We have a secret.
When we go wine shopping, we like to play a game. It's called the Cheaper and Better Game.
The rules of this game are simple: find the best wines we can for $15 and under. Of course, we also invest in higher-end wines that we save for special occasions. but for everyday drinking, we look for value -- and with very good reason.
First, it's annoying when a bottle is opened, a glass or two consumed, and then for one reason or another, that bottle is abandoned for the rest of the week. By the time we get back to it, it's gone off, and then it's relegated to the cooking stock.
Second, we entertain. A lot. So it's not unusual for either of us to blaze through a case of wine in a week. And many of our nearest and dearest don't really have discerning palates, so they're quite comfortable to drink whatever's available.
With those two rationales as the main criteria, we came up with Cheaper and Better.
But just like all good games, this one has some rules. Well, just one really. It's gotta be good. No skimping by with some boxed swill bulk wine. No, the wines we choose have to meet a certain standard for balance, nuance and complexity. Otherwise, it goes back in the bottle and is returned pronto.
Lucky for us, it's not as laborious a task as it may seem. A surprising number of countries are coughing up the good stuff at exceptional prices. Sure they may not be the B-Boys of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo... but the wines from smaller, lesser-known regions can be even more satisfying, as they deliver a delicious experience, but without having to re-mortgage your house to get it.
While you can play this game too -- just shop by price tag -- it does help a smidge if you know a bit about geography, and what grapes are grown in those geographical regions. But if you don't have that knowledge, or care that much, we're here to give you a cheat sheet. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few of our choice regions.
Region: Midi (aka Languedoc and Roussillon)
Location: Hot, dry southeast France, hugging the Mediterranean, north of Spain and the Pyrenees Mountains.
Grapes: Red -- Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan
Flavour Profile: Rustic and earthy, with flavours of mulled dark fruit, sweaty saddle, dried wild herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage and dark earth. Full bodied with grippy tannins, these wines are often better with food, like roast lamb, grilled rib eye or stewed beef and mushrooms.
Wines to try:
Sainte-Croix Vieilles Vignes Coteaux du Languedoc 2009
Chateau de Gourgazaud AC Minervois 2009
Location: Mediterranean island off the the west coast of Italy
Grapes: Red -- Cannonau (a.k.a Grenache), white -- Vermentino
Flavour Profile: The hot Mediterranean climate makes for earthy and rustic reds, not unlike the Midi. Filled with flavours of black currants, wild herbs, black cherries, leather, black pepper and baking spice and leather notes. These weighty reds are lovely with grilled Italian sausage, roast meats and pecorino cheese. Whites are subtle and aromatic, with flavours of lemony citrus, stone fruit, herbacious notes and raw nuts. Delicious with grilled seafood while watching the Mediterranean sunset.
Wines to try:
Sella & Mosca Monte Oro Vermentino Di Gallura Superiore DOCG Sardinia 2009
Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva DOC Sardinia 2007
Region: There is value to be found all over the country, especially in less popular areas like Jumilla, Yecla and Rias Baixas. But even in Spain's wine capital of Rioja, there is good deals to be had especially if you stick to younger joven and crianza wines -- reserva and gran reserva typically cost more.
Grapes: Red -- Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell, white -- Macabeo, Malvasia, Albariño
Flavour Profile: Because the reds and whites are grown in almost all wine regions across the country, profiles can vary. For the most part, Tempranillo tends to be full bodied, with flavours of black fruit, spice, herbs and leather that make it a great match for grilled lamb with rosemary or smoked sausages. Macabeo and Malvasia are usually part of blends, especially white Rioja. Albariño is a deliciously racy white that's filled with lemon lime flavours not unlike Riesling and is great paired with soft goat cheese, grilled seafood and roasted vegetables.
Wines to Try:
Montecillo Crianza Rioja, 2007
Fillaboa Albariño DO Rias Baixas, 2009
Chile and Argentina:
Region: Just like Spain, South America is a consistent go-to region for inexpensive and tasty wines -- both red and white. There's a considerable amount of top-end bottles also coming out of both countries, but for overall value-for-quality, Chile and Argentina are the ones to beat.
Grapes: Almost every grape is grown here, much of it naturally. Reds are filled ripe dark fruit, but there's often a sweet-spicy note mixing with a herbacious edge tat gives them some lift. Particularly nice are whites, both Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs in general have more round tropical fruit notes than those grown elsewhere.
Wines to Try:
Cono Sur Organic Unoaked Chardonnay, San Antonio Valley, Chile 2011
Montes Classic Series Sauvignon Blanc, Curico Valley, Chile 2010
Bodega Francois Lurton Pinot Gris, Mendoza, Argentina 2010
Perez Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Maipo Valley, Chile, 2010