How to find the world's best wine values in the $10-20 range

Hot Region: Central Otago, New Zealand

In Value Wine Region of the Month on March 26, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Did you know that the word’s been out on Central Otago wines of New Zealand for at least a few years?  I didn’t.

So when my wife and I made our honeymoon trip to New Zealand, we planned a day of wine tasting with hopes of discovering other varietals and lesser known regions.  And that put us on a guided tour in the Central Otago region on the South Island, which has only been producing commercial wines since the mid 1980s.

Central Otago region of New Zealand's South Island.

Frankly, my expectations were low, having only tried the sauvingon blancs from the North Island (not crazy ’bout ’em), and a few $50 pinot noirs that were out of my quality-to-price range.  But as soon as we made the first stop at Amisfield, I realized my perceptions of NZ wines were wrong.

And happily so.

Amisfield has a solid lineup of sparklers, pinot gris, riesling and pinot noir.  Everything I tasted was excellent, and prices were reasonable — comparable to Oregon and Sonoma Coast wines.  From Amisfield, we went to other best-of-class Central Otago wineries including Peregrine, Mt. Difficulty, Felton Road, and Ollsen’s.  At each stop, we found world-class wine operations, and most often, the winemakers were not far from the tasting counter and happy to chat it up.

Over the course of the day we found it was the pinot noirs that we loved most.  They are certainly New World wines, but they make it very clear on the nose and on the palate that they aren’t from California.

Watch Out World — Here Comes New Zealand Pinot Gris

The biggest surprise of the trip was pinot gris.  Because of the schist- and limestone-dominated soil that most pinot gris vines are growing in New Zealand, there is a resounding “rocks and gravel” minerality in these wines that I’ve only found consistently in the whites of Alsace, Loire, Chablis and Burgundy.

What’s just as exciting about NZ pinot gris is the pricing.  Sitting in the shadow of the blockbuster success of sauvingon blanc, there isn’t enough demand it seems to command boom-market bucks.  So you can find world-class pinot gris for $12-20.

Wine Picks to Get you Started on New Zealand and Central Otago

2006 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir ($20)

2006 Amisfield Ranch Pinot Noir ($32)

2007 Peregrine Pinot Gris ($24)

2008 Kalinda Pinot Gris, Marlborough ($12)

2007 Tarras Vineyards ($29 reg., $22 club)

NYC perfects the recession-era wine list

In Restaurant Reviews on March 10, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I was in New York last week.  You can definitely feel the recession’s pinch on Manhattan’s food scene. But as usual, restaurateurs are rising above the challenge. Their latest invention: the perfect recession-era wine list, featuring a wealth of carefully chosen value wines from around the world.

The key words here are carefully chosen.  It’s one thing to put a wine on the list to hit price points at or below $10/glass and $40 a bottle.  It’s another thing altogether to find really tasty wines in this range.

Enter Yerba Buena. This Lower East Side hotspot boasts a Zagat food score of 24, and features Spanish/Latin plays on suckling pig, black cod, and the like. Appetizers averaging $15 and entrees at $26. With this kind of menu, I expected the value wines would start at $40, and get interesting at $55 (best quality-to-price ratio).

Yerba Buena restaurant, Lower East Side, NYC

But I was wrong. Imagine my surprise when I noticed that 80% of Yerba’s wine list was under $50 — and that there were no less than 10 compelling choices between $25-40. We went with an albarino and a 6-year-old Rioja for $30 and $32 respectively, and both were outstanding for the price. They also brought me tastes of an Argentinian malbec ($9/glass) and a torrontes($7/glass) …once again, spot on.

My next stop was The Meatball Shop, my favorite bargain lunch stop I’ve found in a long while. Not only did I get 3 kinds of perfect meatballs served “slider style,” but I also noticed the wine list on the chalkboard.

I had too much work to do to taste all these wines at lunchtime, but I can at least vouch for the selection and pricing. Have a look yourself (see image) — many glasses of Italian table wine for $5-7/glass or $24/bottle. The few names I did recognize have very favorable quality-to-price ratios.

Finally, we visited the 8th Street Wine Bar in the West Village, one of Wine Spectator’s top New York wine bars of 2008. The wine list had 15+ wines under $40, mostly from Italy and France. My first reaction was wow…we’re not in 2006 anymore, when any value-priced bottle would have been priced $5 higher, and the 8th Street list would have been chock full of “Big Napa,” Burgundy, and Champagne for all those bankers who still had jobs at the mortgage-backed securities trading desks. Today, those wines are still on the list, but have noticeably less presence.

So what did we choose? A Rosso di Montalcino and a negromaro, both under $40, and both excellent…enough that we ordered a total of 6 bottles for our party.

Walking out of 8th Street Wine Cellar, I realized that, recession aside, there really hasn’t been a better time to find value wines in restaurants than right now. Especially if you’re into international wines, and especially if the wine director knows how to sniff out the best values on the market.

Residual Sugar Roulette

In HOW To Find Killer Wine Values, Uncategorized on January 27, 2010 at 12:00 pm

In the United States, the law states it’s optional for white wine producers to list the percentage of residual sugar on their wine labels.

Peregrine's snazzy tasting room -- where they smartly list residual sugar to give customers an idea of how sweet the wine will be. Source: Peregrine Winery, NZ.

Regardless of the law, I think it’s crazy for U.S. and international producers not to do this voluntarily.  By not doing so, they force unknowing customers into a game of “Residual Sugar Roulette,” which producers and marketers will certainly lose.  And the loss comes in the form of customers being surprised by what they find in the bottle — especially when it comes to varietals such as riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc and chenin blanc.

I realize that residual sugar is not the be-all-end-all measurement of how sweet a wine will taste on the palate.  There are other factors that determine the overall sensation of sweetness.  But we’ve got to start somewhere.  I can’t tell you how many times my readers tell me in a given year that they don’t like German riesling because it’s sweet, or pinot gris because it’s dry.  I rarely even bother trying to explain the varying categories of sweetness (Kabinett vs. Auslese, etc.) for a particular region.  And that the sugar levels can vary greatly per producer and vintage.  That’s just too confusing.

What I tell them instead is:  “It’s complicated and it depends.  The quickest path is to find a trusted wine retailer who knows the producers and has tasted the wine.  Only then will be able to quickly assess what the sugar level is.”

What  I would rather tell them is that there is always a measurement of residual sugar on the wine label right next to the percentage of alcohol by volume that will at least put that wine in the right ballpark.

When I was in New Zealand last year, I visited Peregrine, which listed the grams of residual sugar per volume on its list of white wines.  Within minutes, I watched a novice wine drinker in the tasting room next to me learn what the difference between 1, 4 and 7 grams, and what it meant to her.  She said:  “I’ve never been able to understand sugar in wine.  But now this makes total sense.  I don’t like any wines over 4 grams!”

Having witnessed this scenario with my own eyes, I realize that white wine producers and marketers need to make a change on disclosing residual sugar.  And while they’re at it, why not also list the varietals on the labels as well?  (Yes, I’m talking to you, Italy and France.)

I still dream of a day where wine buyers can pick up any bottle of wine – without expert assistance – and see enough information on the label to decide whether or not the wine is right for them.

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