken lightly but has shown great improvement in the last few decades. This is 100 percent cabernet franc, grown on limestone and clay. It’s on the easy end of the scale, with just a touch of a tannic spine, dry on the palate with flavors of earthy red fruits and flowers. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)

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Grifalco Aglianico del Vulture Gricos 2016 $19.96

Aglianico, the great red grape of southern Italy, thrives most famously in the volcanic soils of Campania, but it’s just as good and sometimes even better when grown in the soils of the extinct Vulture volcano in Basilicata. This bottle from Grifalco, made with organic grapes, is rich, floral and deeply mineral. (SoilAir Selection, New York)

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Château Massereau Bordeaux Supérieur 2016 $19.99

The Bordeaux Supérieur appellation, counterintuitively, is not always superior, but this one is superb. It’s naturally made, old-school Bordeaux, 60 percent merlot and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon, with the rest split between cabernet franc and petit verdot. It’s sturdy rather than soft, with pronounced leafy, herbal flavors that give it a pure, savory, lip-smacking character. (Camille Rivière Selection/Fruit of the Vines, Long Island City, N.Y.)

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L’Umami Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2017 $19.99

I’m always a little suspicious when companies try to capitalize on voguish terms like “Hang Time” or “L’Umami” by transforming them into brand names, but this is straight-ahead good Willamette Valley pinot noir: dry, earthy, floral and berry-scented. So forgive the marketing transgressions and just enjoy the wine.

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Foxglove Paso Robles Zinfandel 2015 $16.99

For a world that’s gotten used to jammy, ultraripe zinfandel, this is a refresher course reminding us that zinfandel made in a more restrained fashion can be fresh, exuberant and spicy. Foxglove is perennially a source of good values from the Central Coast of California. It’s the second label of Bob and Jim Varner, who make fine chardonnays and pinot noirs from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

More value wines
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20 Wines Under $20: Touring the World, Familiar to Obscure

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