Commit these names to memory and you’ll never be at loss for a well-priced bottle of wine. These are the brands that regularly turn out excellent wines for $18 or less, the ones that you can trust when every dollar counts. To find them, we looked at all the more than 12,000 wines we tasted over the past year and selected out the brands with the most high-scoring wines in this price range. To make your summer wine shopping easier, we’ve listed the two top-scoring wines for each brand and present them where we think you’ll most enjoy drinking them: At the beach, a barbecue, a picnic or even at an ambitious evening soirée. Happy summer drinking!
At the time, fish in the Atlantic were plentiful and cheap, with scrod for dinner when we tired of the blues, or lobster, once the cheapest protein you could buy in New England (but that was before my childhood). And there was little riesling from the Finger Lakes. Now there’s plenty of great local wine coming downstate to meet New York’s seafood market head-on, like Heron Hill’s lime-scented Dry Riesling, a brisk, saline match for local oysters and clams. You can also look across the Atlantic to Gascony in France for brisk, leony whites like Tariquet’s Classic Côtes de Gascogne, or farther south down the coast to Jerez, where Lustau Fino is the choice with gambas al ajillo. one of the best places in the world to feast on seafood.
The entire Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal, in fact, remains one of the best places in the world to feast on seafood. On the north coast, instead of clams, they have percebes, the gooseneck barnacles you snap at the tip to enjoy the taste of the ocean inside, along with a glass of Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde, with its fragrant pink grapefruit flavors. Or sardiñas, grilled at a fiesta in Galicia, served on half a Galician potato (yes, it’s a registered DO) with a glass of Valdeorras Mencia from Viños de Atlantico, the kind of red wine that could work with grilled bluefish as well. —Joshua Greene
Aveleda (Aveleda, Pawtucket, RI)
2012 Vinho Verde Quinta da Aveleda (92 pts., $9, 8/13)
2012 Vinho Verde (88 pts., $9, 8/13)
Heron Hill Winery, Hammondsport, NY
2012 New York Ingle Vyds. Classic Dry Riesling (92 pts., $14, 4/14)
2011 Finger Lakes Late Harvest Vidal Blanc (90 pts., $18, 2/14)
Lustau (Europvin USA, Van Nuys, CA)
Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Fino del Puerto Almacenista José de la Cuesta (91 pts., $18, 10/13)
Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Fino Jarana (90 pts., $16, 10/13)
Domaine du Tariquet (Robert Kacher Selections, NY)
2013 Côtes de Gascogne Classic (88 pts., $12, 6/14)
2013 Côtes de Gascogne Domaine de Pouy (87 pts., $11, 6/14)
Viños del Atlantico (Olé Imports, New Rochelle, NY)
2011 Valdeorras A Portela Mencia (88 pts., $17, 10/13)
2012 Madrid Zestos Rosado (88 pts., $11 8/13)
Few West Coast fish are more impressive than the Chinook salmon, which feeds in the turbulent, nutrient-rich waters of the North Paciﬁc before heading upriver into conifer-flanked tributaries to spawn. All summer long, anglers from Seattle to the Golden Gate ﬁll charter boats and head out in pursuit of the pink-fleshed, fat-marbled Chinook.
What to drink with one’s catch (preferably roasted whole)? Salmon needs a wine with textural breadth and ample natural acidity. Oregon whites are a good ﬁt, like the tangy chardonnay and pinot gris from A to Z. Bubbles can work too, but they need to have some weight—Korbel’s easy-to-find Brut has enough substance to match salmon fat, while their more savory Rosé would match grilled Coho, Chinook’s somewhat leaner sibling, served with a squeeze of lemon.
Across the equator, Chile’s coast is blessed with its own cold current coming up from the Antarctic, creating a rich marine habitat where the Andes plunge into the deep. Pablo Neruda immortalized a particular Chilean specialty in his poem “Ode to Conger Chowder.” We don’t know what he typically drank with the rich seafood stew, but these days, look to Leyda or Casablanca on Chile’s far coast for seafood wines: Montes makes fresh, textured sauvignon blanc from both regions. Or try the arid yet fog-cooled Limarí Valley farther north, via Concha y Toro’s plump, appetite-inducing Casillero del Diablo Limarí White.
Across the Paciﬁc on New Zealand’s shores, the coastal whites are a boon for seafood, too. Barker’s Marque pulls its wines from a vine-yard named Muritai, Maori for “sea breeze,” just a mile or two from the ocean in the Awatere Valley. Their ranga.ranga. and Loop sauvignons beg for Paciﬁ c delicacies. Blue cod or snapper, anyone? Tarahiki? Maybe green-lipped mussels steamed in wine? —Luke Sykora
A to Z Wineworks, Newberg, OR
2012 Oregon Pinot Gris (88 pts., $13, 8/13)
2012 Oregon Chardonnay (88 pts., $13, 10/13)
Korbel & Bros., Guerneville, CA
NV California Brut Rosé (87 pts., $14, 4/14)
NV California Brut (86 pts., $14, 4/14)
Barker’s Marque Vineyards (International Vines, Lafayette, CA)
2013 Marlborough ranga.ranga. Sauvignon Blanc (91 pts., $13, 2/14)
2013 Marlborough The Loop Sauvignon Blanc (88 pts., $13, 2/14)
Montes (TGIC Importers, Woodland Hills, CA)
2012 Leyda Valley Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc (90 pts., $16, 2/14)
2013 Casablanca Valley Classic Series Sauvignon Blanc (Good Value, $13, 6/14)
Concha y Toro (Excelsior Wine & Spirits, Old Brookville, NY)
2011 Limarí Valley Casillero del Diablo Reserva Coastal White (86 pts., $11, 2/14)
2012 Central Valley Casillero del Diablo Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon(87 pts., $11, 2/14)
Field & Stream
It’s something the locals know well on Germany’s Mosel, where they coddle the local carp in a mild sauce of milk and butter and sprinkle it with fresh chopped herbs. The simplicity of the dish requires a clear, clean wine—e.g., Mosel riesling, maybe a Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Mosel Riesling QbA, as refreshing as it is vibrant in its apple-pear fruit.
The Danube also turns out some terrific freshwater fish, but Austria’s true specialty is asparagus, whether it’s thick white spears simply poached or green sticks shaved and tossed raw in vinaigrette. To match, there’s grüner veltliner, whose green flavors complement vegetables well. Try a bottle from Domäne Wachau, one of the world’s best cooperatives.
Farther south, the clear waters of the Adige River in Italy are rich in trout, typically served with a bay leaf–seasoned butter sauce, and accompanied with strangolapreti, a spinach-enriched cousin of gnocchi. Instead of grüner veltliner, the locals in Alto Adige have crisp, juicy pinot grigio—like the Cantina Bolzano’s 2012, a white that smells and tastes of pears with a touch of cinnamon.
On the banks of the Douro, the Portuguese are more likely to serve up bacalhau than freshwater fish, whether creamed, braised or fried. For any number of those preparations, a Douro rosé is the way to go—try the 2012 Quinta do Portal Colheita, with its cranberry aromas and creamy ripeness. Then again, its unctuous flavors can deal with just about anything, even a white sturgeon from the rivers of Washington State. Of course, the Columbia Valley has its own wealth of wines to choose from, like rieslings from Chateau Ste. Michelle or even cabernet: Grill the sturgeon to serve with pan-fried eggplant and a chilled bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells 2011—with all its black fruit aromas and energetic texture, it would be right at home. —Patricio Tapia
Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler (Winesellers, Niles, IL)
2012 Mosel QbA Wehlener Klosterberg Riesling (91 pts., $17, 12/13)
2012 Mosel QbA Noble House Riesling (87 pts., $12, 12/13)
Domäne Wachau (Vin Divino, Chicago, IL)
2012 Wachau Terrassen Riesling Federspiel (90 pts., $16, 4/14)
2012 Wachau Terrassen Grüner Veltliner Smaragd (89 pts., $18, 4/14)
Cantina Bolzano (A.I. Selections, Long Island City, NY & Perfecta Wine Co., Manchester, NH)
2012 Alto Adige St. Magdalena Pinot Grigio (86 pts., $17, 8/13)
2012 Alto Adige St. Magdalena Pinot Bianco (85 pts., $16, 8/13)
Quinta do Portal (M. Imports, Coppell, TX)
2011 Vinho Verde Trevo Branco (90 pts., $9, 8/13)
2012 Douro Colheita Rosé (87 pts., $15, 4/14)
Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, Lodi, NY
2010 Finger Lakes Block 137 Merlot (91 pts., $17, 8/13)
2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling (91 pts., $14, 12/13)
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, WA
2011 Columbia Valley Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon (88 pts., $18, 2/14)
2012 Columbia Valley Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling (92 pts., $18, 8/13)
Lamb on the Grill
Across the Mediterranean, where temperatures are warm and the hillsides are scrubby with wild herbs, sheep are easier to raise than cattle, and lamb takes precedence when it comes to meat.In the south of France, that lamb might be a shoulder stuffed with black olives and rubbed with herbs. Those dark, meaty flavors find an echo in syrah-based wines like Louis Bernard’s Côtes du Rhône-Villages or Lirac, from the southern reaches of the Rhône Valley.
In Morocco, the syrah is just as spicy and rich (check out Ouled Thaleb’s 2010 Zenata Syrah for proof) but maybe a touch more earthy—pitched toward the cumin-rubbed, slow-roasted lamb called mechoui, or couscous made with mutton and sweet spice.
In Apulia, southern Italy’s largest producer of olive oil, the lamb might be cut into chops, doused in that olive oil and wrapped in parchment paper with some herbs, where it will bake, becoming fragrant and rich—a lusty dish that’s made for the local negroamaro wines, like Castello Monaci’s Salice Salento Liante, with its dark plum flavors and savory mushroom earthiness.
Take the ferry from Bari on Apulia’s coast over to Greece, and you’ll find lamb in a thousand guises, from straight-up chops (sold at restaurants by the kilo) to ground and wrapped in phyllo for succulently rich pies. To drink, you’ll have plenty of choices, from cherry-juicy agiorgitikos in the Peloponnese to tannic, truffley xinomavros from Naoussa—Boutari can help you with both.
When it comes to lamb closer to home, just look for the wines with a Mediterranean feel, whether syrah from warmer quarters, like Columbia Valley—Snoqualmie Columbia Valley Syrah. Or look to zinfandel—Ravenswood’s Old Vine Zin is a steal for $16, cherry-plump yet entirely savory—just the wine for lamb from Rocky Mountain Wooly Weeders, a service that sends sheep out to graze away the weeds between the vines. —Tara Q. Thomas
Louis Bernard (Boisset Family Estates, St. Helena, CA)
2012 Côtes du Rhône-Villages (90 pts., $13, 2/14)
2011 Lirac Domaine des Causses (87 pts., $17, 2/14)
Boutari (Terlato Wines Int’l., Lake Blu , IL)
2011 Mantinia (90 pts., $15, 8/13)
2009 Naoussa (88 pts., $18, 8/13)
Castello Monaci (Frederick Wildman and Sons, NY)
2011 Salice Salento Liante (92 pts., $17, 6/14)
2012 Salento Maru (88 pts., $17, 6/14)
Ouled Thaleb (Nomadic Distribution, Los Angeles, CA)
2010 Zenata Syrah (90 pts., $16, 2/14)
2010 Zenata Medaillon (89 pts., $16, 2/14)
Ravenswood, Sonoma, CA
2011 Napa Valley Old Vine Zinfandel (92 pts., $16, 10/13)
2011 California Vintners Blend Petite Sirah (85 pts., $10, 10/13)
Snoqualmie, Paterson, WA
2011 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (88 pts., $13, 2/14)
2011 Columbia Valley Syrah (86 pts., $10, 2/14)
Many of the great places in the world for steak happen to be wine-region-adjacent, where a steak-friendly red is grown and made. Take for example the Chiana Valley near Chianti and Montepulciano, where the cattle are raised for bistecca alla fiorentina, the Argentine steppe of Mendoza (grazing lands for its beef cattle that provide magniﬁ cent asados), the plains of Swartland as source for a South African braai or the grazing lands of California’s Central Coast, suppliers to barbecue restaurants from Nipomo (Jocko’s) to Buellton (The Hitching Post).
Whatever the occasion and whatever the location, the idea is to find reds that are picnic-table casual, and affordable enough to have several bottles on hand. In Tuscany, that might be a Chianti, or a deeper, darker cabernet sauvignon from the coast—Prelius, Castello di Volpaia’s Maremma winery, makes a terriﬁc example for $16. In Argentina, malbec rules; the only challenge is deciding which one. Santa Julia is a regular on our Top Value Brands list, with a ﬂ oral torrontès to whet the palate and an array of juicy mal-becs suited to spiced beef empanadas as well as mixed grills.
A South African braai is a lot like an Argentine asado, only there may be more spices and lamb, notes that find an echo in the local pinotage. Man Family specializes in the sort of wines to buy by the case for impromptu barbecues, whether pinotage, shiraz or cabernet, all $11.
And back at home, with a heaping plate of tri-tip steak? Castle Rock makes a range of reds from Paso Robles to Columbia Valley in Washington State, the cabernets in particular are ﬁrm and frisky, ready for a steak. Or look to Columbia Crest, whose H3 series from the Horse Heaven Hills has become one of the best quality-for-price offerings in the state, especially its syrah–merlot blend, Les Chevaux. —Patrick J. Comiskey
Castle Rock, Geyserville, CA
2011 Columbia Valley Syrah (88 pts., $11, 6/14)
2011 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (86 pts., $11, 6/14)
Columbia Crest, Paterson, WA
2011 Horse Heaven Hills H3 Les Chevaux (87 pts., $15, 4/14)
2012 Washington Two Vines Riesling (80 pts., $8, 12/13)
Santa Julia (Winesellers, Niles, IL)
2013 Mendoza [+] Malbec (88 pts., $10, 6/14)
2013 Mendoza [+] Torrontès (Good Value, $10, 6/14)
Man Family (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL)
2011 Coastal Region Cabernet Sauvignon (85 pts., $11, 2/14)
2011 Coastal Region Bosstok Pinotage (86 pts., $11, 2/14)
Prelius (Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, CA)
2012 Maremma Toscana Vermentino (90 pts., $14, 4/14)
2012 Maremma Toscana Cabernet Sauvignon (89 pts., $16, 4/14)
That’s the case with Santorini, where the grapevines literally drink in sea air to survive the endlessly sunny, warm summer. Bracingly salty and mineral, the island’s whites have the cut to match grilled lamb as well the delicacy to match domatokeftedes, the ripe red tomato fritters that are a Santorini specialty. The Atlantis white and rosé from Argyros are some of the island’s more affordable options.
When in Greece, it’s Kourtaki Retsina, a mainstay for afternoon drinking with your feet in the sand and a meze spread that spans white beans through lamb chops. Or the light, airy whites from moschoﬁlero in the Peloponnese; Skouras incorporates its ﬂoral pleasures into both his white and rosé Zoe blends. Beach wine in Barcelona means Cava—like the sophisticated and palate-whetting Loxarel, a great $16 bottle for paella studded with mejillones and gambas.
On the coast of South Australia, locals have their own take on beach pours, the frigid Gulf St. Vincent keeping the action on the sand more than in the water. Rugged games of beach volleyball inspire a cooler stocked with refreshing rosé and shiraz for what-ever comes off the barbie. Yalumba provides both from its nearby base in Barossa.
The ocean is just as cold in Northern California—often too icy for a swim without a wetsuit. You can, however, picnic expertly. Pick up some Sonoma wine on your way out to Tomales Bay Foods at Point Reyes Station—Kenwood’s Vintage White and Red blends are hard to beat at $8 a bottle. Then grab some farmstead cheese from Cowgirl Creamery and local sourdough boules for a picnic along the crashing Paciﬁc. —Caitlin Griffith
Estate Argyros (Athenee Importers & Distributors, Hempstead, NY)
2012 Atlantis rosé (90 pts., $17, 8/13)
2012 Atlantis white (90 pts., $17, 8/13)
Skouras (Diamond Importers, Chicago, IL)
2012 Moschofi lero (90 pts., $18, 8/13)
2012 Zoe white (88 pts., $12, 8/13)
Masia Can Mayol (Classic Wines, Stamford, CT)
Loxarel Cuvée Henri Limited Production (92 pts., $16, 8/13)
Cava Saniger Brut Nature Reserva (90 pts., $15, 8/13)
Kourtaki (Nestor Imports, NY)
Samos Muscat (86 pts., $13, 8/13)
Attica Retsina (86 pts., $8, 8/13)
Kenwood Vineyards, Kenwood, CA
2010 Vintage Red (86 pts., $8, 12/13)
2102 Vintage White (85 pts., $8, 6/14)
Yalumba (Negociants USA, Napa, CA)
2012 Sangiovese Rosé (88 pts., $12, 2/14)
2012 Y Series Shiraz (87 pts., 12, 2/14)
Farther north, in Lyon, the wine would be Rhône, and the menu meatier, heavy on charcuterie. Jean-Luc Colombo is one name to look for, his La Redonne and Les Abeilles labels pitch-perfect in price and generous flavor for a salade Lyonnaise or steak frites. Across the Pyrenees in Spain, “bistro” dishes would be the plates that you order when you don’t want any more tapas—like cochinillo, a slow-cooked suckling pig, with a glass of Rioja. If it’s a white version as broad and structured as Conde de Valdemar’s Cantabria, it’ll work just as well as a red.
Don’t let the ocean stop you. In Australia, Melbourne’s streets are filled with so many cafés and bistros it could easily be mistaken for a European city. Order up some mudbugs (Aussie parlance for crayfish) or a pasta enriched with the local blue swimmer crabs and a glass of something white—maybe the Hermit Crab, d’Arenberg’s spicy, saline blend of marsanne and viognier, or go for local lamb chops and their GSM (a grenache-shiraz-mourvedre).
The simplest bistro dish may be a cheese plate. All you need in addition is a crusty baguette and a bottle of wine—an off-dry riesling from a producer like Wagner Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes is one of the most versatile bottles for cheese—and you’re set. Dinner is served. —Stephanie Johnson
Jean-Luc Colombo (Palm Bay Int’l., Boca Raton, FL)
2011 Côtes du Rhône La Redonne white (88 pts., $18, 2/14)
2011 Côtes du Rhône Les Abeilles de Colombo red (88 pts., $13, 2/14)
Conde de Valdemar (CIV (USA), Sacramento, CA)
2012 Rioja Finca Alto Cantabria Fermentado en Barrica (91 pts., $16, 12/13)
2012 Rioja Viura (90 pts., $15, 12/13)
d’Arenberg (Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, CA)
2011 McLaren Vale The Hermit Crab (90 pts., $17, 10/13)
2011 McLaren Vale The Stump Jump Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre (88 pts., $13, 10/13)
Paul Mas (Esprit du Vin, Port Washington, NY)
Côté Mas Crémant de Limoux Brut Rosé (88 pts., $18, 6/14)
2012 Côté Mas Pays d’Oc Blanc Mediterranée (86 pts., $12, 6/14)
Wagner Vineyards, Lodi, NY
2011 Finger Lakes Semi-Dry Riesling (90 pts., $14, 8/13)
2011 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling (89 pts., $14, 8/13)