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In trying times, 20 great value wines that revive and restore

23/10/2020 - 05:50

THESE are strange days in which the daily cocktail of pandemic, politics, protest and natural disaster continually challenges the capacity to endure. "When you think that you lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more," as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan once put it.

I'm not here to tell you that wine will make anything better. But regardless of everything else that's going on in the world, there has never been a better or easier time for escaping the wine rut.

Just recently, shopping online in Manhattan retail stores, I found 20 wines, all under US$20 a bottle, that surprised, delighted and, yes, fulfilled a restorative role they were not intended for but which I assigned to them. These 20 bottles came from nine different countries, reflecting the rising level of quality just about everywhere. They were interesting, distinctive, even provocative, meaning that all of them will not be to everybody's taste. In pursuit of good wine, that's a risk worth taking.

Dautel Württemberg
Weissburgunder Trocken 2017, US$15.99

Dautel, in the up-and-coming Württemberg region in south-western Germany, is best known for its spätburgunders, or pinot noirs. Its rieslings are excellent, too. And so are its weissburgunders, or pinot blancs. With this wine, you won't get pronounced fruit or floral aromas or flavours. But what it lacks in extravagance it makes up for with delicious, textured creaminess.

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Storm Point Swartland
chenin blanc 2019, US$16.99

Chenin blanc is the leading white grape of South Africa. This moderately priced bottle, from Storm Point in Swartland, is dry and crisp, floral and tangy, just right for seafood or poultry dishes.

Pedro Parra y Familia Secano
Interior Itata Vinista País 2018, US$15.99

Pedro Parra is a Chilean geologist who consults with wineries around the world, leaving behind him a trail of freshly dug soil pits he uses to examine the geological underpinning of vineyards. He knows good terroir when he sees it, like this vineyard of old-vine país, better known by its English name, mission, planted on granite and quartz. The wine is fresh and alive, with flavours of red fruits and herbs along with a refreshing bitterness.

Fabre Montmayou Mendoza
Cabernet Franc Reserva 2019, US$16

Methoxypyrazines are the substances in wine that produce the aromas and flavours of bell peppers, which many people dislike. Cabernet franc wines are legendary for them. Strangely, though, in cabernet francs from the Mendoza region of Argentina, like this one, I've sometimes found the aromas of jalapeños, which I find quite attractive, along with earthy flavours of red fruits.

Domaine de la Bastide
Côtes du Rhône 2018, US$16.96

Côtes du Rhône was once a go-to choice at French restaurants, where it offered easygoing refreshment that could bridge many disparate dishes. This bottle is a throwback reminder of how good those wines were and perhaps another sign that Southern Rhône producers, who for quite some time have been aiming for power and impact, are returning to making wines of balance and restraint. It's composed of Grenache, syrah, carignan and mourvèdre, smells like red fruits and flowers, and goes down easy.

Château la Grolet Côtes
de Bourg 2017 US$17.96

Not so long ago it was difficult, if not impossible, to find Bordeaux producers who farmed biodynamically. But more and more are converting to either organic or biodynamic viticulture. Château la Grolet in the Côtes de Bourg, however, is no newcomer. The Hubert family has been farming biodynamically since 2000. This wine - a blend of 70 per cent merlot and 30 per cent cabernet sauvignon - is plummy, spicy, herbal and elegant in the best Bordeaux tradition.

A Los Viñateros Bravos Itata
Pipeño Tinto 2019, 1 litre US$17.99

Pipeño is the quaffing wine of Chile, made to be consumed young and fresh and, until recently, almost never seen outside the country. This version is made from old-vine cinsault, grown in the Itata region of southern Chile, and it is absolutely delicious, bright and spicy with flavours of earthy red fruit. A Los Viñateros Bravos is a label of Leonardo Erazo, an exceptional Chilean winemaker.

Trediberri Dogliani Bricco
Mollea 2019, US$17.99

Trediberri is a relatively new producer in the Piedmont region of Italy, although the proprietors, the Oberto family, have been involved in growing grapes and producing wine for generations. Trediberri's Barolos are excellent, and I especially admire its Dogliani, a fresh, lively wine with a welcome touch of bitter chocolate flavor. Dogliani is considered a prime area for the dolcetto grape. Wines like this demonstrate why that's true.

Foxglove Paso Robles Zinfandel 2016, US$18

This is superb zinfandel and a great value, with plenty of dark, spicy, focused fruit flavours. At 14.3 per cent alcohol, it is far from over the top. This is the sort of zinfandel I remember from the 1980s, forceful yet inviting, assertive yet balanced, and faintly tannic. Brothers Bob and Jim Varner also make wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains under the Varner label.

Roca Altxerri Getariako Txakolina
Camino 2019, US$18.99

This lightly sparkling wine, made entirely of the local hondarrabi zuri grape, comes from Basque Country in Spain. It's delicate but intense, crisp and bracing. As you drink it, you can almost feel the stiff salt breeze blowing in off the Atlantic. It's just the thing for oysters, clams and other light seafood preparations, or maybe for an aperitif.

Bodegas Hermanos Peciña Rioja
Blanco Señorío de P Peciña 2018, US$19

Few Rioja producers make old-school whites. Hermanos Peciña is one of them. This lovely wine is made of organically grown viura and offers rich, spicy, coconut-inflected, earthy apple flavours. It's a lovely entry-level wine, not aged nearly as long as a López de Heredia. It will be delicious with fish or poultry in creamy sauces.

Bodegas Yuste Aurora
Manzanilla NV, 500 ml US$19.99

Manzanilla by reputation is the lightest, most delicate form of fino sherry. But this example, from Bodegas Yuste, does not fit the stereotype of manzanilla as fragile. It's amber-coloured, scented with sea brine, almonds and chamomile, and richer and more robust than the typical manzanilla. And it's wonderful, just right for typical Spanish bar treats like ham or Marcona almonds, and would make an excellent aperitif.

Matthiasson Napa Valley
Chardonnay Village 2019 US$18.99

Twenty years ago, Steve and Jill Matthiasson were among those spearheading the movement in California to make more restrained, balanced wines. Back then, they were little known and practically had to give bottles away. Today, their wines are revered and predictably more expensive. Yet the Matthiassons make an effort to offer a few easily affordable bottles. The 2019, the first bottling, is rich yet fresh, lively and unpretentious - simply a good, solid glass of Napa chardonnay.

Keller Rheinhessen riesling
Trocken 2019, US$19.99

Julia and Klaus Peter Keller make sublime rieslings. Their high-end bottles are difficult to find, but this entry-level bottle offers a fine introduction to the precision and minerality that characterise their wines. It's floral, complex, surprisingly rich for a wine of 11 per cent alcohol, bone dry and a great value.

Aslina by Ntsiki Biyela South Africa
cabernet sauvignon 2017, US$19.99

Ntsiki Biyela is South Africa's first Black female winemaker. She established her own label, Aslina, named for her grandmother, in 2016. The 2017 cabernet sauvignon is superb, full-bodied, fresh, balanced and complex, with lingering flavours that are more herbal than fruity. Aslina also makes an excellent chardonnay.

Compañía de Vinos del Atlántico
Vara y Pulgar Vino de la Tierra de Cádiz
Tintilla 2015, US$19.99

This unusual wine comes from the Cádiz region of Andalusia in southern Spain, which is far better known for its sherries than for red wines. This is made of the tintilla grape, known elsewhere in Spain as graciano, which is often used in Rioja blends but only occasionally bottled as a varietal wine. The fruit flavours in the 2015 are a little darker than in the '14, the tannins a bit more apparent, but this nonetheless is a fresh and original wine that would go well with lamb or sausages.

Casa de Saima Bairrada
Baga Bruto 2017, US$19.99

The Bairrada region of Portugal has come into its own over the last decade, producing primarily graceful red wines made with the baga grape. It's also an excellent source for sparkling wines, like this one, made with baga, using the same method as in Champagne. The wine is dry and refreshing, smells like grapefruit and oranges and offers a touch of salinity.

Feudo Montoni Sicilia Nero
d'Avola Lagnusa 2017, US$19.99

While I have had some great varietal examples of Nero d'Avola, like Arianna Occhipinti's, too often the wines just seem heavy and thick. But here is an excellent version from Feudo Montoni, which practices organic viticulture at its vineyards in central Sicily and ferments the grapes in concrete. The result is a spicy, herbal, lightly tannic wine that might be nice with eggplant Parmesan.

Chiara Condello Romagna
Sangiovese Predappio 2017, US$19.99

I tried the 2016 vintage of this wine earlier this year and wrote about it in July. When the '17 came out I was eager to try it again, as the '16 had stayed in my mind as an excellent example of Sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna. The '17, a hotter, trickier vintage, is paradoxically a little more floral than the '16, generously fruity and energetic. The tannins are firm, so while this wine is enjoyable now, it should benefit from a couple of years of aging.

Xavier Weisskopf Le Rocher des Violettes
Vin de France Chenin 2019, US$19.99

Here's another expression of chenin blanc, quite different from the South African bottle. Xavier Weisskopf is based on Montlouis, across the Loire from Vouvray, and makes a variety of wines, often from old vines. This one is dry and delicious, with aromas and flavours of lemon, honey and flowers, just right for scallops or other seafood dishes. NYTIMES