Here’s some respite from inflated prices

  • By Ben Giliberti / The Washington Post
  • Saturday, April 9, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Are you spending more on wine, but enjoying it less? Lots of us feel that way. It’s because the prices of the best French, Italian and Napa Valley wines have increased beyond reason for the average wine drinker.

When I first became interested in learning about wine, in the late 1970s, $3 to $4 was my normal price range. Today, because of inflation, the equivalent prices would be about $9 to $11.

Comparing this low-price category then and now, I can say with total assurance that we have it better today. Not just a little better; light-years better.

I recall all too vividly that many of the $3 wines I bought were seriously marred by volatile acidity (they were vinegary) or by oxidation. Today, by contrast, seriously flawed wines are rare, even in the lowest price range.

But the biggest difference is the abundance of fruit. Back then it was a scarce commodity. Today you don’t have to spend even $9 or $11 to get a wine with plenty of ripe fruit and a hint of complexity. It’s available for as little as $5 – if you shop carefully.

What better proof than the wines below, which are among the best I have tasted in the budget category recently. Prices are approximate.

Yellow Tail 2004 Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon ($7; Australia): Just a few years after its entry to the U.S. market, Australia’s Yellow Tail is now the top-selling imported wine. The latest addition to its lineup, this explosively fruity blend of 60 percent shiraz and 40 percent cabernet sauvignon, suggests why. It’s a knockout best buy.

It’s expertly vinified by Casella Wines, a quality-conscious, family-owned winery with state-of-the-art facilities. The firm cabernet sauvignon grape is used to provide a proper backbone, while the shiraz billows out with oodles of fresh red berry and cassis fruit. The result is an exuberant but balanced wine that will appeal to casual and serious wine drinkers alike. It could go well with classic bistro food, such as steak and french fries, sausages or chicken in wine.

Walnut Crest 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon “Rapel Valley” ($5 for 750 ml; $8 for magnum): You won’t find an inexpensive claret from Bordeaux this good, because the prices in France have gone up so much. Unfortunately, you won’t find many from Chile either, because vintners there don’t seem to make many of them. But as this wine shows, Chile has great potential for cabernet sauvignon and merlot, particularly in this price range, which Bordeaux and California have totally abandoned. This deeply colored cabernet has a fine nose of cassis, berry and mint, and on the palate, surprisingly complex flavors of black/red berry fruit seasoned with toasted oak from barrel aging. This will go well with all classic Bordeaux/cabernet matches, such as lamb, beef, stews and roasted poultry. At $8 or less for a magnum, it’s almost too good to be true.

Alice White 2004 Chardonnay ($6 to $7; Australia); Alice White 2004 Merlot ($6-$7; Australia): Although Alice White is heavily marketed as a “fun brand” – industry parlance for fruity wines targeted at younger, casual wine drinkers – the wines offer more than a cute kangaroo on the label. In fact, all the Alice White wines I have tried offer excellent value. In 2003, the shiraz was the clear winner, but with the newly released 2004 vintage, the chardonnay and merlot take the lead. The chardonnay offers bright cinnamon and citrus notes on the nose and a clean, mid-weight palate of classic fresh apple chardonnay. The merlot emphasizes lightness and freshness, offering zingy red-berry fruit and a hint of Chianti-like briskness on the finish. The chardonnay is a perfect aperitif, while the merlot is suited for serving with pasta in tomato sauce and with roast chicken or turkey.

Santadi Grotta Rossa 2002 Carignano Del Sulcis ($11; Italy): This spicy, rather subtle wine from the island of Sardinia is charming. Fashioned by cult winemaker Giacomo Tachis (of Sassicaia), it has notes of earth, pepper and herbs, with excellent persistence in the mouth. It’s an ideal match for poultry, white and light meats, and salmon.

Chateau Haut La Pereyre 2001 ($12; France): This wine nails what a petit chateau Bordeaux should be, but all too rarely is today – an affordable wine that, while neither as deep nor as concentrated as a Grand Cru, still captures/. the refinement that makes Bordeaux so special. Pretty aromatics of violets and cassis lead to a light- to medium-bodied palate of ripe red berry fruit with light tannins.

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