We’re living in the golden age of cheap wine, when there are countless bottles of $6 or $10 or $12 wine that are well-made, interesting and taste good. Hence it’s no surprise, according to this year’s study from the Wine Market Council (which tracks wine-consumption patterns in the US), that only about 5% of Americans ever spend more than $20 on a bottle.
Here are six all-American wines. All are $12 or less a bottle—one comes to only about $5 a bottle.
Note: Some of the wines described here have subtle flavors of, say, apple or cherry. People sometimes ask me if apple or cherry juice is added. The answer is no. Grapes vary in flavor, just as tomatoes vary in flavor. The compounds that add fruit flavors and aromas occur naturally in the grape. (That said, there are some wines that are made from fruit—peach wine, for example—but that’s not the case with any of the wines in this article.)
Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvée. Quality US-made sparkling wine for $10 is difficult to find. The best cheap bubblies typically come from Spain and Italy. The Barefoot, from California, is a very pleasant exception, and it tastes exactly like it’s supposed to taste—crisp apple fruit and a little creaminess, not too sweet or too flat. The Barefoot won a platinum medal (the highest possible) at this year’s Critic’s Challenge International Wine Competition featuring some of the best wine writers in the US.
WHITES AND A ROSÉ
Kung Fu Girl Riesling. This Washington State white wine, made by the innovative and talented Charles Smith, is a touch sweeter than other dry Rieslings. But the sweetness is mostly balanced by lemon fruit and a little petrol aroma, a mark of a well-made Riesling. It’s sweet enough for sweet-wine drinkers, but not so sweet (like white Zinfandel) to offend a lot of dry-wine drinkers. It’s also fairly low in alcohol, so you can have more than a glass or two and still make it through all of dinner.
Toad Hollow Chardonnay. This California white wine is unoaked, which means that it’s not aged in barrels. Hence, it doesn’t have any of the vanilla or caramel flavors typical of Chardonnay and that often are poorly done in cheap wine, leaving an off taste in your mouth. Instead, the Toad Hollow is clean and refreshing, just the wine for a big meal. Instead of the oak flavors, the Toad Hollow has green apple in the front, a little tropical fruit in the middle and even some stoniness in the back. And yes, the late Todd Williams, who cofounded the winery, had The Wind in the Willows in mind when he named it.
Pedroncelli Dry Rosé of Zinfandel. One of the most welcome developments in wine over the past few years has been the return of dry Rosé, the pink wine that fell out of favor when white Zinfandel became so popular over the last few decades. The California-made Pedroncelli is a good example of why Rosé is enjoying a comeback. It’s light and easy to drink, with lots of juicy cherry fruit. But it’s bone-dry, no more sweet than most red wines despite the fruity character.
Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine in the world. As such, even ordinary Cabernets can cost way more than they’re worth. That’s not the case with the Josh Cellars, which is one of the finest cheap California Cabernets on the market. It has style and presence, with black fruit flavors…just enough vanilla to show that oak was used to age it…and a little spiciness on the back. Perhaps most important, it has what wine types call well-integrated tannins. Tannins can taste bitter and astringent when they hit the back of your mouth, but they’re crucial in making a great red wine. So there’s not much higher praise for a red wine at this price than to say its tannins are well-done.
Black Box Merlot. Boxed-wine quality has improved dramatically over the past decade, which means sales also have ticked upward. Black Box has been one of the leaders in both quality and sales, and this Merlot is one of its most dependable wines. You can buy a three-liter box of Black Box, which contains the equivalent of four bottles of wine, for $16 to $18 (that works out to less than $5 a bottle). And the Black Box is better than most $10 Merlots. It’s more tannic, for one thing, and the blueberry fruit isn’t cloying as it is in some of the $10 bottles. It’s a terrific value, and the box technology allows the wine to stay fresh for weeks and weeks after it’s opened.