WINE DRINKERS HAVE A LOT THEY COULD WHINE about.
The dollar's a joke, so imported-wine prices are soaring. Domestic producers, always quick on the draw when they shoot themselves in the foot, are rushing to fill the inflation gap lest they be burdened with too large a market share.
Meanwhile, whole categories of wine that used to be foot soldiers in the Budget Brigade have been "promoted" to the Luxury Legions. So long, red zinfandel. Ciao, Dolcetto. Au revoir, Sancerre.
And to add excise to injury, the government is preparing to load new "sin" taxes on us wine-guzzling devils.
But take heart. There's no reason to start serving your dinner guests Kool-Aid instead of cabernet. There are still many fine wines available at reasonable prices. It just takes smarter shopping -- and more of a willingness to try new things -- than it once did.
Over the last several weeks, I have tasted my way through more than 130 wines priced under $10. (Alas, my definition of "budget" wine keeps edging up, but this line will be held for a long time.) The choices were based on recommendations from retailers, wholesalers and writers, meetings with producers, past performance and a few guesses.
In addition, more than 100 readers answered our call for their wine recommendations. Not all of the wines you suggested could be located, but most were, and the tips you called in to SunDial led to some of the best wines recommended here.
Besides the 130 or so wines tasted specifically for this article, I have drawn on my tasting notes for the last several months, bringing the number of budget wines tasted over that time to more than 200. The wines came from places as near as Baltimore County and as far away as Australia.
Surprisingly, the country that proved to be the greatest source of wine bargains is not some up-and-coming, low-wage Third World country. It was the same country that provides the world's most expensive wines: France. If there's any one thing these tastings showed, it is that once you get beyond the famous regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, there are a wealth of exceptional bargains in French wine.
While these tastings were exhaustive, they were by no means comprehensive. I was able to taste only a fraction of the budget wines available in the well-supplied Maryland market. In addition, older wines sell out and new wines arrive every week, so no newspaper or magazine article can replace the advice of a knowledgeable wine merchant.
Nevertheless, the tastings gave a good overview of what is available on the market and some ideas for strategies in shopping for fine wines:
*Explore the unfamiliar. Some of the best values in the world right now are being made from less popular grapes in off-the-beaten-track wine regions. In France, look for appellations such as Fitou, Minervois, Madiran, Touraine and Cotes du Ventoux. In the Eastern United States, some exceptional wines are being made from the seyval blanc grape. In Australia, the semillon grape often outperforms the ubiquitous chardonnay.
*Go against fashion. So German wines are out? That's the time to buy in. Red zinfandel was out. Now it's in and the prices are shooting past $10. But petite sirah's still out.
*Don't be a slave to vintage charts. Negative vintage reports depress prices for good wines as well as bad. Take advantage of that by cherry-picking the best wines of off-vintages.
*Grab the great ones. Sometimes a vintage comes along in a great wine region that opens up opportunities for the frugal buyer. Right now the best examples are the 1988 Cotes du Rhone reds, 1988 and 1989 German rieslings and 1988 Alsace pinot blanc.
*Watch the importers. A handful of first-class importers make it their business to scout out the best small producers in Europe. Some of them have just as good a nose for value as for quality. They include Robert Kacher, Alain Junguenet and Kermit Lynch for French wines, Marco de Grazia for Italian wines and Terry Thiese for German wines. Their names on a bottle are a solid indicator of high quality.
*Buy from the best. Go the extra mile to shop at a first-rate winstore, not just the corner liquor store. The good advice and the savings you get will more than make up for the extra gasoline. RTC Establish a good relationship with the owner or manager and you may get some unofficial discounts in addition to regular sales.
Most of all, when trying to find great wine values, it is importanto be flexible. If the particular type of wine you have enjoyed has now become too expensive, there almost certainly are wines made in a similar style under a different name. After all, it's the wine that counts, not the label.