You can now buy wines at prices that won't make hearts skip a beat

THE BEST REDS FOR LESS

October 25, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

t's nice to find out that what you've been doing all along is now considered healthy.

Since "60 Minutes" ran a segment earlier this year suggesting that red wine might be helping to scour the arteries of the food-loving but long-living French, sales have taken a big jump. All of a sudden, people who never before drank anything without ice cubes were sipping room-temperature reds -- and liking it.

So thank you, Morley Safer. America owes you a great debt -- even if it's discovered next week that "The French Paradox" is so much hooey. It's doubtful that your program saved all that many lives, but in a small way it has improved the quality of life.

For those of us who have been drinking red wine all along, the show came at just the right time. These days, if you have a glass of wine with dinner, you run the risk of being labeled a dope fiend by your kid's health teacher. It's nice to have a healthy reply available.

For those who discovered red wine through "60 Minutes," it was an introduction to one of the most ancient pleasures known to man -- a beverage that when taken in moderation soothes the senses as it enhances the flavor of food.

Still, while wine might be good for your heart, it can have a decidedly unhealthy impact on the old bank balance. It's a lot easier to learn to appreciate the glories of a fine Bordeaux than it is to pay $30, $40 or $50 a bottle for the privilege.

Fortunately, one does not have to shell out such sums to enjoy fine red wines. The market is crawling with wines that deliver a lot of flavor for relatively little money.

Wine inflation took a toll during the 1980s, no doubt. Some wines that sold for $8 five years ago have pushed far beyond the $10 mark, which we have arbitrarily adopted as the cutoff point for "budget" red wines.

(It used to be $5, then $6, then $8, but now that we've hit $10 we're sticking with it. No more extensions.)

Fortunately, a series of bumper crops in Europe from 1988 through 1990 created an ocean of fine red (and white) wine at the very time that consumers decided to cut back on spending. Meanwhile, California churned out a high-volume but spotty 1989 vintage.

The results have not been pretty for the wine industry, but consumers have good reason for cheer.

Wine prices have actually come down over the last year. Cash-starved producers are dumping good wines onto the market, wholesalers are clearing out their warehouses, and smart retailers are actually passing the savings to consumers.

In one notable case, an entire class of wines that was lost to double-digit pricing has come back to the budget category. These are the wines from the best villages of Beaujolais -- such "crus" as Morgon, Fleurie and Chiroubles. In a delicious twist, the prices of the 1991 vintage have fallen even though it is arguably a better year than those that preceded it.

Despite its reputation for luxury pricing, France remains the world's leading source of exceptional red wine for under $10.

"What we're getting out of France is a multiplicity of textures, flavors, grape varieties," said David Shiverick, an importer who has done an impressive job in finding bargains in obscure parts of southern France. He cites Cahors, Minervois, Saint-Chinian, Corbieres and the Coteaux de Languedoc as some of the little-known regions that can yield delicious wines.

France hardly holds a monopoly on bargain reds, however. Any serious winegrowing country, except Germany, can point to some reasonably priced gem from its vineyards.

Here are some of the best bets:

California: The 1989 vintage was trashed by the wine press (myself included) soon after rain drenched the vineyards at harvest time. As it turned out, the chardonnays and zinfandels BTC mostly deserved to be trashed, but some of the thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon grapes came through the storm and got another week or two of sun.

Some of these wines are pretty good, though nobody will mistake 1989 as a banner vintage in California. And because of the bad reputation of the vintage, consumers will be seeing some low prices. One excellent example is Geyser Peak's excellent 1989 cabernet from the Alexander Valley.

Prices get more reasonable as you get away from cabernet. There are still some fine zinfandels for under $10, though the 1989s require selective shopping. Even better are some of the non-varietal blends such as Trentadue's 1990 Old Patch Red and Marietta's Old Vine Red, Lot 11, which show how much flavor varietals such as petite sirah and carignane can yield when the vines are venerable.

Italy: Once the promised land for bargain reds, Italy has become the most overpriced wine-exporting country in the world today.

Still there are a few good Chiantis that come in under $10, as well as some even better proprietary wines from the south. Some names to remember are Rosso del Salento, Salice Salentino and Saraceno.

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