Does reasonably priced wine of real quality actually exist?
A recent article on CNBC quotes a “sommelier who’s tasted over 15,000 wines,” saying that “if you want quality, don’t spend less than $30”.
And while the article gives some decent tips on picking quality bottles of wine, the quote alone sadly feeds into the preconceived notion of the inaccessibility of quality wine.
And I f*king resent that.
If “quality” is $30+ per bottle, does that mean an elevated sensory experience is $60+? Does this imply that world-class is $100+? Is wine only for the absurdly wealthy, with their tophats and fancy monocles strutting on Broadway?
Ok, maybe I am being a little too cynical. There is no denying that wine is generally pricier than- say- Coors Light. But with just a little know-how and a few suggestions of where to start, you can find some gems that won’t break the bank.
On this list are ten wines (with 20 more coming soon) under that arbitrary $30 threshold that are fantastic wines and incredible values.
Some [obvious] disclaimers:
- The wines presented are the ones I found most exciting and with incredible QPR (quality-to-price ratio). The selections are based on my palate. If you get one of these wines and don’t like it, at least you didn’t spend over $30.
- The wines are not, in any way, ranked.
- Prices are all based on the WineSearcher average, meaning these wines may be more affordable/more expensive depending on your market.
- I also chose not to focus on vintage. To see vintages by region, check out the WineAdvocate chart.
St Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut
Price: $16 [WineSearcher]
Region: Limoux, Southern France
At its best, Champagne can be truly incredible. But if you like bubbles for more than special occasions, I recommend this sparkler from the Southern French region of Limoux, from a producer making “Methode Champenoise” before the Champenois. That’s right, the Abbey of St. Hillaire predates Champagne by 137 years. The first Blanquette was created in 1531 (though I must mention that technically these wines were closer to Pet-Nat than to what we know as Champagne today) in the Abbey, while in Champagne, Dom Perignon uncovered the bubbles in 1668 [allegedly]. So what does that all mean to you? For a decent bottle of Dom P ($300 on WineSearcher), you can buy 20 bottles of St.Hillaire Brut, enough for the whole party, and still have a delicious, serious wine. This is where quality meets affordability, bon-vivants meet wine enthusiasts, and it is the true definition of “ballin’ on a budget.”
It is made mainly from the local Mauzac grape, with just a bit of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay blended in, using the Champagne Method, with the secondary fermentation in individual bottles and 12+ months aging on lees.
El Cep Gelida Gran Reserva Brut Cava
Price $20 [WineSearcher]
Region: Penedes, Spain
What if you are looking for a bit more richness in your sparkling wine? Sure, St. Hilaire is precise and clean, but what if you want more leesy flavors, some more bottle age? For $7 more, you can have this absolute beauty of a sparkling Cava. And, sure, Cava is one of those regions which sommeliers thumb their nose at, but it’s their loss. This beautiful sparkler spends 40+ months on the lees, the same as Champagne at 1/3rd the cost.
It is made with a blend of Xarel-lo, Macabeo (Viura), Parellada, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir from the winery’s estate vineyards—40+ months (sometimes 50+) of bottle aging on lees.
Portland Wine Co “Love & Squalor” Pinot Gris
Price: $20 [WineSearcher]
Region: Willamette Valley, Oregon
While perusing the “wine wall” at “The Matheson” restaurant in downtown Healdsburg, I discovered this producer. I just wanted a glass of white, preferably Burgundy, but the kind attendant lady guided me through a selection of local whites that excited her. I tasted the L&S Riesling and was instantly shocked. This wine was reminiscent of a great Austrian or German Riesling, yet grown in the US of A. The memory of this wine stayed with me while I perused the shelves at K&L in San Francisco and saw the same atypical label on a bottle of Pinot Gris. Yet another grape that often is looked down on, yet I felt confident with this buying this producer.
Yet, upon tasting this wine, it was a revelation. The flavors changed in the glass with time as the wine got warmer. At first, linear, minerally, and crunchy, with almost a champagne-like texture. Then, closer to room temperature, the wine became oily and rich, with more expressive orange peel notes. It was a great experience for just under $20.
I did not find a tech sheet. But based on the company’s website, fermentation is native, with yeast present in the winery. Fruit is the focus, and oak is neutral or avoided entirely. The wine also had a reminiscent toasty nature, which may imply some extended lees contact.
Domaine Kiralyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec
Price $25 [WineSearcher]
Region: Tokaji, Hungary
I have discussed this producer and wine in-depth in a previous “Wines of the Heart” blog, but I can’t list great affordable wines without mentioning Kiralyudvar. The Furmint grape, mainly known as the primary variety of Tokaji dessert wine, has excellent acid retention and shines in this wine. Fresh acid, great minerality, and citrus notes move into stone fruit notes. My favorite part about this wine is the texture. There is no oak presence, yet this wine feels weighty and precise simultaneously. I cannot recommend this wine enough.
Biodynamic vineyards. 500 L Hungarian oak barrels, nearly all old (no oak impact). Profound mouthfeel and bright acidity, but well balanced by texture. Will likely age well for 5-7 years.
Jean Paul Brun Terres Dorees L’Ancien Beaujolais
Price: $16 [WineSearcher]
Region: Beaujolais, France
For all the valiant sommeliers carrying the banner of Beaujolais, I still feel that this region gets a bad rep, which is unfortunate. Yes, it is true that the kirsch and banana fruity, easy-drinking wines that made the area famous in the US market still adorn the shelves of supermarkets. Beaujolais wines, however, are just as diverse and complex as those of their neighbors to the North (“main” Burgundy) and South (Northern Rhone), if not more so. There are serious, age-worthy powerhouses, elegant, light-bodied perfumed performers, and joyful, easy drinkers. L’Ancien straddles the border between incredibly serious and easily approachable wines, reminding the connoisseur that a wine can be both—no banana flavors here, just a joy to drink at a very reasonable price.
Gamay Grape, 100% destemmed. Fermentation occurs naturally. Wine ferments and ages in concrete.
Cantele Salice Salentino Negroamaro
Price: $15 [WineSearcher]
Region: Puglia, Italy
This wine was of the best deals we have carried while I worked at Bottle Barn. Negroamaro may translate roughly to “bitter black,” yet this wine has soft tannins and divine lift (thanks to the acid). As with several indigenous (native) varieties, comparisons are helpful. And while it is tough to take a unique variety like this, I would say it is reminiscent of a more earthy version of Merlot, with brighter acid and a solid black fruit backbone. It’s earthy, it is fruity, it is very complex, and it is a fraction of the cost of a Napa Merlot of Cabernet.
100% Negroamaro. Macerated on skins for ten days. Aged in 1 and 2-year-old oak for six months.
Toliani Al Passo Toscana
Region: Tuscany, Italy
Price: $23 [WineSearcher]
Sassacaia, Tiganello, Solaia, Masseto.
These are the hallowed estates producing “Super-Tuscans,” wines that have become synonymous with innovation and quality. Hugely appealing in the international market and made with international varieties, these wines command prices in the same region as the great Napa and Bordeaux estates.
But I’d highly recommend Al Passo for those who want to experience the fusion of the old world and the new at a more reasonable price. Grown in the Chianti Classico area, Toliani blends the Chianti grape of Sangiovese with the international favorites Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to produce a wine of incredible freshness, tannin structure, and softness.
Nearly equal part Sangiovese, Merlot,and Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. It is aged in French oak for 14 months, with six months on the lees.
Antonio Vallana e Figlio Spanna Colline Novaresi
Price:$21-24 For Current Vintages [WineSearcher] Price goes up for 2003 and older
Region: Alto-Piedmonte, Northern Italy
As we progress through Italy, from the Negroamaro grown in Puglia (the heel of the boot of Italy) to the central Chianti Classico area for the “Super-Tuscan” and now to the northern point of Italy, for a wine reminiscent of great Barbaresco grown in the Northern reaches of Piedmont.
The “Alto Piedmonte” area is unique, as it climbs to the more marginal latitudes where grapes may struggle to ripen. But Nebbiolo, called Spanna here, shines on steep hillside vineyards. You find a slightly more elegant style here, with still that good Nebbiolo-acid backbone and tannic grip, but in a way more approachable in its youth. Barbaresco lovers rejoice!
[Also, judging from the structure and WineSearcher pricing, this wine has incredible aging potential. So it may be worth it to buy a few bottles (or a case) and put some away to watch it evolve]
The wine is fermented in cement tanks and aged for two years in the same tanks.
Domaine des Huards Cheverny Envol
Price: $15 [WineSearcher]
Region: Loire Valley, France
Now for something entirely different, a Domaine in the Loire, which is making a 50-50 Pinot Noir Gamay Blend for ultimate enjoyment. The wine is fresh, vibrant, rich in red fruits, and low in tannins, and it is even better with a little bit of chill.
50/50 Pinot Gamay (with Cab Franc in some years), farmed biodynamically. Gentle pressing/tannin extraction and aging for a few months. No oak presence.
Bodegas Valdesil Valderroa Mencia
Price: $10 [WineSearcher]
Region: Galacia, Spain
This wine may be the ultimate bargain on this list, especially if you can get it for the average price of just $10 (in the US, it is more like $16). But sure, who has heard of Mencia or the Galacian region of Valdeorras? (maybe I should do an article about that) Should you try this wine, you’d swear that this wine should be at least 3x more expensive. It has fresh, perfectly ripe fruit, a smokiness, minerality, and earthiness that is very complex, with an excellent tannin/acid balance to be both serious and a perfect daily drinker.
100% Mencia grape from 30+-year-old hillside bush vines on slate soils. Practicing organic viticulture. Wild yeast fermentation, four days cold soak, and nine months aging in stainless steel.
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