Good wine has the power to transport. As we now approach a full year locked in pandemic freeze-frame, with many people largely confined within their national borders, wine still provides an opportunity to taste the world.
In January, shopping digitally at Manhattan wine shops, I selected 20 bottles priced at less than $20, wines that not only offer great value but also convey the flavor of the places that produced them.
These 20 bottles come from 11 countries. Each of the wine regions does things its own way, using different sets of grapes, say, or techniques and sensibilities that have been traditional in its part of the world. Natural conditions — climates and soils, for example — vary as well.
The world is far more homogenized than it used to be. Television, the internet and easy international travel have all seen to that. But some things remain local, even under the pressures of globalization. Good wine is one of them.
Not all wines express the character of a place, however. Plenty of bottles, if not most, are mass-processed. These wines could come from anywhere, as they depend more on interchangeable production techniques than they do on specific places and cultures.
Those sorts of wines are often less expensive as well, as automation and additives are cheaper alternatives to more conscientious, labor-intensive agriculture and winemaking. That’s why I have long contended that the best values in wine fall into the $15-to-$25 range. That’s where many small farmers can work traditionally and still earn enough to sustain their businesses.
This guideline comes with a few qualifications. You will not find wines from areas that are in demand or that are highly esteemed. The cost of doing business in those places shoots up, as does the cost of the wines. In less-exalted wine regions, it’s still possible to find bottles at these prices.
I want to be clear that I am not dealing in absolutes. Some big producers work meticulously, and make excellent wines. Some small producers may work traditionally but are not particularly skillful at what they do. I try a lot of wines that do not make the cut.
It’s also possible to find bottles under $15 that fit my criteria and are wonderful. But the odds of finding such wines go up exponentially in the $15-to-$25 range.
These 20 bottles represent just a cross-section of the kaleidoscopic choices presented to consumers. Other parts of the country, and the world, may offer entirely different selections.
My best advice, if you cannot find these bottles (and few people will be able to find all of them), is to patronize the best wine shop available to you, with a staff dedicated to wine, rather than supermarkets without knowledgeable help. If they don’t have these wines, or those in past 20 Under $20 columns, ask for similar bottles. They may have some great suggestions.
Otherwise, please enjoy these wines and what they represent about their places of origin. Close your eyes, see the world and, if you remember, send me a postcard.
Artomaña Arabako Txakolina Xarmant 2019 $19.99
Txakolina is the wine of Spanish Basque Country. It has developed a following in the United States over the last 15 years, and why not? It’s brisk and refreshing, and is a great match for fresh fish and shellfish, or simply as an aperitif. This bracing bottle comes from the Arabako area, and it’s a bit different than the more common, effervescent Getariako Txakolinas. It’s got the tiniest bit of spritz, proving that Txakolina succeeds just as well as a (nearly) still wine, too. (De Maison Selections, Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Alkoomi Frankland River “Black Label” Riesling 2018 $19.96
Frankland River is a temperate area within the larger Great Southern region near the southwestern tip of Australia. Great Southern is a long way from the big cities of Melbourne and Sydney, but is the source of some excellent rieslings, like Alkoomi’s Black Label. It’s bone-dry, lively and textured, with the aromas of lime zest and wet stones. (Little Peacock Imports, New York)
Maître de Chai Clements Hills Red Table Wine 2018 $19.99
You have to look hard to find California producers making delicious, moderately priced wines rather than cheap knockoffs of fancier bottles. Alex Pitts and Marty Winters of Maître de Chai are among those select few. Without the financial wherewithal to work in the pricier precincts, they instead buy grapes from distinctive vineyards wherever they can find them. This bottle comes from the little-known Clements Hills area within the Lodi appellation, and is made mostly from grenache and barbera, with some zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon tossed in. It’s earthy, soulful and pure, great for burgers, ribs and other simple, meaty meals.
Odoardi Calabria Vino Rosso 1480 L’Inizio 2015 $14.99
I am fascinated with the wines of Calabria, the wild and arid toe of Italy’s boot. The Odoardi family, the label on this bottle says, has been farming there since 1480. I doubt anyone was making a wine like this back then, but who knows? This red blend, centered on the gaglioppo grape, is smoky, tannic and a little wild, like Calabria, yet focused and delicious. (Jan D’Amore Wines, Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Cacique Maravilla Pipeño País 2019 1 liter $18.99
Manuel Moraga makes this delightful, vibrant, easy-to-drink red wine from very old vines of país — mission in English — in the Bío Bío region of Chile. It’s a thirst-quencher, which is the usual role of pipeño, the traditional wine of the region, and is packaged thoughtfully in one-liter bottles. The wine is not complicated: Mr. Moraga farms organically, ferments the grapes and bottles without much aging, capturing the spirit and energy of the place. (Selections de la Viña/Fruit of the Vines, Long Island City, N.Y.)
Feudo Montoni Sicilia Catarratto Masso 2018 $19.99
Catarratto is perhaps the most widely planted white grape on Sicily, but it does not have a great reputation. It was widely used in Marsala, a sweet fortified wine, along with a lot of cheap whites. But what if it was grown conscientiously and made with care? Would it have unimagined potential? I wouldn’t call this wine a revelation. But Feudo Montoni farms organically in central Sicily and makes a handful of excellent wines, and I’d say this is a fine rendition: dry, lively and profoundly herbal. It would be a great match for delicate fish and shellfish. (Wilson Daniels, Napa, Calif.)
Patrick Jasmin Collines Rhodaniennes La Chevalière 2016 $19.99
Patrick Jasmin is best known for his subtle, transparent Côte-Rôties. La Chevalière, his entry-level bottle, comes from the plains below the terraced Côte-Rôtie vineyards. It does not have the depth or dimension of the grand vin, but it is delicious, savory syrah, ready to drink anytime. (Alain Junguenet Selection/Wines of France, Mountainside, N.J.)
Argatia Macedonia Haroula 2017 $18.99
Greek whites are no longer surprising to see in the United States. But Greek reds offer a deep well of delights still to be discovered. This red from Argatia, a family producer in the Macedonia region, is made largely of the excellent xinomavro grape, blended with small amounts of negoska and mavrodafni, two rarely seen indigenous grapes. It smells like dark fruit and licorice, and is smooth and bright, with underlying tannins. (Verity Wine Partners, New York)
Ver Sacrum Valle de Uco G.S.M. 2018 $19.96
G.S.M. is an Australian term for a southern Rhône Valley-style blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Argentina is better known for malbec, of course, but Ver Sacrum chose to focus on other grapes in its high-altitude vineyard in the Uco Valley of Mendoza. This bottle is 70 percent grenache, with 15 percent each of mourvèdre and syrah. It’s intense and juicy, yet well-balanced and precise, full of red fruit and herbal flavors. (Brazos Wine Imports, Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Weszeli Kamptal Langenlois Grüner Veltliner 2019 $19.99
This bright and lively grüner veltliner from the Kamptal region of Austria has rare depth for a wine in this price range. The vigneron, Davis Weszeli, farms biodynamically, and seeks to maintain a wide diversity of life on his estate, which I always believe is healthy for grapevines. The wine — spicy, herbal and saline — would be great to pair with coming spring treats, like asparagus in all its guises. (Savio Soares Selections, New York)
Domaine Tatsis Macedonia Limnio 2018 $19.99
Domaine Tatsis has been growing grapes in the Macedonia region of Greece for roughly 100 years. It’s now led by two brothers, Periklis and Stergios Tatsis, who farm biodynamically and are adamant about producing wines with minimal processing. This red, made with the ancient limnio grape, is luminous and lightly tannic, with pure, spicy flavors of red fruit. Bring on the lamb chops. (DNS Wines/T. Elenteny Imports, New York)
Château de Villeneuve Saumur Champigny 2018 $19.99
The reds of the Loire Valley, most of them made with the cabernet franc grape, have long been great values. Now, with the 25 percent tariff added by the Trump administration in a trade dispute with the European Union, many are not so reasonably priced anymore. But this bottle, from Château de Villeneuve, is a good one. It’s polished yet pure, with flavors straddling the line between herbal and red fruits. (Petit Pois/Sussex Wine Merchants, Moorestown, N.J.)
Fattoria San Lorenzo Marche Bianco di Gino 2019 $17.99
I’m not sure why this wine is not called Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, the appellation in the Marche region of Italy where Fattoria San Lorenzo is situated. It’s made entirely of verdicchio, and it’s grown within the zone. But ultimately, it does not matter, because the wine is lively, energetic, saline and dry. Natalino Crognaletti, the proprietor, farms biodynamically, and named this wine after his father, Gino Crognaletti, who planted the vineyard. (Indie Wineries, New York)
Haarmeyer Clarksburg St. Rey Chenin Blanc Sutter Ranch Vineyard 2019 $18.96
Haarmeyer, a family operation that buys grapes from a number of organically farmed vineyards, has a strong focus on chenin blanc. The grape has a long history in California, where for years it was a component in numerous jug wines and other blends before it fell out of favor in the 1970s. In the last decade, as chenin blanc wines from around the world have gained a following, producers in California have rediscovered the grape. The St. Rey is Haarmeyer’s entry-level chenin, made from grapes that have been foot-trod and fermented in older barrels and steel vats. The result is an exuberant wine, with aromas and flavors of citrus and flowers, and chenin’s signature rich texture.
Grosjean Vallée d’Aoste Torrette 2019 $19.96
I’m always intrigued by the wines of the Vallée d’Aoste, a hilly, Alpine region that sits on the border of Italy and France. I especially like those from Grosjean, an excellent organic producer year in and year out. The Torrette is a lively red, with good acidity befitting its high-altitude site, and classic Italian dry red fruit flavors. It’s 80 percent petit rouge, with the remainder made up of other local grapes, like fumin, mayolet and Doucet. If you like this one, look for other Grosjean varietal wines made of the cornalin and fumin grapes. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York)
Cascina Fontana Dolcetto d’Alba 2019 $19.99
I’m always on the lookout for enticing dolcettos. They are among the most underrated Italian wines, a little like close friends you discover that you take for granted. This bottle from Cascina Fontana, a small family winery, is a good one, direct and honest, with nothing fancy about it, just delicious dark fruit flavors leavened by dolcetto’s characteristic, welcome bitterness. (Grand Cru Selections, New York)
Elizabeth Spencer Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc Special Cuvée 2019 $16.99
I’m pretty picky about sauvignon blancs from California. Too often, I find, they are heavy and just sweet enough to make them fatiguing. But this bottle, made from organically grown grapes, is well-balanced, lively, dry and pungent, almost in a New Zealand style.
Von Winning Pfalz Riesling Winnings 2018 $18.96
This is luscious riesling, richly textured, full of mineral and lime flavors. It’s effectively dry, with maybe the barest touch of residual sugar, felt not as sweetness but as roundness, which keeps the flavors rolling along. Even though this is an entry-level bottle from a very warm vintage, the wine never seems obvious. It has just enough mystery in the flavors to keep you coming back for more. (Skurnik Wines, New York)
Casa de Saima Bairrada Baga Tonel 10 2018 $19.96
The maritime Bairrada region of Portugal, with its limestone soils and host of indigenous grapes, has gained a reputation as a source of compelling wines. This red from Casa de Saima, made with the baga grape, is an excellent example. It’s graceful and soulful, with earthy flavors of red fruit. Casa de Saima, a small family winery, farms biodynamically. The wine was fermented in concrete lagares, traditional vats more typical of the port region, and aged in big, old oak barrels. (Savio Soares Selections)
Toro Albalá Montilla-Moriles Eléctrico Fino del Lagar Saca de Primavera NV 500 milliliters $18.99
Montilla-Moriles is often forgotten or ignored next to the sherries of Jerez, its Andalucían neighbor. The finos of Montilla-Moriles seem similar to fino sherries, even though they are made with a different grape, Pedro Ximénez, rather than palomino. The Eléctrico from Toro Albalá shares the fino aromatic qualities of nuts and chamomile, but it’s a touch fruitier, though still dry and refreshing. Try it with ham or chicken biryani. (Classical Wines, Seattle)