Their names may never grace the entrance of a grand estate, be seen on anyone's Top 100 list, or send chills up the spine of an ace sommelier, but in this world of overrated pleasures, simple, inexpensive wines with the power to please enjoy a celebrity status all their own.
We know this because in three years of celebrating little wines in a series of monthly columns and one blowout annual tasting we call Plonkapalooza, there seems to be endless interest from readers, retailers, and distributors. So we set out once again to find the best for the least.
The task of nominating candidate wines of exceptional value and ready availability goes to five well-regarded retailers. We ask each to name six or eight whites and reds (priced at $12 or less) that they consider the year's best. After eliminating duplicates, we choose 25 of each to taste blind (no labels visible) by a panel of professionals at a single go. Joining me this year were Deborah Hansen, owner and sommelier of Brookline's Taberna de Haro; Theresa Paopao, manager and wine director at Oleana restaurant in Cambridge; and Erik Johnson, wine director at L'Espalier in the Back Bay and at Sel de la Terre on the Waterfront and in Natick. They were asked to identify their top picks in each category and explain what won them over.
Retailers bringing bottles to the table this year were Esprit du Vin of Milton, Market Wine & Spirits of Salem, the Back Bay's Bauer Wines, Nejaime's Wine Cellars of Stockbridge and Lenox, and Brookline Liquor Mart.
Expectations were understandably high this year, since 2005 and 2006 (the years most of these wines were bottled) were strong vintages in Europe. In defiance of the weak dollar and stiff competition from Chile, Argentina, and Australia, Old World vineyards remain the source of the most interesting wine for the least money. On this score at least, the exercise produced no surprises. The overwhelming number of candidates - and winning wines - were either French, Spanish, or Italian.
Only one wine proved talented enough to beguile all four panelists: a white, the 2006 Willm Alsace Pinot Blanc from France. Hansen called it "delectably creamy," while Johnson praised it as "very groovy stuff" with "layers of flavor."
Two other French whites garnered three votes each: the feisty 2006 St. Peyre Picpoul de Pinet Coteaux de Languedoc, and La Chasse du Pape's 2006 "Prestige" Cotes du Rhone Blanc. Paopao found a well-balanced cocktail of "sweet white flowers and jasmine" in the Picpoul (more than one taster found the floral component so persuasive they surmised it might be viognier). Hansen described the white Cotes du Rhone as "lovely and smooth with notes of chalked stone." Sella & Mosca's 2006 "La Cala" Vermentino di Sardegna and the 2006 Adega Marea Alta "Do Zoe" Rias Baixas Albarino won over the palates of two panelists.
Three votes were all any red achieved, and this distinction was earned by three wines: the Cantine San Silvestro 2006 "Ottone I" Piemonte Barbera, which Hansen praised for its "Old World intrigue"; Luc Pirlet's 2005 Vin de Pays d'Oc Syrah-Mourvedre ("It's making me hungry!" moaned Johnson); and the 2005 Quinta de Ventozelos "Vinzelo" from Portugal's Douro region, a wine Paopao cheered for its distinctive "grip."
Two reds elicited a pair of upturned thumbs each. These were the 2004 LAN Rioja Crianza, a wine whose "ripe, long finish" Spanish-specialist Hansen appreciated, and Guidobono's 2005 Nebbiolo delle Langhe - my top pick among reds.
Overall, the panel found more value among whites than reds - judging all the whites clean, correct, fresh, and appealing. There was some concern about what was perceived as a relatively narrow range of expression on offer. The panel also chafed a bit at the amount of sweetness exhibited by the red wines. Everyone wondered aloud if this constituted a conscious attempt by winemakers at making modest wines more ingratiating to entry-level drinkers - or Americans in general. That led the experts to think that they wouldn't have these bottles on their own lists. But when the time came to reveal identities, several were surprised to recognize wines that either were, or had been, on their restaurants' wine lists.
Paopao says that choosing wines to pour by the glass at Oleana she has to "kiss a lot of frogs" to find a prince. Our tasting shows that, with a bit of determined smooching, a royal or two can still be found out there.