The 20 Wines Under $20 You Should Be Drinking This Summer

Jon Bonné goes shopping for the bottles that over-deliver for under $20

What makes a great affordable wine? I tried to answer this question seven years ago, in the form of a tidy piece of service journalism. I put on my civilian wine-drinker drag, went shopping and highlighted my finds: 20 great wines, each for $20 or less.

The “20/20,” as I dubbed it, hit a chord because it went at an important question: What to do if you just want to drink well without being patronized or going bankrupt? But it also scratched at a deeper issue: the difference between bargain and value. “Bargain” is perhaps the worst of wine words. It holds all the wrong connotations, in that “bargain wine” is code for something made with the lowest common denominators: cheap, cynical, industrially produced.

“Value” indicates something different. It’s an x-ray of a wine’s innate worth. The quality of being cheap isn’t what matters, so much as a wine over-delivering on pleasure-per-dollar. It’s an essential idea. So, with summer upon us and much drinking to do, what better time to revisit it? Please welcome the inaugural PUNCH edition of 20/20.

As I headed out to shop, I had a few thoughts on the state of value today. First, $25 feels like the new $20, which is to say that it has become harder to find the same quality under $20. To be precise, $23 is actually the new $20: $20 in 2011 dollars is the equivalent of $22.67 today. That pushed a fair number of my old $20 warhorses out of reach, even though wine pricing has always been guided more by market pressures than inflation. (Hence why UK supermarkets keep selling ever shittier wine for £4.99.) This time, I found entire categories—like really good riesling, or pinot noir—that were hard to locate under our arbitrary bar.

Next: While natural wine is the thing of the moment, there aren’t so many under $20, at least under the 2018 definition of “natural.” A handful are here, including Julie Benau’s superb picpoul and a red from Domaine Mélaric. But I suspect there’s a naturalist premium right now, which is to say: natural wine may be populist but it’s not necessarily priced that way. Also, I surmise some wines I would have deemed “natural” in the early 2010s, like Guímaro’s Ribeira Sacra, wouldn’t meet today’s criteria, drawn up by tastemakers more fickle than me.

Finally, I was surprised at how hard it is to find white wine to fit. Firstly, because this is putative white wine season, and secondly, because whites were traditionally cheaper for a variety of reasons. Fair enough: I was also limiting myself in trying not to retrace too many past choices (I’ve run through nearly every affordable Muscadet, for instance). But I do wonder if the growing appreciation for white wine hasn’t tweaked its prices upwards.

In any case, the secret among this latest 20/20 crop is that there’s no secret to making these wines. Find decent fruit. Make wine from it relatively simply. Don’t overshoot your goals.

Fizzy and/or Pink

Castellroig Cava Brut Rosat

Cava remains my pick for cheap, decent bubbles, mostly because the region sticks to Champagne-like winemaking, even for its basic wines. Castellroig, from the Penedès town of Subirats, always over-delivers. This mix of two red grapes, trepat and garnacha, which is fermented with indigenous yeast and rests on its lees for 15 months, is rare for cava. That unusual use of all reds makes it big and gutsy, with Fuji apple flavors and a chewy, strawberry fruit-leather side. Less subtle, maybe, but summer isn’t perforce about subtlety.

  • Price: $17
  • From: Regal Wine Imports

Miotto Prosecco Col Fondo "ProFondo"

No secret that we’re fans of col fondo prosecco at PUNCH. This method, in which the wine gets a second fermentation in bottle the same way that Champagne does, is the one thing to elevate prosecco from the oceans of bad in which it so often swims. Col fondo is, however, a more spendy way to make a wine synonymous with bottomless mimosas. So while the Miotto isn’t the most profound example ever, it hits the basics super well: bright, lemony and refined, with that subtle prosecco sweetness, and the cloudy, creamy aspect that defines col fondo.

  • Price: $14
  • From: Summit Selections

Vigneto Saetti Lambrusco Dell'Emilia "Rosso Viola"

The sparkling (typically) red called lambrusco remains one of Italy’s great underrated pleasures. But the few made “naturally”—i.e., without added sulfur dioxide—can be, shall we say, challenging. Luciano Saetti is generally the most successful with this approach. This latest vintage is chewy, almost bark-like—Saetti is always this way—with ripe plum fruit and a sense of cool clay minerality (like, wet clay). Its textured label, wine’s equivalent of a velvet Elvis painting, is still very much present.

  • Price: $19
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Louis/Dressner Selections

Bellwether Dry Rosé Finger Lakes

This upstate New York winery is best known for its single-vineyard rieslings, but winemaker Kris Matthewson also produces a small amount of pinot noir in pink form. This showcases what pinot rosé does best: provide a subtlety and fragrance worthy of the grape, while still delivering zingy, tart pomegranate and apricot fruit. It’s about as cerebral a rosé as anyone wants in summer.

  • Price: $17
  • Vintage: 2017

Rekalde Getariako Txakolina Rosé "RK"

Txakoli, the lightly spritzy wine grown along Spain’s Basque coast, has long been one of summer’s great pleasures—especially in pink form, and doubly so when drunk from a porrón. But after several brushes with fame, txakoli has become a slightly spendier wine, save for the occasional back-vintage bottle lurking on shelves. This relatively new entrant feels a bit more rough-hewn than some, and I mean that in the good way. It’s full of crushed raspberry and an ancho-like herbal side from the red grape hondarrabi beltza. 

  • Price: $15
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Summit Selections

White

Ovum Big Salt White

Ovum, founded by John House and Ksenija Kostic, has become one of the top names in Oregon’s beyond-pinot era, specifically for their work with riesling. Big Salt is a twist on that—built around gewürztraminer and riesling, plus muscat and other things. It’s essentially their take on the Alsatian blend known as edelzwicker. And they nailed it: It’s plush and floral, just a tiny bit sweet and defined by orange blossom, cardamom and, yes, sea salt. This is exactly the sort of white winemaking the West Coast could use more of.

  • Price: $19
  • Vintage: 2017

Neumeister Vulkanland Steiermark Gemischter Satz

Grüner veltliner from Austria remains a mainstay of under-$20 drinkability (even if grüner’s fate has evolved beyond liter bottles), but Austria has an awful lot more to offer in the white-wine realm. This brings together two lesser-known things: the tradition of white field blends known as gemischter satz, usually found around Vienna but also the imposing-sounding Vulkanland Steiermark, or volcanic Styria, in the very southeastern corner of Austria. The soils—volcanic, obvi—bring a spice to whites, including this mix of riesling, müller-thurgau, pinot blanc and more. There’s blanched almond and wheatgrass and a fullness to the texture, like pinot grigio that cares.

  • Price: $17
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Monika Caha Selections/Frederick Wildman & Sons

Casale Marchese Frascati Superiore

I drink a lot of this wine when I find it, because Frascati, the classic wine of the Roman trattoria, deserves a better fate than the dustbin of Italian wine history it’s been swept into; and because good Frascati ticks all the white-wine boxes: It’s fresh without being shrill, full-textured without being boring. The Marchese often has a lemon-oil side to it that feels right for grilled fish, and it delivers with remarkable consistency.

  • Price: $12
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Polaner Selections

Julie Benau Picpoul de Pinet

Benau is one of the few bright lights working with picpoul, a Languedoc variety grown near the large inland Thau Lagoon. The grape was mostly prized for its acidity and abundance, but Benau wants to do more with her family’s property. While she makes an unsulfured version, the “classic” (look for the oyster on the label, a nod to the usual local pairing) is more consistent and often more interesting, thanks to extended lees aging. Yes, there’s pointed acidity, but it’s more about saltiness, with ripe orchard fruit flavors and a pleasing astringency reminiscent of green tea.

  • Price: $16
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: WineMC2

Point Ormond Frankland River Sauvignon Blanc

I acknowledge that a set of people exist who seek nothing more than a good sauvignon blanc. I also acknowledge that recommending one—along with recommending any inexpensive Australian wine—comes with a lot of baggage. But the negociant-like Point Ormond outfit finesses it all, with this bottle from far southwest Australia. It’s more kaffir lime than the usual grassiness, and the pale color doesn’t quite give away how much energy and tang there is. A sign of hope for legit Oz drinkability.

  • Price: $15
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Little Peacock Imports

Red

Patrice Colin Coteaux du Vendômois Red "Pierre François"

The town of Vendôme barely qualifies as being in the Loire Valley, as it’s a third of the way back to Paris. But its slopes are one of the few spots where you’ll find the extraordinary, if contentious, red pineau d’aunis grape. Colin, who farms organically, remains a benchmark producer, and this blend of aunis, pinot noir and cabernet franc perfectly encapsulates the charm of Vendômois wine. It’s full of bright plum and currant fruit, a charcoal duskiness and a less aggro expression of aunis’ aromatic qualities, which might be described, favorably, as “cocaine-like.”

  • Price: $16
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: VOS Selections

Castello di Farnetella Chianti Colli Senesi

Chianti, can you ever be redeemed?  There are a lot of reasons why Chianti is primordially uncool today, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be enjoyed. And while the Colli Senesi, in the hills around Siena, is the most Lebowski-esque (read: ambition-free) of Chianti’s subzones, it too has its pleasures. Like this property, owned by the important house Felsina. Its straightforward bottling is chewy, tobacco-edged, with bright cherry fruit and that essential dustiness—exactly the sort of clean, no-makeup Chianti that could mount a revival.

  • Price: $15
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Polaner Selections

Combel-La-Serre Cahors "Le Pur Fruit du Causse"

I’ve been kinda harsh to Cahors in the past—not undeservedly so, since this area of southwest France, the ancestral home of malbec, has found every way possible to shoot itself in the foot. Thank goodness for people like Julien Ilbert, who understand that the region’s best chance is to reclaim its proper roots with malbec (which he even makes in a carbonic, Beaujolais-like version). This is his unadorned, basic Cahors, and as the name implies, it’s all about the fruit—that rugged, violet-edged plumminess well-grown malbec can offer.

  • Price: $15
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Louis/Dressner Selections

De Forville Barbera d'Alba

At a moment when there’s plenty of cash-money to be made in Piedmont, the Barbaresco house of De Forville takes the noble step of being serious about its lesser wines—and not charging a lot for them. Their basic nebbiolo d’Alba remains a screaming value, but their barbera, in particular, avoids the tendency to fancify this grape. It’s not a small wine (14 percent alcohol) but it’s shimmering with energy—all ripe black fruit, a toasted poppy-seed spice and that unmistakable barbera acidity.

  • Price: $17
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Rosenthal Wine Merchant

Mélaric Vin de France "Le Tandem"

Mélanie and Aymeric Hilaire established their young property in the outer ring of the Saumur, near the new appellation of Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame. This is where the dark volcanic soils of the Loire begin their shift to bright limestone, and the Mélaric wines stylistically sit in Saumur-ness and the Anjou wines to the west. It makes the best of its mix of relaxed grolleau fruit and tensile, spicy cabernet franc. Carafe it for a bit to let the layers reveal themselves.

  • Price: $18
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: MFW Wine Co.

Bernabeleva Vinos de Madrid "Camino de Navaherreros"

Bernabeleva was the winery that drew many of us to Vinos de Madrid, the region near the Gredos mountains west of the Spanish capital. Wines from this area have become eminently fashionable this year, so it’s a pleasure to still find this bottle on shelves. Navaherreros offers that perfect combo of pure grenache grown on high-altitude granitic sand, and it’s as good as ever: one moment it’s luscious and strawberry-filled, the next it’s all hot-stone minerality and burnt rosemary aromas, but it never loses its innate brightness. 

  • Price: $16
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Rare Wine Co.

Domaine de Crève Coeur Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret

The southern Rhône isn’t exactly the most, shall we say, dynamic wine region these days. But Séguret used to be where you’d look as nearby appellations like Gigondas crossed the $30 mark. And it was a pleasure last year to discover the work of Pablo Hocht, who reclaimed his family’s small plots and farms them biodynamically. This mix of grenache, mourvèdre and syrah is hearty, for sure, but a kick of salt and wild herbs and a lot of suede-like tannin recall the days when wines from this slice of France weren’t trying so hard to be liked.

  • Price: $18
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Fruit of the Vines

Château Chatelier Bordeaux Supérieur

If Bordeaux weren’t so patently uncool right now, it would be just the spot for awesome value. So, as Lester Bangs might say, embrace your uncool. This hails from a fun and unexpected spot: in one of the bends of the Dordogne river south of Libourne, a few miles due west of Saint-Émilion. That’s merlot country, and so another uncool mark: it’s all merlot. But it’s also delicious, with the tobacco leafiness and peppercorn spice, plus a lot of ripe, tangy red fruit.

  • Price: $12
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Polaner Selections

Ground Effect Santa Barbara County Cabernet Sauvignon

Originally a project of winemaker Nick De Luca, focused on subtle blends, Ground Effect has evolved a bit. Its most recent winemaker, Ryan Roark, one of the Central Coast’s less-is-more proponents, pulled off a feat: an honest $20 California cabernet that doesn’t taste like a science project. There’s no New Cali modesty on the alcohol here (a hearty 14.5 percent) but it manages to keep vibrancy and a smoky nuance to the roasted cherry fruit—plus aromatics of sage and coffee. If the Fourth of July means cabernet to you (it does to me), then here’s a fine candidate.

  • Price: $20
  • Vintage: 2016

Château Peybonhomme Les Tours Blaye-Côtes de Bordeaux

Yes, we’re doubling down on Bordeaux—although the Hubert family, in the more obscure Right Bank corner of Blaye, seems not totally comfortable with the usual Bordelais things. (Their “Energies” bottle isn’t just aged in amphorae; it’s in a Burgundy bottle. Horreur!) They’re among the region’s biodynamic pioneers, and this mainline wine, mostly of merlot (again, we know, uncool) is a conversion tool for philosophical Bordeaux haters. Branchy and hard-edged, with a slight vegetal undertone and a chalky white mineral aspect. It’s for those who like their Bordeaux a bit raw. Decant it.

  • Price: $15
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Summit Selections

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