There's a great deal of bargain-hunting in wine shops these days. Only bankers, brokers (stock, not ticket) and professional athletes can afford the really good stuff. The rest of us are scrambling. But thankfully, with some winemakers and wineries also feeling some financial pressure, there are good values on shelves and lists.
While I know there are other bargain opportunities out there, I've enjoyed some recent tastings, at a dinner with David Mirassou, scion of the Napa County-based winery that posts a legitimate claim to being the most venerable of the California winemaking families, and with some samples from Bogle, the long-time Sonoma County producer of tasty wines at the lower end of the price scale. And Dan Kravitz, the Brooklyn-born (in a neighborhood very close to mine) wine importer who lives in Maine and whose headquarters are in Virginia, was the host at a Wine & Cheese Place tasting that displayed 10 wines from France, Spain and Argentina at $16 or less.
Kravitz works with smaller properties in Europe and South America, and had some excellent examples. Foremost was a 2007 Boniface Apremont ($16), made from the Jacquere grape, a new experience for me. The white grapes grow only in Savoie, in the French Alps, and the light wine displayed a slight, lovely tingle on the tongue. There's an aroma of flowers, with a hint of mint, and the flavor has a bit of pepper and some lemon behind that. Producers recommend it with fish, but I see it equally promising as an aperitif. I can't recall tasting wine from Jacquere grapes, but I'd be happy to drink it again.
Another interesting offering was an '06 IA Garnacha, 100 percent Grenache from Spain ($10), with a nice smoothness and pleasing raspberry overtones. A similar wine from Kravitz' own estate in France called Domaine Cabireau Serge and Tony ($15) is a little richer than the Spanish version even if it is a year younger, and its name is less complex than the wine. Serge takes care of the vineyard and Tony is the winemaker. Among his Argentine wines, an '07 Sauvignon Blanc from Alfredo Roca ($8) had a charming mineral quality and a nice touch of citrus, and an '06 Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) with the proprietary name of Altura 1024, for the 1024-meter (about 3300 feet) altitude of the vineyards, was a deep, hearty red that called forth images of roast beef or T-bone steak.
French Cotes du Rhone blends of Syrah, Grenache, maybe some Cinsault, or Mouvedre, or Carignan, depending on the winemaker's prererence, show up in several of Kravitz' wines, like a French Terre de Mistral ($13) or a Spanish Cuvee des Galets ($13). They do not have a lot of finesse, but they're hearty and they make excellent companions to a simple meal of pizza, pasta or hamburgers.
Pierre and Henrietta Pellier emigrated from France in 1854, bringing cuttings of Pinot Noir and other grapes from their own vineyards and replanting them in California's Monterey and Santa Clara valleys. They made wine, and their daughter, also Henrietta, married Pierre Mirassou, a neighboring grape farmer. With 155 years of winemaking experience behind them, the Mirassous are among the California pioneers; about three years ago, Mirassou became part of the Gallo empire. David Mirassou, the sixth generation of the family, is a spokesman who, like many winemakers and their families, go on tour after the harvest, selling and talking and drinking their wine, which sells in the $12-13 range.
Mirassou talked about five of his wines over dinner recently, starting with a crisp, tasty 2008 Sauvignon Blanc that showed considerable acidity and tartness. An '07 Chardonnay, about half aged in American oak, the rest in stainless steel, was light but with a pleasing flavor, and using steel helped reduce the big, buttery flavor which many like and as many dislike, finding it overpowering.
Three reds were more successful. An '08 Pinot Noir was young but fruity, though it's hard to tell how longer it will improve. Best of the group, in my opinion, was an '06 Merlot with grapes mainly from Paso Robles and Lodi, and a little Zinfandel and Syrah for added complexity. Soft and rich, its flavor opening and becoming tastier with every sip. It's a splendid value. Almost as good was a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon , also with grapes sourced from Paso Robles and Lodi, where hot summers build the sugar content and bring bigger black currant flavors and more body to the wine.
Another six-generation wine family, the Bogles of Clarksburg, make some of the most drinkable inexpensive wines in California. Farmers since the mid-19th century, the Bogles are late arrivals in wine, starting in 1968 when Warren Bogle and his son, Chris, planted the first 20 acres of grapes.
Like me, the Bogles prefer red wine, and four 2009 releases from the 2007 vintage demonstrate their skills in offering well-made wine at $11 a bottle, except for the Merlot, which is just $9. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, from grapes grown in the Bogles' own Clarksburg neighborhood and in Lodi or along the Central Coast, are wines with elegance and backbone.
The Zin, from vines 40-80 years old, is rich and dark, mellow and round with hints of pepper and spicy chocolate in the finish. Ten months in American oak give it tannin and a touch of wood, but also indications that the wine will age nicely. Cabernet Sauvignon, with 14 months in American oak, is certainly drinkable now, and should improve for 5-7 years. A plum nose tickles the palate. Bogle has long made a specialty of Petite Sirah, first producing it in 1978, and using grapes from Lodi and its home territory of Clarksburg. Blackberries are noticeable in the aroma, and leather and oak in the flavor. It's a wine that shows individuality and the winemaker's skill. Merlot, lush and mellow, also is a winner.