Great wine doesn’t need to cost a bundle. These 39 brands prove it. Each one of them boasts multiple recommendations for wines that cost $18 or less, all standouts among the 14,000-plus wines we’ve tasted over the last 12 months. We’ve presented them by country, along with stats from three years of our blind tastings. Here are the brands and regions to check out for great buys.
As the stats on the right show, it’s not easy to find a California wine that’s both interesting and inexpensive. The wineries that stand out as reliable brands for value-priced wines may irrigate and machine harvest, but they tend to focus more carefully on their fruit, making a concerted effort to match site to variety, growing the grapes themselves or purchasing grapes directly from growers rather than hoping for the best in the unreliable bulk market.
Take the relatively new Line 39 brand as an example. The winemaking team eschews the warmer portions of the Central Valley for its pinot noir and chardonnay program, working instead with growers in the cooler Clarksburg region along the delta that flows into San Francisco Bay, as well as in the wind-cooled Salinas Valley that leads inland from Monterey Bay—California’s other volume powerhouse. The 2013 Pinot Noir is especially impressive, with clean red fruit that feels like true pinot noir. For $11 a bottle, that’s pretty hard to accomplish.
Two of this year’s California value brands, McManis and Bogle, are family wineries founded by large Central Valley growers. The Bogle family’s wines are based around the 1,700-plus acres they farm themselves in Clarksburg as well as some longterm grower contracts. Bogle has been a reliable performer at our tasting table of late, the wines showing clear and clean varietal character, particularly in the bold 2012 Petite Sirah and the savory 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon.
The McManis family, meanwhile, farms eight sites in the Central Valley. While their River Junction Vineyard is in the center of the valley, at the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers, it’s tempered by cooler air that settles near the river channels. River Junction’s unique climate and sandy loam soils earned it recognition as its own AVA in 2001 and it turns out to be an especially good spot for viognier. It grew a 2013 that’s rich and earthy, lasting on varietally true scents of jasmine and apricot.
Finally, Courtney Benham’s eponymous label benefits from being a side project of the larger Martin Ray winery. It’s an opportunistic project that allows winemaker Bill Batchelor to pick up interesting and sometimes inexpensive lots of fruit that don’t fit with the Martin Ray brand. The crisp 2013 Central Coast Chardonnay comes from a vineyard in Paso Robles—a region not exactly known for chardonnay. Lucca, meanwhile, is a kitchen sink blend that changes each year. Brambly and flavorful, the 2013 is based on barbera from Mendocino, with some zinfandel and petite sirah and even a couple barrels of declassified Stags Leap District merlot. —Luke Sykora
Bogle Vineyards, Clarksburg, CA
2012 California Petite Sirah (89 pts., $12, 2/15)
2012 California Cabernet Sauvignon (88 pts., $12, 12/14)
Courtney Benham, Santa Rosa, CA
2013 Central Coast Unoaked Chardonnay (88 pts., $15, 2/15)
2013 North Coast Lucca Red (87 pts., $15, 2/15)
Line 39, Parlier, CA
2013 California Pinot Noir (88 pts., $11, 4/15)
2013 California Chardonnay (85 pts., $11, 4/15)
McManis Family Winery, Ripon, CA
2013 California Viognier (88 pts., $10, 12/14)
2013 California Petite Sirah (85 pts., $11, 12/14)
Well-established subregions like the Wahluke Slope and the Horse Heaven Hills continue to turn out some of the best values in the United States. The latter appellation is where Don and Linda Mercer planted wine grapes on their property 40 years ago, including the prized parcel now known as Champoux Vineyard. For their Canyons Riesling, however, the family sources fruit from cooler sites in the Yakima Valley, Spring Creek and Brooks vineyards, for a bracing white wine that consistently ranks as a top-value riesling in these pages.
Chateau Ste. Michelle is the state’s oldest winery, with its roots in fruit wine and hybrid-grape production in the years leading out of Prohibition. The company now owns 3,500 acres of vineyards in the Columbia Valley and partners with many other independent growers, giving the winery an incredible palette of fruit sources to draw on. They are responsible for some of Washington’s best bang-for-buck blends, and are the largest producer of riesling in the world. It’s hard to beat the Harvest Select Riesling at $10, its off-dry appley flavors rippling with acidity.
Most of L’Ecole No 41’s estate holdings are in the Walla Walla Valley, and provide the fruit for their blue-chip cabernet blends. But their Columbia Valley appellation wines, drawn from all corners of the state, have also developed a solid reputation over the last 25-plus years.
This past year, the brand’s whites caught our eye: a refreshing chenin derived from four vineyards in Yakima, all dating to the late ’70s, and an elegant, amber-hued semillon with juicy, leesy breadth. Oregon real estate is still a bargain compared with California; this accounts in part for the wave of California wineries expanding into Willamette Valley. But viticulture in the Willamette, focused on pinot noir, remains an expensive prospect in this challenging environment; many of the vineyards are on lower-yielding hillsides, and the cool climate doesn’t deliver maximum abundance. Elsewhere in the state, however—in the Rogue, Umpqua and Applegate Valleys, and on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley—the climate is warmer and drier, the terroirs more forgiving.
King Estte, based in Eugene, and A to Z Wineworks in Dundee utilize fruit from the entire state, which allows them to blend from a variety of climates to create wines that are satisfying and impressively complex, with an enviable consistency. A to Z’s 2013 whites—a chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris—are particularly refreshing in their vibrancy and crisp, clear flavors.
But perhaps the best-value white from Oregon came from King Estate: the 2012 Signature Collection chardonnay, a savory steal at $16. This year’s Signature Chardonnay was an anomaly, drawn almost entirely from a single Yamhill-Carlton vineyard, Gran Moraine. In a warm vintage it delivered plenty of forward fruit and a leesy, savory side that could please even the most picky Burgundophile. —Patrick J. Comiskey
A to Z Wineworks, Newberg, OR
2013 Oregon Chardonnay (88 pts., $14, 10/14)
2013 Oregon Riesling (87 pts., $15, 8/14)
King Estate Winery, Eugene, OR
2012 Oregon Signature Collection Chardonnay
(93 pts., $16, 10/14)
2013 Oregon Pinot Gris (90 pts., $12, 8/14)
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, WA
2012 Columbia Valley Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon
(88 pts., $18, 6/15)
2013 Columbia Valley Harvest Select Sweet Riesling
(87 pts., $10, 12/14)
L’Ecole No 41, Lowden, WA
2013 Columbia Valley Old Vines Chenin Blanc
(91 pts., $16, 10/14)
2013 Columbia Valley Semillon (89 pts., $15, 4/15)
Mercer Wine Estates, Prosser, WA
2013 Yakima Valley Canyons Riesling (88 pts., $10, 12/14)
2013 Columbia Valley Estates Chardonnay (86 pts., $13, 12/14)
And the vineyards tend to be owned by the producers themselves; until quite recently it was rare for would-be winemakers to start a venture without an estate vineyard. Nearly all of the wine produced at Knapp
Winery on Cayuga Lake, according to owner Gene Pierce, comes from estate sources, which might help explain the winery’s sure footing. Pierce founded one of the region’s original vinifera wineries, Glenora, back in 1977, and he adds another explanation for the attractive prices of Finger Lakes wines: the region’s long history of tasting-room sales. “We used to be almost 100 percent out the cellar door,” explains Pierce. “Three-tier distribution would have had us starting out a little higher.” As it stands, his tense, leesy chardonnay runs only $14; the Dry Riesling was one of the standouts of the year, complex and mineral—and only $16.
On Seneca Lake, Red Newt Cellars takes a different tact, working closely with local growers for fruit. They’ve secured no less than six sources for their svelte, graceful rieslings, and make some of the most attractively priced vineyard designates in the country. Even the basic cuvées—Circle and Dry—have terrifi c energy, the Circle sweet and salty, pitched right for takeout dan dan noodles; the Dry savory and fruity, with an uplifting pineapple brightness. —P.J.C.
Knapp Wine Cellars, Dundee, NY
2013 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling (91 pts., $16, 10/14)
2013 Finger Lakes Barrel Reserve Chardonnay
(88 pts., $14, 12/14)
Red Newt Cellars, Hector, NY
2013 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling (92 pts., $17, 4/15)
2013 Finger Lakes Circle Riesling (88 pts., $13, 4/15)
Set at 4,300 feet above sea level, it’s a remarkably high-elevation source of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier for méthode champenoise wines. The mountain location provides dramatic diurnal shifts, with summer nights as much as 40 degrees cooler than the high desert afternoons. Most of Gruet’s sparklers come in below $20, quite a feat considering the remote and challenging terroir. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better-value suite of traditionally made sparkling wines made in this country. —P.J.C.
Gruet Winery, Albuquerque, NM
NV United States Blanc de Noirs (90 pts., $17, 6/15)
NV United States Brut (88 pts., $16, 4/15)
This story was featured in W&S June 2015.
illustrations by Megan Piontkowski
This story appears in the print issue of June 2015.
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