Recession Happy Hour: Celebrating Truly Cheap Wine

Recession Happy Hour: Celebrating Truly Cheap WineDrinking nothing but expensive wine can be harmful to your inner life. It’s like listening to nothing but Schoenberg, or wearing Top-Siders whenever you go out, or having dinner every night with large groups of psychiatrists. It can warp the spirit. Maybe you, too, know one or two well-heeled drinkers who seem to employ nothing but Salon champagne or Dujac burgundies for their personal crapulence; for a long time I envied them, or thought I did. Yet the warrens of the top-income-tax bracketeers and their auction wines aren’t the only place where you will find a monomaniacal focus on the fine and rare. The fixie cyclists of the wine world may not profess much interest in Phelps Insignia or the First Growths, but they plotz over the once-obscure treasures of the European countryside, coveting reds from the likes of Rougeard in the Loire Valley and Houillon-Overnoy in the Jura, which happen to be about as common as white truffles. Seeing a grown man nearly burst into tears at the sight of a Fleurie from Yvon Métras (this happened!) is a curious sight. And if you work or write within spitting distance of the wine trade, people will occasionally offer you token amounts of unobtainable substances, mainly in an attempt to convince you that these exist outside of hip hop lyrics. It may be fatuous to suggest that scarcity and expense are part of the allure of being a committed wine drinker, but like a record collector who stumbles across a Young Marble Giants LP in a cutout bin, we can be a covetous bunch. Conversely, to us wine geeks, bottles that retail for $15 or less remain a kind of vinous Siberia; we tend to reach for them only when nothing else is around, and do it reluctantly. This is a mistake. To lose sight of truly cheap wines is to forget much about the point of drinking. Recently, inspired by a downward (and no doubt temporary) fluctuation in my fiduciary standing, I set out to rediscover their pleasures.

To be sure, to drink devastatingly well on the cheap requires greater cunning than merely putting away your wallet. It demands a paradigm shift. But first, let’s define cheap. If you happen to work, or loiter, in a wine shop, you already know that a solid third of the customers arrive intending to spend precisely ten US dollars plus tax. These aren’t simply bargain seekers. Raise the possibility that their life might be transformed by a $14 Muscadet and they will fix you with a watery look; it’s as though they came in looking for an IKEA throw pillow and you suggested that they spruce up their living room with an original Daumier. Of course, everyone has a right not to care about their wine, just as they have the right not to care about very old Gouda or the East Timorese struggle for independence, and trying to convince people otherwise only elicits suspicions of snobbery. Still, while it may be a cliché to claim that ten dollars is simply not enough these days to buy an interesting bottle, it happens to be largely true. The reasons? Economic realities dictate that here in the US we make almost no truly cheap wine worth drinking. For overseas product, we usually depend on a three-tiered mark-up (importer-distributor-retailer) for our fix; a bottle that sells at a German or Italian winery for, say, nine Euros will likely show up on a New York store shelf at $42. Using the same arithmetic, a wine priced at ten dollars stateside begins it’s life at a Euro or two. So to partake of the most useful part of the cheap potables, we need to bump up our retail budget to $15.

So what’s so difficult about finding a workable inexpensive wine? Basically, the challenge is to find a drink that the mind won’t immediately purge from memory, like the plastic cup of Michelob you might have downed before your flight out of LaGuardia. In all likelihood, a wine that leaves its maker at a Euro-fifty will involve no prestigious vineyards or varietals, no microscopic yields, no ancient vines, no brand new Tronçais barrels, and no extended aging. Many cheap wines contain no sense of place or complexity, a fact we should accept with grace. Problem is, even the one dominant flavor that some offer can be cloying, vapid or even downright unpleasant. Think of the way many inexpensive reds—Shirazes, Barberas, and mass-market Beaujolais in particular—tend to taste basically plummy, a flavor about as exciting as a Loverboy cassingle. A lot of basic Bordeaux exits the mouth with green, drying tannin. And too many cheap whites tend to taste vaguely of pears, with too little flavor or acidity, one reason that Pinot Grigio has become the Corona Light of wine.

As for the paradigm shift—one key to drinking well on the cheap is to keep the value of things in mind. You probably wouldn’t fly in a $1500 plane or submit yourself to an $85 angioplasty, so why look for an eleven-dollar Barolo? I’ve learned not to trust wines that perform best at $20 and above, but sell for less. They hardly ever do what I want. Far better are those that don’t aspire to imitate more expensive relations but revel in being themselves. With $15 to spend, it’s more satisfying to come home with the world’s tastiest Lambrusco than a tedious burgundy. When shopping on the cheap, try to forget about Rioja, Ribera, Bordeaux, Alsace, Chablis, Champagne, the Jura, Chianti, Brunello, Sicily, anything Austrian, American, Swiss or Piedmontese, white burgundies of any stripe, and absolutely any wine made from Pinot Noir.

Fortunately, that leaves plenty of bottles that manage to excel at this seemingly hard-pressed price. Effervescent wines, for one, scrub the palate and make any meal more kinetic, and none are as reliably adaptable and delicious as Lambruscos from Emilia-Romagna; the dry, firm, dusty red version from Lini is the favorite, but in a pinch I’ll happily drink the more common Solo from Medici Ermete. For the least money—sometimes as little as $6 or $7—a chilled Vinho Verde is unbeatable. Kermit Lynch’s more serious, and drier, take comes from Piedmont—the Elvio Tintero “Grangia” is a perfect foil for fish tacos. No grape offers more for less than German Riesling; no other wine is so immediately likable and bracing—even the most modest feels like Ritalin for the tongue. Last month I brought two liter-bottles of the gentle, fine-grained dry Mosel Riesling from Günther Steinmetz—my current favorite—to Congee Palace on the Bowery to share over their indelible fried chicken. No one offers as many cheap choices as the producer and negociant Selbach, and there are worthy examples from Knebel, Schloss Mühlenhoff, Ehrhard, Leitz, von Schubert, Dr. Loosen, and St. Urbans-Hof. (While browsing the German section, don’t forget to take a look at varietals like Scheurebe, Müller-Thurgau and Silvaner.) Good Muscadet tastes like Meyer lemon juice infused with granite dust and it costs next to nothing; try the ones from Pépière, Noelle, Luneau-Papin and Brégeon. Farther east in the Loire Valley, winemakers mix Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Cot (Malbec) into some of the lightest, freshest reds anywhere; these overachievers include Thierry Puzelat (who also bottles under Tue-Boeuf), Guion, Plouzeau, and Familie Laurent. Some tasty handmade Beaujolais fits here too—from Pierre-Marie Chermette, Jean-Paul Brun, Coquelet, Coudert, and Doucroux; the declassified Morgon fruit in Marcel Lapierre’s Raisin Gaulois is also delicious. Fuller reds are the toughest category to do well on the cheap, as they are at any price. Stores are full of $12 Cotes-du-Rhônes and other stylistic offenders from farther south; for the most part I avoid them, since most tend to be overextracted and clumsy. In this price range, I find little to like from Argentina and Chile as well. I trawl, instead, in weirder waters—Odoardi’s Savuto from Calabria, Georgia’s Nato Vachnadze Saperavi, Cono 4 from Valencia’s Primitivo Quiles.

Trying to mention every cheap highlight would require a book—there are magnificent Fino and Manzanilla sherries, Verdicchio from Matelica and Castelli di Jesi, good Soave from the likes of Anselmi and Pieropan, Joe Bastianich’s Friulano (there’s a multitude of delicious and underpriced Italian whites), the white wines of Gascony…. The point I’m trying to make is that cheap wine isn’t simply a budgetary concession but forms a phenomenologically discrete branch of drinking: one that’s possibly less intellectual but usually more joyous. It accomplishes things that more expensive wines can’t. Sure, a Chambolle-Musigny can be head-spinning, but you wouldn’t open one with takeout shawarma or pad thai any more than you’d wear a bespoke Harris tweed suit to a barbecue. And, at that wedding festival in Galilee, I’m fairly sure Jesus didn’t turn water into blanc-de-blancs champagne. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” the King James version tells us, and so it is with wine.

Photo by Rick Audet

Alex Halberstadt’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon.com, New York magazine, T:Travel, Drinks, Wine & Spirits, Grand Street, and the Paris Review. His first book, about the roc ...read more

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