It’s easy, and fashionable, these days to make the argument that cheap wine is no different than fine wine. I’ve spent the past decade punching away at that view, not because I like spending lots of money on wine, but because like a good suit or a great cut of fish, once you get to know wine, the contours of quality begin to come clear. You find the cracks in the price-quality curve. You exploit them, knowing full well the difference between good and bad.
The rise of a more thoughtful era of wine criticism, the fine-tuning of restaurant wine culture and the spread of great wine stores means that we’re increasingly watching the death of simplistic, paint-by-numbers wine recommendations. Today, everyday wines can be enjoyed with an unprecedented amount specificity and context. They come from real places and people—their narratives well documented. And parts of the world once considered backwaters capable of simple wine—Muscadet, Vinho Verde, Sherry—are no longer faceless bottles on the shelf.
This is all terrific. Except for one thing: It’s August. Even my overly analytic wine brain wants to shove its deep thoughts in a beach locker, spread out a towel and get a tan. I do 50 weeks a year of Piketty and Salter. Now give me some Girl on a Train.
Which led me to wonder what we’ve sacrificed in the rise of smart drinking. Has the obsession with place and detail made it harder to drink mindlessly? By trying to find a deeper meaning in even simple wines, have we denied ourselves the equivalent of a great beach read?
I’d never begrudge Chinon or Sicilian wine or Beaujolais their current level of connoisseurship and respect—god knows so many producers, writers, retailers and sommeliers have beat the proverbial drum to get people to give these wines their due—but I do feel like good deeds are being punished. Many of these wines have become more expensive as they’ve become fetishized, our possible retribution for getting what we always wanted.
And so, a conundrum. I want delicious wines always, and sometimes I want them without having to meditate on their deeper cultural meaning; I want the wine equivalent of a beach read that isn’t so bad that “page-turner” comes to mean something very different. I want wine that’s cheap ($15 cheap) and carefree without being soulless. Is it possible to find both things in one bottle? And can I have them without compromising my values?
That latter question is key, because carefree wine can be a minefield; it is the soiled little playground where Big Wine thrives. I willfully killed off bargain-wine columns during my past decade in newspapers on the principle that most cheap wines were cheap for a reason—either because they weren’t very good, or because they were made according to grim corporate blueprints. By definition, to me, those wines weren’t newsworthy.
As consolation, I launched a series of “20 for $20” recommendations. For the extra $5 up from the $15 cap that arbitrarily seems to define cheap wine (the average American now spends $10 per bottle, so that economic gap is closing), I reasoned—successfully—that you enjoyed a world of difference.
But had I avoided the tough work of locating great and honest wine at a truly affordable level? With the August doldrums pushing their agenda, it seemed the right time to revisit the sort of wines that had generally flown just below my radar (beyond rosé, which by definition makes itself a willing part of the summer slack). Could they be carefree and beach-ready and still give me a virtuous feeling in picking them off the shelf?
Here are my results, from an afternoon of shopping the New York streets.
My “Beach Read” Six-Pack:
NV La Guita Manzanilla Sherry | $10 (375 ml)
Sherry has gotten very serious of late, with good reason. But amid the Technicolor dazzle of the Equipo Navazos wines and barely-filtered en rama finos, have we abandoned sherry’s simpler charms?
There’s certainly cause to not to return to the bland, commercial style of sherry of the 1970s and ’80s: Harsh filtration and over-commercialization left Jerez’s industry one step short of life support. Yet there’s no denying that a good filtered fino (or manzanilla, if it’s from Sanlúcar de Barrameda) can be the perfect summer thing—chilled damn cold, cracked open with oysters or clams. The La Guita (this one bottled June 2014) is as classic as they get—full of snappy, salty freshness—and it’s relatively lightly filtered, so the flavor is still there. [Buy] Importer: Vinos Libres Wine Merchants
2013 Weingut Niklas Klassisch Südtiroler Kalterersee | $14
Oh, schiava—red grape of the porcelain-boned. It barely qualifies as red wine—its hue more ruby, the flavors as much toward apricot or wild berries as anything distinctly red. Hence, the perfect light red for summer; witness the current popularity of Andi Knauss’ Wurttemburg Trollinger (the name of schiava in Germany).
I’m still partial to Italian versions, though, including this one from Niklas in Italy’s northern Alto Adige area. I would want many bottles, in a cooler, for an afternoon of grilling. [Buy] Importer: Summit Selections
2014 Quinta da Lixa Aromas das Castas Vinho Verde Moncao e Melgaço | $13
Vinho verde has been on a push to be taken more seriously. The northern Portuguese area of Minho is a perfect place for white grapes, and examples of its alvarinho (aka albariño), like those from Soalheiro, can outshine most from across the border in Spain’s Rias Baixas region. Now we talk of vinho verde in terms of subregions and granitic soils.
In return, it’s now tough to find a bottle of according-to-Hoyle vinho verde, save for the racks of Aveleda and other large producers gathering dust on back shelves. And so, the hunt was on. Could I find a good bottle of vinho verde, with its spritz and citrus and noncommittal acidity?
Behold, this example, a mix of alvarinho and trajadura from a quality-minded producer in Vila da Lixa. It’s a good symbol of the New Europe: fresh and correct without being flashy or abandoning tradition. It’s not as substantial as, say, a bottle of Aphros, the up-and-comer, with its lees aging and weight, but it still has a bit more bolas than the under-$10 crew. [Buy] Importer: Wine-in-Motion LLC
2014 Hofer Weinland Grüner Veltliner | $15 (1L)
The liter-bottle revolution has cooled these days, if only because we’ve evolved the grüner conversation in other directions.
But the quality of these everyday bottles has been rising. The Hofer is an exceptional example of the form, with a savory complexity and persistence that far exceeds its price, but you could equally seek out examples from Etz or Hugl or many others. (The Hofer is organically grown, still a hard case for most cheap wines.) And we’re reaching a sort of intellectual peace with the liter. It no longer telegraphs cheapness, which might be why California winemaker Steve Matthiasson has done well with his Tendu, a loving appropriation of the Austrian crown-cap ideal. Same with the modish bottles of easy-drinking Loire gamay, sold in liters with screwcaps. [Buy] Importer: Terry Theise/Skurnik Wines
2013 M. Plouzeau Rive Gauche Chinon | $15
Few places in the world deserve a geeky economic bump more than Chinon. This is a place that has been turning out admirable red wines for centuries—most of them enjoyed in a bistro way but not given serious inquiry, probably because, as André Simon put it in 1967, they had “greater elegance than power.”
At the time that was meant pejoratively (and the wines hovered around 10 percent alcohol) but today elegance trumps power and Chinon is having a deserved moment. But have we undermined its bistro value? Sometimes, in the heat of August, I want cabernet franc with less stuffing. I want a bottle I can chill and drink from a tumbler. I want Chinon’s general pedigree— the scents of roasted pepper and violets, the bright fruit—without further thought.
Enter the Plouzeau, “Rive Gauche” presumably referring to Marc Plouzeau’s location on the left bank, not of the Loire River but of its Vienne tributary. Plouzeau makes more serious fare, but this is Chinon in a more innocent, charming form. [Buy] Importer: Weygandt-Metzler
2014 Domaine de la Pépière Classique Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie | $14
Marc Ollivier is a touchstone for New Wine Intellectuals; his Pépière estate, now run with Rémi Branger, was a crux of Muscadet’s transformation from plonk to serious wine (his Clos des Briords and Clisson bottlings are as ageworthy as Burgundy).
But his white-label Classique is perfect for when you’re drinking slightly farther down the trough. While this isn’t a great bottle of Classique, at least not right now, it still ponied up plenty of acidity and green-apple tang, and just enough richness from time on lees. So score one for nostalgia: Even a so-so bottle was a reminder of how much Pépière I’ve enjoyed in the past. I drained my glass, and remembered that, pursuant to the point of this exercise, deep thought is sometimes uncalled for. [Buy] Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections
MORE BY JON BONNÉ:
The Rise of Champagne’s Rebel South
A Serious Case for Sweet, Fizzy Wine
The Jura Wines Nobody’s Telling You About
Where Have All the Other Summer Wines Gone?
Champagne’s Next Revolution Is Now
So Long, Seahaven: Wine’s New Mainstream