Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, is a wine writer, wine critic and wine judge who specializes in inexpensive wine—the wine, he says, that most of us drink. He is author of The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wineand teaches wine, spirits and beer at El Centro College in Dallas. WineCurmudgeon.com
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When people like a brand of wine, they often drink it to the exclusion of everything else. That’s one reason why Kendall-Jackson’s $12 chardonnay has been the best-selling wine in the US for about 25 years. We buy it, we like it, and it’s easier to keep buying it than to try something else.
But wine can be so much more than drinking the same thing year after year. Given the thousands of wines most of us have never had, there’s almost certainly something else in the same price range that we would enjoy—and enjoy more.
Here are six very popular brands of wines…along with suggestions for other brands that could become your new favorites….
If you like Barefoot Merlot ($7), try The Velvet Devil Merlot ($12). Barefoot is the best-selling wine brand in the US, mostly because it offers simple, soft wines at a fair price. The merlot is an excellent example, with the chocolate-cherry flavor that so many casual wine drinkers enjoy. The Velvet Devil from Washington State used to be a more traditional merlot, with the acidity and tannins (the astringent taste in the back of your mouth) typical of the varietal, but it has evolved into a more sophisticated version of the Barefoot. It’s not quite as chocolaty, but there is lots and lots of rich red cherry fruit sure to please anyone looking for a smooth red wine.
If you like Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($12), try Argento Chardonnay ($10). Kendall-Jackson’s chardonnay is famous for its fruity, almost sweet character (using a production technique that wine geeks call stuck fermentation), as well as a dash of vanilla. This is not easy for other producers to do, but Argentina’s Argento pulls it off nicely. Look for white stone fruit flavors and the same hint of sweetness as in Kendall-Jackson. In all, the Argento offers a balance between the fruit and sweetness that many other chardonnays can’t manage.
If you like Yellow Tail Shiraz ($8), try Henry’s Drive Pillar Box Red ($10). Expensive Australian shiraz is deep, dark and spicy, with almost overwhelming black fruit. Yellow Tail, long one of the best-selling imported wines in the US, translates this style using an affordable, much less sophisticated approach. It’s almost juicy, in the way that fruit juice is juicy, and again with little acidity and tannins to get in the way. The Pillar Box Red, also from Australia, is a red blend made with shiraz that is not as simple as Yellow Tail, and it tastes more like the expensive shirazes. It’s an opportunity to see what something more complex tastes like without spending too much money or taking a chance that the wine will be too far over the top to be enjoyable.
If you like Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio ($8), try Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio ($13). Ecco Domani is one of a half-dozen or so immensely popular Italian pinot grigios (including Costco’s Kirkland Signature and the Cavit and Mezzacorona brands), best known for their crisp, almost fruitless style, with something like a tonic water minerality and a short, clean finish that is one reason pinot grigio drinkers enjoy the wine so much. These wines are refreshing and lend themselves to ice cubes in summer. The Lageder, also Italian, offers something that many pinot grigio drinkers have never tried—more fruit, a flowery aroma and a richer style.
If you like Beringer White Zinfandel ($8), try Charles & Charles Rosé ($10). The surge in rosé’s popularity over the past several years may make a lot of white zinfandel drinkers who have never tried a dry rosé wonder what they’re missing. Classic rosés are dry, while white zinfandel is sweet, and rosés usually are more crisp and feature tart berry flavors (cranberry, in particular) as opposed to white zinfandel’s ripe strawberry fruit. The Charles & Charles rosé, from Washington State, is a dry rosé but with the strawberry fruit, which isn’t as tart as many rosés—in other words, a white zinfandel-friendly introduction to rosé.
If you like La Marca Prosecco ($12), try Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava ($10). The La Marca, an Italian sparkling wine, has lemon fruit, lively bubbles and a hint of sweetness. It’s quite well-made for the price and, given the millions of cases produced every year, quite popular. The Cristalino, a sparkling wine from Spain, doesn’t have the hint of sweetness, and there is more apple fruit than lemon. But it’s even better made, and the tight, crisp bubbles usually come only in more expensive wine. It’s an ideal wine to try if you’re ready to experiment with something other than Prosecco.
GADGETS FOR ABOUT $10
Here are useful wine accessories that cost about $10 each…
Tritan Forte wineglasses. These affordable all-purpose glasses from Schott Zwiesel—good for white and red wines—are crystal, a step up from the glass restaurant kind, and they’re more difficult to break than more expensive glasses.
Rialto Waiter’s corkscrew. This has a double-hinged lever and a Teflon-coated screw (technically called a worm). It will open any bottle with a cork, and learning to use it isn’t as difficult as it seems. That’s because, after a half-dozen times or so, you’ll figure out how to screw the worm into the cork, work the levers to pull the cork out and impress others with your ability to do so.
Rabbit wine preserver. Those of us who don’t finish a bottle of wine in one sitting will notice that the wine goes off after a day or two in the same way that a cut apple will turn brown. This is called oxidation, when oxygen gets to the wine and changes its flavor. The Rabbit preserver, which pumps the air out of an open wine bottle and comes with seals to replace the cork or screw cap, is simple to use and helps the wine last a few days longer.