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Hi everyone –
It’s always fun to talk about bargain wines, which seem harder and harder to find as we get further into 2023. Blame inflation, tough vintages, greed, whatever … it’s more work than ever to find the super affordable gems. But that makes finding the true bargains all the more exciting.
What is a “bargain” though? Isn’t it all relative to your wallet’s comfort level? Well, yes and no. Obviously, if I won the Powerball a couple of weeks ago my Tuesday night wine would become Chateau Petrus. But most of us can agree on some critical standards for what makes a “bargain wine.”
First, it has to be affordable enough (within your budget) to pop on an absolute whim without hesitation, care, or concern. The neighbor comes over? Pop a bottle! Your friend got a new dog? Pop a bottle! The COVID test came back negative? Pop a bottle! Does the day end in Y? Pop a bottle!
Second, it has to show a sense of place. It’s easy to make almost drinkable juice that is super affordable from certain places (i.e., California’s Central Valley, or as broad of a brushstroke as “Wine of Chile”), but many of those wines don’t seem to show off any identity of a location. I’m talking about the cheap house brands of places like Trader Joe’s, Target, and Total Wine. Some of those wines are kinda-sorta-almost drinkable (especially if you drink them fast), but there is no “there” there.
Third, it’s gotta have a little story behind it. Because the last thing I want to do is drink some crap that a marketing department slaps together after doing a study on their target demographic and what kind of colors the label has to have on it and how much residual sugar and acid it should have — all decided before harvest, mind you! Life is too short to drink that stuff. I want families, people, and connections, which makes the wine taste better.
We present to you four incredible bargain wines. Two from southern Portugal and two from southern France.
From Southern Portugal: Quinta do Chocapalha, by Sandra Tavares de Silva
Many of our favorite bargain wines come from Portugal. This is for several reasons that many of you have heard me talk about before. Native grape varieties that you find nowhere else. Old vines due to Portugal’s poverty while the wine world was booming in the 90s and 2000s. A proud and hard-working culture that wants to preserve identity and distinction rather than join the masses. And the list goes on and on … Portugal rocks.
Here, we have two incredible bargain wines from kick-ass winemaker Sandra Tavares de Silva.
She is best known for her trailblazing brand Wine & Soul, founded over twenty years ago in the Douro Valley. It’s one of the wines from Northern Portugal. Her bio reads as such:
Sandra is from Lisbon, where she studied agronomy. After completing her degree in Lisbon, she decided to travel to Piacenza in Italy to take her master’s of enology. With her heart back in Portugal, there was only one region where she hadn’t explored or worked, the Douro Valley. In 1999, she came to the Douro for an internship, and that job opened the doors to her future home. In the same year, Sandra met Jorge, her husband and business partner. Just two years later, they got married and Wine & Soul was born.https://wineandsoul.com/about-us/
This brand, Quinta do Chocapalha, hails from a single estate property just outside Lisbon that as I understand it is owned and controlled by Sandra’s family. Wines at this price are often assumed to be larger production, but you’d be shocked at how little of these are made. The total production of the white wine was only 31,380 bottles. That’s only 2615 cases, which is tiny.
The white wine is 100% Arinto, one of our favorite Portuguese white grapes. Arinto is best known as one of the key grapes for top-grade Vinho Verde, but it’s actually planted throughout Portugal and for a good reason: it’s a reliable producer that makes (thanks to modern winemaking, stainless steel tanks, and temperature control … all of which Portugal didn’t have 30 years ago) a fresh, sassy, clean, bright, high-acid style of wine that is totally gulpable.
This is a tasting note from our friend Ryan O’Connor, who distributes this wine in Minnesota and knows it better than anyone in the state. He also writes terrific tasting notes:
Tucked away in the rolling hills of the Cerra de Montejunto Mountains just north of Lisbon, Sandra Tavares works alongside multiple generations of her family crafting wines deeply rooted in place, practice, and purpose.
The family’s Arinto plantings – a densely clustered and richly leafed white varietal – thrive in the clay soils dating to the Jurassic period and share what the residents call the “invisible rain,” alighting on their grapes, pears, and olives before most residents rise for the day.
Their 2020 vintage evinces bright juicy green apple, focused minerality, fresh citrus zest, and lines like Bugle Boy jeans in an Iroc-Z – new, composed, the feathered touch of Nadal, distinctly organic, and embodying the aggressive pursuit of leisure with those friends and family most coveted.
The red wine, like so many gems from Portugal, is a blend of traditional native varieties. In this case, 65% Touriga Nacional, 10% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz, 10% Alicante Bouschet, and 5% Castelão. Fermented in traditional lagars, then aged in oak for 18 months, then 12 months in the bottle before release (so rare to find a wine at this price with a little elevage, or aging. This wine is dynamic, complete, textural, speaks of a place, pairs with great grilled fare, and will be right at home this holiday season.
Here’s Ryan’s tasting note:
The family’s 2017 vintage red blend is at once a postcard and almanac of a singular place – the red varietals of Lisboa dating to the Roman era – while also being as instantly recognizable and familiar as a Steven Bochco production.
It’s as clean and clear as an Oriole’s song and represents a finer performance in the glass than Gosling in The Notebook. A well-furnished playground for the senses, this blend is a delightful accompaniment to our forthcoming holiday tables, earnest slow roasts, and impromptu memories.
From Southern France: Reserve de la Saurine (from Gard)
I will make a big deal about where this is from because location matters. Gard is located just west of Avignon and just east of Nîmes. It’s directly between two AOCs of high regard, but where this winery and their vineyards are located is no man’s land. It’s technically NOTHING according to the French wine laws; thus, they can’t charge what the wines truly are worth.
Their loss is our gain, for now. When the time comes that they reconfigure and maybe expand the Southern Rhône, there is no doubt this area will be recognized, and as a result, the prices will double overnight.
Here’s a way to think about these two wines, which are both on the light-to-medium side of body, super fresh in aromatics, and perfectly balanced in flavor. Imagine you just landed in Montpellier, whether by train or plane, and it’s been a long day of travel to get there. You grab your suitcase and roll it to the taxi, which takes you to your hotel, where you check in and get to your room, where you drop your bag and wash up, and you finally walk outside into the southern French sunlight and cross the street to a cute little French bistro (white tile floor, zinc bar, oysters on the half shell), and you finally have that moment of true vacation relaxation (exhale! you’re here!), and you ask the bartender “A glass of wine, please.”
These are the kind of wines you’ll get. And damn they’ll taste good.
The white wine: top-of-the-season heirloom apple, talc-laced dusty acidity, and a touch of orange rind. Light to medium-bodied, but with a roundness on the acidity that is so pleasant and friendly. It’s like your friend’s perfect dog, who never jumps on guests but barks just enough when someone knocks on the door. Made out of a blend of Grenache Blanc and Clairette. This is classic southern French white.
The red wine: Grenache and Carignan produced entirely in stainless steel, making for a clean and punchy style of wine that is immediate, fresh, happy, dancing, and gulpable. It’s no wonder it’s poured by the glass at great restaurants … it’s the kind of wine you finish before the appetizers arrive. Why yes, I’ll have another. Thank you! Loads of raspberry meets sassy spices and an edge of tannin and acid. It’s a food wine, but simple food. Break out the cheese and charcuterie.
You’ll find both of these poured by the glass at the better restaurants in the Twin Cities, but a little inventory squeaks out to retailers in the know. It’s a category-driver for the local importer/distributor, and they were concerned when I said I wanted to do it on a Friday offer for they didn’t want to sell out the stock and leave the by-the-glass placements dry. I totally understand … a smart distributor holds tight to those by-the-glass placements because they are hard to replace (menu printing, staff training, etc.). As a result, we don’t have a ton of volume to sell, but we have enough to make TCWE fans happy.
Who doesn’t love a good bargain? We all do. But finding the diamonds in the thrift shop is even more fun. These four wines prove there’s still great wine out there for the money; you just need to hunt a little bit (or read these newsletters).
Stock up. It’s never a bad thing to have pop-on-a-whim wines around.
Sommelier and founder/owner of Twin Cities Wine Education
Offer and special pricing are available through Monday, or as inventory lasts