One of the best wine books I’ve read is Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines by award-winning Canadian writer Natalie MacLean. In it, she writes about her travels to eight world wine regions in search of the best value wines, along the way meeting wonderful characters and eating incredible meals (you can find a lot of the recipes on her website). I enjoyed it so much I read it in an afternoon—and then rushed right out and bought several of her suggested wines. I recently spoke with her about the book and her thoughts on how to spot the best budget wines.
What makes a wine a bargain in your opinion? What do you look for?
“Bargain” doesn’t simply mean cheap; rather, it means getting more than you paid for. I believe that there’s a sweet spot in the price range of $10 to $20 where you can find wines that taste twice as expensive as they cost. As a wine cheapskate, I believe that you shouldn’t pay more for pleasure than you have to. It’s never been a better time to be a wine shopper: prices have come down, but quality hasn’t. Anyone can slap down $50 to get a good wine, but where’s the challenge in that? Discovering a terrific bargain wine that tastes fantastic is like finding a Versace jacket in the back corner of a warehouse outlet that’s been marked down to 10 percent of the original price. It’s the thrill of the hunt.
So what are the top three things to look for when buying budget wines?
1. Does it over-deliver on taste versus price?
2. Is it within your comfort range price-wise?
3. And most important: Do you like it?
What are your 5 favorite budget wines?
Of course my favorite wine is the one someone else pays for, but if I’m buying, here’s what I go for:
Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Pinot Grigio, California: Clean and refreshing with notes of lemon and white melon. This wine was not barrel aged, so you get pure fresh fruit. Best enjoyed young (the wine, not necessarily you). Pair with salads, seafood, vegetarian dishes and a day of designer warehouse outlet shopping. $12 Score: 87/100.
Santa Rita Chardonnay Reserva, Casablanca Valley, Chile: Vanilla spice, butterscotch and green apple notes make this tasty and affordable Chardonnay a treat. Pair with grilled chicken, halibut steaks and incredibly real-looking faux pearls. $14 Score: 85/100.
Marques De Caceres Rosé, Rioja, Spain: A robust, dry rosé with lovely rich aromas of ripe raspberries. Good mouth-watering action. This wine can handle more robust dishes like grilled salmon and chicken, but it’s especially terrific with turkey dinner this holiday. $13 Score: 88/100.
Doña Paula Malbec Los Cardos, Mendoza, Argentina: Ultra-smooth and full-bodied with berry, plum and spice aromas. Great party wine, especially given the price. Pair with a juicy steak, brisket and 2 for 1 coupons. $13 Score: 89/100.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia: A supple, plummy red with generous, full-bodied texture and layers of flavor. Fleshy blackberries round out this lovely wine. Pair with: hamburgers, meat lovers’ pizza and movie night. 285544 13.50% 750 mL $16 Score: 89/100.
You traveled all over the world for the book: What surprised you most about the wines you tasted and the people you met?
I really admire the passion people have for wine, and in particular, winemakers who are committed to making great wine at reasonable prices. It’s pure snobbery to think that those producing good value wines somehow don’t care as much about the end product as someone producing a $100 cult wine. Their commitment is just as strong, perhaps stronger, because they’re often working with fewer resources.
What wine do you think makes a good gift? What wine would you like to receive?
The ideal gift wine is one that has a story behind it, whether it’s the quirky winemaker you read about in a book or whom you’ve met when you’ve toured a winery. Perhaps it’s how you discovered the wine in a small shop while you were traveling. Wine is the drink of conversation, so a good story is always a perfect pairing.
You can read more reviews of my new wine book Unquenchable here.