More Hanes Navel Gazing

(Originally published August 2001)

Hanes may not be the most observant person around, but his empty bank account often reminds him that the wines he purchases are very expensive. No doubt, there is a bit of the "trophy hunter" in Hanes and he does seek to acquire and slurp some hard-to-find and/or boutique wines. That said, a hasty glance at his recent reviews reveals that Hanes has all but ceased to drink inexpensive wines. Hanes asks himself, "Why is this Hanes?" Hanes replies, "Hanes does not know but Hanes will explore this matter."

Outside of Hanes's lust to experience "transcendence in a glass," the problem more or less is the decreasing availability of the quality $10 bottle of wine (even with the strong dollar, Greenspan must be doing something wrong in taming inflation). Hanes will now investigate what you can expect to get for $10. And he means $10 or less, not $10.99 nor $11.99. Hopefully, this will benefit his readers who are unwilling to fork over ridiculous amounts of cash on wine as Hanes stupidly does each month. If not, perhaps it will pose an useful thought experiment and at least get some people off of Hanes's back for only recommending wines that cost like $50.

We'll begin with domestic wines. Want some good Californian wine for $10? Fuhgeddaboutit! The chances of finding something decent here is pretty slim. Not impossible mind you, but not all that likely either. The usual suspects such as Rabbit Ridge's "Barrel Cuvée" line and Ravenswood's "Vintner's Blend" line have all long ago crossed the magical $10 mark. Other decent quality inexpensive producers such as Bogle, Cartlidge & Browne, Cline, Gallo of Sonoma, Turning Leaf, Pepperwood Grove or Forest Glen have wavered around or exceeded this barrier. Of course, there are the rare exceptions to be found here and there, but for the most part California (and Oregon and Washington too) are suffering from too much across-the-board price inflation to maintain any kind of leadership position in the $10 and under category. And there seems to be few new entrants eager to fill this price niche.

Now, having cast doubt on the "home team," where do we look next? Let us venture to the Southern Hemisphere, full of sources for what many consider among the better cheap wines being produced today.

First, South America, specifically Chile and Argentina. As expected, even as prices here rise slowly upwards, there are no lack of candidates in the under $10 competition. Many of the bigger "names" such as Santa Rita are seeing their prices on the wrong side of $10. So, if the price is right, it behooves one to take a chance on some unknown names. The trouble here is that many of the red wines will strike some of us swillers as excessively "green" with too much herbaceousness and green bell pepper notes while the white wines are too often over-oaked in hopes of providing sufficient body and weight. On the whole, these are not wines of vast elegance but are eminently drinkable if your bar is not set too high (hey you, put that "El Gato Negro" down!). The best single category being made are Argentinean wines made from the Malbec grape (albeit Chile produces some good ones too). Chile and Argentina are definitely on the short list for decent <$10 wines, especially as quality and production increases and more varied wines are exported to the U.S. market.

Next we have the cases of Australia and New Zealand. The latter used to be great for sub-$10 Sauvignon Blanc wines but the majority of the bigger names (Villa Maria, Babich, et. al.) ain't $10 no more. Their red wines have almost always been on the pricey side. Prospects are dim that any "Kiwi" wines will make a major indent in the price category currently being scrutinized.

Australia presents a brighter scenario. The usual suspects such as Rosemount, Lindemans, and Penfolds still offer many sub-$10 wines. At times these seem to be made by recipe, but they still represent some of the better wines at the price point. There are plenty of alternative brands too, usually made from Shiraz, Cabernet-Shiraz blends, Chardonnay, Chardonnay-Sémillon blends, etc. There has been a huge increase in the amount of vineyards planted in Australia, which is a sword that cuts both ways. On the pro side, combined with the weak Australian dollar, this keeps prices low because there is plenty of competition scrambling for your wine purchasing dollar. On the con side, many of these vines are young and not producing fully mature and ripe fruit -- this means that the bold, fruit-driven Shiraz you expect may be turn out thinner than desired. If cheap Aussie wine is your cup of tea, these may be your salad days (Hanes, card carrying member of "Stale Clichés 'R' Us") as a major shakeout is probably on the horizon with many wineries certain to go under or get bought out. On the whole, if you want a friendly quaffer to bring to a party, these will please more often than disappoint.

We can now turn our gaze to Europe, home of diverse and historically proven wines. Each country has its expensive and inexpensive wines. As with all things viniferous, we begin with France.

If you stick to just a few select regions, France can do you very well for $10 or less. First, avoid most Bordeaux and Burgundy wines under $10. Don't question Hanes, just obey. However, the wines of Beaujolais have had a recent couple of successful vintages and if their light-hearted, flirtatiously fruity style suits you, you have Hanes's blessing in spending your coin on them. Sadly, many examples of Hanes's recently beloved types of red wine -- yes, the Côtes-du-Rhône! -- have crept up over $10. The best producers are now firmly in the teens or even above. Yet, there are plenty of viable candidates for under $10 and with the Rhône Valley in the midst of a run of three fantastic vintages (1998, 1999, 2000) there is little risk in purchasing a bottle regardless of familiarity with the producer. Any cheapskate alcoholic should be consuming these wines at a rapid pace. For other wine alternatives, Hanes suggests looking to the Languedoc-Roussillon region and other obscure parts of Southwestern France. Many of the wines to be had under $10 from these parts will have regional names you probably will not recognize (for example, Corbières, Vin du Pays de Gard, Madiran, Minervois), or grape names you've never heard of (Mondeuse, Altesse, Pinot Blanc, Tannat, Chasselas, etc.). But if you can get past all this, you may be in for a treat. And you'll definitely find wines that won't sell out before you want to buy more. See? Courage pays!

For more white wines, perhaps the best value region in the whole wide world is France's Loire Valley. The prices of most Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are way beyond $10 now, but there are many other alternatives. If Chenin Blanc is your bag, decent Vouvray can still be had for $10. If Sauvignon Blanc sets your heart aflutter, Hanes heartily recommends checking out some from the areas of Touraine or Menetou-Salon. But if light, playful wines full of flavor and elegant structure get you hot and bothered, youse just gotta check out some Muscadet. Hell, it's hard to find one *over* ten dollars and they are perfect for sipping alone or served with light meals. While they won't be for everyone, Hanes still feels you owe it to yourself to try three or four before reaching a conclusion.

Spain was at one time Hanes's #1 stop for value wines. Alas, no more. The cheapies from Rioja and Ribera del Duero are now few and far between. Luckily, many emerging regions exist and are attempting to build market share from the bottom rungs up. These wines are still mostly crafted from traditional varietals such as Tempranillo and Garnacha (although there's plenty of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon too), and chances are you'll need to hit lesser known regions for under $10 finds. Such regions include Jumilla, Somontano, Navarra or Toro. If you like light-bodied, delicate white wines, Spain can do you right at this price, especially the wines from Rueda, Penedès or, in the case of white wines, Rioja still. As with so many wine regions around the world, the incredible increase of vineyard plantings in the past five years or so should help to suppress prices a bit.

While the increase in quality of dry Portuguese red wines has been noticeable of late, Hanes has found that most of the decent ones are priced in the low teens. So, in general we pass here. Some Vinho Verde white wines can be found for under $10 but these are an acquired taste. Acquire some and taste them.

Germany's Rieslings may provide some drinking pleasure in the cheap seats. While many of the better "Kabinett" designated wines are above $10, there are still some under that threshold which should slake your thirst. More likely is that you'll end up buying the next qualitative rung down, the regular "QbA" wines. At this price point, these wines may be a bit sweet for some folks but the overall quality level should still be relatively high vis-à-vis other countries.

If you stray off the beaten path (away from Tuscany and Piedmont), Italy can deliver excellent value for your dead Hamilton. There is an abundance of diversity among the many winegrowing regions and with enough experimentation there is a high likelihood that you will find some vino to suit your taste. Umbria is arguably the emerging region with the highest quality. The reds are made from many grapes, but mostly Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Sagrantino and Cabernet Sauvignon. Whites include the ever-popular Orvieto Classico wines. Definitely watch for some of these Umbrian puppies. There's a lot of decent Valpolicella from Veneto out there, but it's mostly priced in the low teens. So, to stay under $10 one should consider focusing on Southern Italy. Many of these regions have long, warm growing seasons which produce ripe, juicy fruit. Campania on the whole is too expensive for the penny pinching buyer. The three best regions are as follows. The island of Sardinia makes some nice cheapies, especially white wines made from Vermentino. Sicily's best inexpensive claim to fame is the red Nero d'Avola grape which makes pungent, aggressive wines full of character. For whites, try some Inzolia (aka Insolia or Ansonica) -- very floral and fruit-driven. Apulia (aka Puglia) offers a lot of value too. The greatest emerging category of Apulian wines are red wines made from Primitivo, which has been shown to be genetically identical to Zinfandel. The whites are made from grapes such as Greco, Moscato or Malvasia and are pretty decent too.

So, the headlines for $10 and under wines are as follows. Don't expect much from California. Australia and Italy probably offer your best bets for consistency and variety. Close behind are certain parts of France and Spain. And Chile, Argentina and Germany can do as long as their particular offerings align with your palate. It's best to remember that inexpensive wines are humble and usually aim at providing pleasure, not an orgasm. Their ability to deliver pleasure is based a lot in keeping your expectations realistic (Hanes sounds like a dating counselor now). Hanes advocates that you take as many risks as possible because the best sub-$10 wines are usually where you least expect them to be. And there's just so much Merlot a person should drink anyway.