As markets shift and currencies fluctuate, the best sources for fine wine at reasonable prices change. The challenge for the consumer is to remain flexible and informed.
You don't need to spend four hours a day studying wine magazines. Just remember what you like the most and ask a good retailer to come up with something close in style. You might find something you like even better.
These are some of the ways to go in the search for good value. Wines marked with an asterisk (*) represent especially good value for the quality. The prices are the shelf prices I found in Maryland.
Keep in mind that the markets are fluid, and wines that could not be considered "budget" purchases now might be inexpensive in a matter of weeks.
South of France: The best place in the world now for fine wine value. The important thing to look for is the name of the importer. Some reliable names: Kermit Lynch, Robert Kacher, Alain Junguenet.
Examples: 1989 Domaine de Fontsainte Corbieres*, $9.99; 1989 Abbaye de Valmagne, Coteaux du Languedoc, $8.99.
Cotes-du-Rhone: Many excellent wines carry the Cotes-du-Rhone appellation. Virtually every major Rhone producer makes a Cotes du Rhone, and some of them give these wines the same care they give their most prestigious Cote Roties and Chateauneuf-du-Papes. As well as the following, top names include: Guigal, La Vieille Ferme, Paul Jaboulet Parallel 45. A few wines from the more prestigious St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage areas sell for under $10.
Examples: 1988 Vidal-Fleury Cotes-du-Rhone*, $7.99; 1989 Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage "Les Petites Ruches"*, $9.19; Les Trois Chenes Cotes-du-Rhone $5.99.
The Bordeaux hinterlands: Once you get away from the Medoc, St. Emilion and Pomerol, there are many fine values, red and white, from the petits chateaux of Bordeaux. For these purposes I include adjoining Bergerac, which is not part of Bordeaux but uses the same grape varieties.
Examples: 1990 Chateau de Panisseau Bergerac blanc*, $8.99; 1989 Chateau Lesparre, Graves blanc $8.99; 1989 Chateau Saint-Martin, Bordeaux $5.99; 1989 Chateau Terre d'Agnes $7.99.
Alsace Pinot Blanc: The finer Alsace varieties have moved beyond $10, but many pinot blancs remain relatively inexpensive. The 1988 and 1989 vintages have produced some of the best ever.
Examples: 1989 Trimbach Pinot Blanc*, $9.99; 1989 Rene Schmidt Pinot Blanc, $9.
California "fighting varietals": Few of the "budget" chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons you see on the market are worth the price. These are seldom very succesful, since many are made from grapes rejected by other wineries. The best merit attention.
Examples: 1989 Glass Mountain Quarry Napa Valley Chardonnay*, $7.89; 1989 Sutter Home Chardonnay*, $5.59; Venfange California Merlot*, $5.19; 1988 Belvedere Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon*, $6.99.
California's "other" varietals: Because of the fame of cabernet and chardonnay, other varietals often get overlooked. That's too bad, because you can almost always get more bang for your buck from chenin blanc, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc fume blanc or petite sirah.
Some perennial stars include Dry Creek and Preston for chenin and sauvignon blanc; Buena Vista for sauvignon blanc and Foppiano for petite sirah.
Examples: 1989 Konocti Lake County Fume Blanc*, $6.99; Quivira Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, $7.99; 1990 Gundlach-Bundschu Sonoma County Gewurztraminer, $8.49; 1988 Foppiano Sonoma County Petite Sirah*, $8.19.
Rose wines: They're looked down on by snobs, but roses can be delicious wines if they're not cloyingly sweet. Some of the best come from California, particularly Bonny Doon's "Vin Gris de Cigare" and McDowell Valley's "Les Trois Cepages" rose. Some white zinfandels can be charming too. Among the best are Buehler, DeLoach and Amador Foothill.
Example: 1990 Calera Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, $8.
Non-varietal blends: There's nothing about a varietal on the label that makes wine automatically better. Skillful blending can create magnificent wines. But they're almost always cheaper.
Examples: 1989 Chateau St. Jean Vin Blanc*, $5.99; Roudon-Smith California Claret, Cuvee Six (no vintage)*, $6.99.
Washington state: Some of the best budget producers in the country make their home in Washington state, including Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest.
Examples: 1989 Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewurztraminer, $8.79; 1989 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chenin Blanc, $8.79.
Mid-Atlantic: Don't ignore your own backyard. Maryland and Virginia produce some excellent wines at quite reasonable prices. The whites are especially good. For under $10, your best bets are riesling and seyval blanc. Look out for seyvals from Montbray, Basignani and Boordy.
Examples: Basignani 1990 Basignani Riesling*, $9; Prince Michel Virginia White Burgundy*, $8.99.
Australia: This is a diminishing source of budget wine. Even Wyndham Estate, great so often in the past, seems off form. In past years, my budget wine tastings have been dominated by Australian wines. This year only one made the cut.