f you think of the world's white wines as lemmings and the $10 mark as a cliff, you begin to get a picture of what's been happening in the wine market the past few years.
One by one and group by group, they've gone over the edge and have plunged into the turbulent depths of the luxury wine market.
White Burgundy, splash! Alsace Riesling and gewurztraminer, splash! Top-flight Mosel Rieslings, splash! Italian pinot grigio, splash! Even the Alsace pinot blancs, which dug in at the edge and held onto rocks for several years, have mostly been swept over the side. Splash!
Fortunately, there are signs the willy-nilly migration to double figures has slowed. The recession has dampened the inflationary dreams of winery owners, and an increasing number are questioning whether a high price sticker necessarily means more prestige.
In California, top industry honors are not going to the people who win 98-point scores from the Wine Whatever for their $75 reserve cabernet sauvignons, but to the people who put a consistently fine product into the bottle and charge a decent price for it.
In France, the best importers are spending an increasing part of their time ferreting out unknown and inexpensive gems from such areas as Languedoc and the enthralling Cotes de Gascogne. Importer Terry Thiese keeps reminding us that drier German wine is cheaper, with no loss in quality.
There is, in short, a growing worldwide consensus that the $10 mark is a significant barrier for many wine consumers. This is especially true with whites, which many consumers drink in far more casual circumstances than reds. There's many a consumer who will fork over $15 to $20 for a Bordeaux to accompany a standing rib roast but would balk at a $15-to-$20 chardonnay to go with fish. That's not parsimony, that's good wine sense.
Judging from a recent tasting of some 70 inexpensive white wines from around the world, there's a lot out there to tickle the fancy of the frugal consumer. No, you can't expect to find a wine for $10 that offers the sheer thrill of a great Montrachet or ChateauHaut-Brion blanc, but a well-spent $10, $8 or even $6 can provide a very satisfying dinner table companion.
The best sources for these fine inexpensive whites are the familiar ones -- California, France and Germany. But recent tastings also uncovered some excellent values from Spain, Italy, Oregon, Washington, Virginia and Maryland.
If there is an area of the globe to treat with suspicion, it's the southern half.
Australia, which provided a bounty of exciting wine values about five years ago, seems to have lost some of its edge. The better whites have largely moved beyond $10, and what remains is questionable. Few were included in my tastings because retailers did not recommend many of them.
Chile and Argentina have been receiving critical acclaim as sources of good inexpensive red wine, but for whites the best one can say is "caveat emptor." The prices are tempting -- but many South American whites are barely palatable. The success rate, in my experience, is well under 10 percent.
My suspicion is that most Chilean and Argentine wines are shipped through the tropics in unrefrigerated containers -- a devastating practice that would explain the early senility of many of these wines. Australian producers seem to be more conscientious, but my tastings suggest there are some who economize by letting their wine cook in the hold of a containership.
Fortunately for the consumer, there are many excellent bargains from north of the equator. These are some of the most promising areas to look for wine value, but remember that everything is dependent upon the skill and commitment of the producer.
* California sauvignon blanc. Give California's wine producers some credit. Go to any wine store and note how many sauvignon blancs are priced at $8.99 to $9.99. Many of those producers have been holding that line there for several vintages because they are determined to keep sauvignon blanc prices reasonable.
While California sauvignon blanc (sometimes called fume blanc) has been the target of some critical brickbats, the overall quality level is high and getting better. As winegrowers have learned more about trellising systems and leaf growth control, the wines have improved measurably. Yes, one can legitimately bemoan a certain sameness among California's sauvignon blancs, but it's sameness at a good quality level.
There are far more producers of fine sauvignon blanc for under $10 than can be listed here, but some names to look for are Dry Creek, Pedroncelli, Buena Vista, Davis Bynum, Chateau Souverain, Estancia and Preston. R. H. Phillips and Corbett Canyon are a step down in quality, but their price makes them an attractive choice. Even the ubiquitous Sutter Home, with its screw-cap miniatures, produces an appealing sauvignon blanc.