The holiday season is prime time for Cheap Crap™.
With so many of us spending the time in transition one way or another, in cramped travel or in unusual proximity to relatives and quasi-relatives from the perimeters of our lives, there's little time to settle in and focus on the good stuff, so why waste it when it won't get the attention it deserves?
During the holidays our thoughts are with family and friends, we're catching up with people we only see in December, we're looking at ourselves in the mirror after the passage of another year and asking "What have you done this past year to make the world a better place?" Perhaps there's no answer, or perhaps an answer we don't like, or maybe the lucky few have made themselves proud.
Pride, of course, is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, so you're screwed there, too.
So many questions, so few answers. Do we see our faces reflected in the aging of a favorite uncle? Has our nephew always been quite so fond of show tunes? Does the return of Mjolnir signal the beginning of the end times? What I've learned through long experience is that Cheap Crap™ can be one of those answers, a firm retort to the questions that make daily life oh so rough to face. With Cheap Crap™ there are no half measures, and, most importantly, it doesn't force us to spend money that we need for cheese or refried beans or peanut butter or those little microwaveable White Castle cheeseburgers that we like so much.
The thought I'd like to leave everyone with this holiday season is as simple as this: When the wine is cheap enough we can have both wine AND those little microwaveable White Castle cheeseburgers that we like so much!
And so I give you another three score and ten examples of the frugal vintners' art...
THIRTEEN CHEAP WHITE WINES FROM ALL OVER
Monsieur Touton Bordeaux Blanc Sec 2004 ($6). Light lemoncreamy aromatics, hint of a sort of dusty-talcish minerality. Crisp, simple and surprisingly tart on the finish, it's a thin little thing with a lot of spine and some lemonpuckery acidity. Actually, despite its rather bland lemonhead simplicity, there's at least a sense of lift to it, it has the nervy tautness that one might find in an industrial Muscadet. Or an industrial white Bordeaux, for that matter. Not bad, just nothing interesting. [Buy again? Nah.]
Château Jolys Jurancon Sec 2003 ($12). I approach this with a bit of trepidation, it being a favorite around our house, but how did they do in the heat of '03? Well, pretty much like everyone else, it seems. Medium-light gold color, smells apple-apricot-pineappley, there's only a suggestion of the usual whitefloral notes. Tastes a bit plump, a bit ponderous, there's some spiky lemony acidity trying its best but the usual vibrancy isn't quite there. [Buy again? Next year.]
Di Lorenzo Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 2003 ($5). Pale straw-tan color. Slightly cheesy hint at first, blows off a bit with air. Underneath that, hay and yellow pear, touch of peachiness. Medium acidity, clear and very gently minerally underneath a whiteflowery fruitiness. Pretty nice for five bucks, somewhat neutral but pleasantly so. [Buy again? Yup.]
Valle de la Vega Verdejo Rueda 2003 ($7). Pale straw color. Lemon blossom up high, interesting ginger-bark hint in the midnose. Tastes bright and crisp, lightly creamy and ever so slightly minerally. There's a fleshy roundness right at first that plumps up marginally in the middle, then the mineral streak rises and takes over the finish. A bright, simple wine, honest and zippy. [Buy again? Yes.]
Casa Viacava Sauvignon Blanc Mendoza (Argentina) 2005 ($5). Ah, my first '05. Pale straw color, with pinkish highlights. Smells grapefruit-citric, hint of green chile, light hint of ginger. Crisp enough but also rather creamy, a bit of heft to the midpalate. Decently flavorful, a very nice industrial kind of wine, the kind of wine you wish you'd see more of, they've got that grapefruit/chile/grassy/lemon cooler thing down, with whatever enzyme or technology you use to make that, but it works nicely. Not Frescaª so much as Squirtª, the grapefruit soda. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? Sure, I can always cook with it.]
Tohu Wines Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2003 ($13). Light grapefruity aromatics, hint of peach, trace of limeskin. Small, light easygoing sauvignon, correct and decently uncomplicated, crisp and dry and bright. There's a plain-Jane quality if compared to more extravagant Kiwis, but one could say it was just keepin' it real. Still, Lisa likes it. SCREWCAP! [Buy again? Erm... yeah, okay, I guess.]
Selaks Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Premium Selection 2004 ($12). Light peachy-white grapefruit aromatics, whispery and gentle smelling. Tastes crisp and citric, rather neutral in the middle, finishes grapefruity with a hint of grassiness. Mediumweight sauvignon, tart and decent but rather routine. [Buy again? Only in a pinch.]
Kurt Darting Riesling Durkheimer Michelsburg Kabinett 2004 ($14). Vinyl, peach blossom hints over crisp yellow apple. Broad-beamed for a Kabinett in the usual Darting manner, a good dose of sugar and the usual gland-grabbing acidity, perhaps a bit more mellow than in some years. Smooth, glossy-shiny mouthfeel. The finish turns very limeskinny, the bright appliness fading before the pleasantly sour citricity. Not a lot of subtlety or finesse, but plenty of flavor and character. SCREWCAP! [Buy again? Yup.]
McWilliams Hanwood Estate Riesling South Eastern Australia 2004 ($7). Simple, plain aromatics; lime and honeysuckle with a hint of vinyl. Medium acidity, seems unmarred by any weirdness. Actually, quite decent and with a quiet dose of varietal typicity, if framed rather inoffensively wan. You could do worse. SCREWCAP! [Buy again? No, not really.]
Columbia Crest Riesling Columbia Valley 'Two Vines' 2004 ($7). Why only two? Which two? Hm. At any rate, it smells a bit like riesling in a West Coast way, light pineapple, vinyl and lemon-peach hints, shy breezy aromatics. Tastes lightly sweet, gentle little riesling without a lot of anything (focus, character), but amiable and kind of happy-tasting. A wee apertif kind of wine, gently sweet and likeable in a plain-Jane way. Doesn't have a lot going on, but it's cheap, it has some varietal character, and it goes down smooth. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? Yeah, I think so.]
Pierre Sparr Alsace 'One' 2003 ($9). One what? Not sure, as the label claims every white grape variety under the sun except hondarrabi zuri. Anyhoo, it's a light straw-gold color with pinkish highlights. Smells applespicy-floral, like muscat more than anything else. I guess this is Sparr's answer to Hugel's Gentil, but the curse of 2003 has done this one in. It's light and floral enough at first, but grows broad and diffuse in the middle, the traces of acidity running away and hiding, general flatness setting in. [Buy again? Not this vintage. Maybe in '04.]
Willamette Valley Vineyards Riesling Oregon 2003 ($8). Oy, yet another '03. Let's see... smells lightly whitefloral, gardenia mingling with a gentle lemon-lime citricity. Demisec-sweet, gentle spritziness, light flowery-citric wine, simple and soft. Strangely, I find myself draining my glass and going back for another pour. It has a gently drinkable quality that trumps any objections about simplicity and softness. [Buy again? Yes, I think so.]
The Australian Premium Wine Collection Chardonnay Western Australia 'The Wishing Tree' Unoaked 2004 ($9). Smells like a juicy pear mixed with apple candy, juicy-fruity and simple. Tastes much the same, simply and straightforwardly fruity, rounded mouthfeel, sufficient acidity. Appealingly plain and rather friendly, it has the quality of a mix of fruit juices and goes down smoothly and easily. Pretty darn decent, another drop in the empty bucket of evidence that chardonnay isn't entirely a waste of vineyard space. SCREWCAP! [Buy again? Yeah, sure.]
TEN CHEAP FRENCH RED WINES
Domaine Mont Retiré Corbières 2002 ($11). Smells shy, light bandaid-barnyard hints over a quiet earthy blackberry base. Loose, wan and watery; there's acidity at the core, but the wine is vague and uninteresting. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? No.]
Delas Côtes-du-Ventoux 2002 ($9). Medium garnet color. Very nonaromatic, has almost no smell. I swirl energetically and coax a bit of black raspberry, a trace of a plaster-of-paris minerality, a smoky mezcal note and a hint of green herb. Tastes gently redfruity, vague and dilute, slips away without a finish. It seems fairly straightforward and decent, but there's just not much here, a ghost wine. [Buy again? Nope.]
Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac 2000 ($13). Smells very redfruity, plush black cherry and raspberry, smoky-toast and clove, almost zinnish. A bit watery in the middle, but fleshy and friendly. Medium low acidity, chewy texture, shortish shoepolish-laced finish. Could probably use a bit more backbone, but all in all a very nice fat little Rh™ne. [Buy again? Sure.]
Domaine Notre Dame de Cousignac Côtes du Vivarais Grenache-Syrah-Carignan 2000 ($10). Côtes du where? Damn new appellations keep cropping up like mushrooms after a rain. Anyhoo, it's a medium muddy garnet color at the core, rubying out towards the rim. Sweet cinnamon on the nose over smoked meat, rhubarb, earth, interesting to smell if a bit offbeat. Tastes loose and dark, easygoing and medium-lightbodied, then suddenly ferocious tannins swoop in and spot-weld my tongue. Crisp, loosely earthy, then AAARRRGH. What to make of this--a seemingly interesting wine for the first four-fifths of the way, but the final tannic conflagration just blows it. Weird. Not uninteresting, but weird. [Buy again? No, not really.]
Château au Grand Paris Bordeaux Supérieur 2003 ($10). Thin, watery food coloring with a hint of shoe polish and cherry cough drop. Bleh, waste of glass space. [Buy again? Noooo.]
Eric Texier Côte du Rhône Villages Séguret Vieilles Vignes Non Filtré 2000 ($14). Dark plum and smoky-earthy blackberry, rich and meaty-smelling. Quite chewy, gentle and plush around the edges, just firm enough at the core. This hasn't really budged much since release, I'll probably hold onto my couple remaining bottles for a few more years. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? Oh yeah.]
Henry Marionnet Touraine 'Première Vendange' 2002 ($10). Grapey-strawberry aromatics, simple and very pleasant to smell. Light-bodied and loose, tastes like homemade wine made lovingly in someone's garage; utterly plain, juicy and fresh-tasting. Drink by the carafeful, goes down smooth and almost without incident, easily gulped, some light glassy tannins. Unsulfured, uninoculated, unchaptalized, unspoofulated gamay for ten bucks. Nice work. [Buy again? Damn straight.]
Domaine Lafond Côtes du Rhône Roc-Epine 2003 ($10). Corked.
Château d'Oupia Minervois 'Hommage à Poupette' 2004 ($13.40). Apparently from 100 year old carignan vines, this is a tribute to the proprietor's late French poodle, whose beatific visage graces the label. Smells of licorice-laced blackberry and plumpit, with a dark rocky undertone. With air I get a bit more redfruit in the middle, but the wine is dark and earthy and calm tasting. Medium acidity, gently fleshy-textured, pure and loose, takes a turn towards licorice on the finish, alongside some slightly rough tannins. Very nice. No, VERY nice, and yet another glove slap in the face of those who insist you have to spend fifteen bucks to get great wine. DOG ON THE LABEL! [Buy again? Oh yeah.]
Château Le Clos Daviaud Montagne Saint-Emilion Cuvée de la Trilogie 2000 ($13). Smells graphitey, dark minerals, plum and blackfruit with a touch of smoky cedar. Firm and composed, medium-lightweight wine with middling acidity, flicker of licorice on the finish. On the lean side, more minerally than frooty, there are some abrasive tannins but all in all a nice little everyday kind of claret. [Buy again? Sure.]
THREE CHEAP AUSTRALIAN RED WINES
Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley 2001 ($13). Dark garnet color, smells ripely red and Coppertoney, blackcurrant jam laced with vanilla and coconut. Broad-beamed and muscular, densely cassised, oaky and robustly simple. The mouthfeel is creamy at first, gets interestingly matte in the middle, lets you know its passing through. It hasn't an ounce of subtlety, but sometimes a big dumb oaky cab hits the spot, and this delivers the goods. [Buy again? Yup.]
Red Knot Cabernet Sauvignon Mclaren Vale 2004 ($11). Medium-dark garnet color, purple highlights. Smells ripely plum-berry-cassised, but there are hints of cedar and oregano to add a bit of complexity. Richly flavored and with substantial midpalate heft, it's just shy of jammy, but there again are some earthy-spicy flavors to take the edge off, as well as some firm acidity and slightly aggressive tannins. Bold wine, at first it's a bit overpowering, but it settles and calms in the middle, the shiny fruit turning towards matteness, the structure rising to the fore slowly but steadily. Quite pleasant, a dense, imposing youngster that I like very much, a chewy wine that fights back in my mouth, like good bread. STRANGE RED TWIST-TIE TOP WITH A RUBBER STOPPER! [Buy again? Definitely.]
The Australian Premium Wine Collection Shiraz Western Australia 66%/South Australia 34% 'The Wishing Tree' 2004 ($8). Okay, I don't think I've seen an appellation broken up by percentages before, but what the hey. Big jammy plum-blackberry-tar aromatics, tastes soft and squishily ripe, a juicy wine that tastes a bit like pre-set plum Jell-Oª that has been slightly scorched. I know that doesn't sound terribly appetizing, but oddly the overall effect isn't unpleasant, a simple broad-beamed quaffer with just a hint of acidity that would probably please most shiraz-seekers who want a squishy fruitbomb. SCREWCAP! [Buy again? Um... actually, yes. I think, if I was throwing a party for nongeeks, maybe.]
TWO CHEAP ITALIAN RED WINES
Le Mire Sangiovese Toscana 2004 ($10). Corked.
Principe Corsini Chianti Classico 'Le Corti' 2002 ($10). Quiet black cherry, shoe polish, not much else, very aromatically sterile. Tastes kind of hard and barren, there's acidity but also wateriness and diffusion in the middle. Nothing obviously wrong, but nothing much right, either. Finishes short and whimpery, a wine without mouthprint. [Buy again? No.]
FOUR CHEAP RED WINES FROM SOUTH AMERICA
Henry Lagarde Malbec Mendoza Reserve 2003 ($7). Simple, broadly plummy-blackberried, smells dark and quietly plush. Tastes pretty much like it smells, some dark coffee-smoky flavors emerge in the middle and shoulder their way through some gritty tannins on the finish. Plain and fleshy, with a slightly gritty mouthfeel and some pleasant mouthrasp, has enough guts for steaks. Simple, but does the trick. [Buy again? Uh huh.]
Altas Cumbres Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 2003 ($6). Okay, fairly classic watery blackcurrant, touch of cedar, oregano, juicy-simple and inoffensive. Straightforward and rather wan, but there's enough going on to hold my attention, at least briefly. Medium-low acidity, flaccid and juicy as it heads into the finish, with a dilute matte texture. I don't hate it, and it's at least amiable, but there's nothing of note here. [Buy again? No, not really.]
Odfjell Vineyards Carmenère Valle del Maule (Chile) 'Armador' 2002 ($6). Thin, grapey-herbal and quite unappealing, like overcropped weedy merlot with a dose of overcropped underripe syrah thrown in for backbone. Really, I want to like it because it's an odd duck of a grape variety, but it's abrasively tannic and green and grapey all at once, and it actually seems to suck donkeys. [Buy again? No no no.]
Casa Viacava Malbec Mendoza 2003 ($5). Very strange aromatics, there's the blackberry and coffee that I'd expect, but there's also a weird chemical/cumin streak that has me scratching my head. Grapey-blackberried and glossy tasting, there's a bitter vein that lingers a little too long in the middle, tastes a little wrung out, despite the candyfruity quality. Medium acidity, but the bitterness just won't go away. Not very good. FAKE CORK! [Buy again? No.]
FIVE CHEAP RED WINES FROM THE IBERIAN PENINSULA
Terra Única Tempranillo-Monastrell Alicante Reserva 2000 ($7). Medium to medium-light garnet color. Light hint of volatility, nothing offputting, then quiet spicy-cherry and beef broth hints. Medium-light bodied, composed and small-framed, firm acidity, decent straightforwardly drinkable wine. Simple house-red material, but for seven bucks I'll buy more. [Buy again? Yeah, why not.]
Cérvoles Costers del Segre 2000 ($7). Medium-dark garnet color. Smells cassis-toasty, but there's also some weird sour-milk thing going on here. Very strange, and kind of unpleasant to smell. Tastes tart, crisp, lots of toasty wood, then more of the funky lactic thing. Just too funked up, I don't know if this particular bottle has some kind of bacterial thing or what, it's just unpleasant. [Buy again? Judgment withheld. (In other words, no.)>
Rene Barbier Catalunya 'Mediterranean Red' NV ($5). Smells gently brickberried, touch of leather, hint of eucalyptus and tea. Tastes soft, light and juicy, with a pleasant earthiness. Loose but fleshy, low acid but light-bodied, muted redfruit and earth. Low key quaffing wine that's straightforward and decent. [Buy again? Yassir.]
Bodega Vi–as Zamoranos Vino de la Tierra Castilla y Léon 'Tresantos' 2002 ($7). Smoky-stinky at first, smells like something that crawled out from under a flaming outhouse. There's some interesting calm redfruit here, but it seems to have been smothered in what tastes and smells like Liquid Smokeª. Clumsily tannic and oddly stressed, it's a tense wine, burdened with trying too hard to be something it's not, overly made up and tapdancing with a toothy rictus like one of those creepy kids in those child pageants that make you want to call Child Protective Services. The winery's name is in three-point type in metallic ink lettering (along the lines of PMS 8021). I actually have to get out a loupe to read it, a first for me. [Buy again? No no no no no no.]
Bodegas Antonio Candela e Hijos Yecla 'Bellum Providencia' 2003 ($13). Yikes, it's a brute. Full bore Turleyesque chocoberry-peanut-licorice aromatics, ripe and aggressively in-your-face brawny. Well oaked and with the feel of a reduction sauce, this is an impressive but rather exhausting wine. Actually, with a bit of sipping it reminds me of a dry Banyuls more than anything, boisterously black raspberried, medium-low acidity, here there be gobs gobs gobs. [Buy again? Sure.]
TWO CHEAP RED WINES FROM SOUTH AFRICA
Golden Kaan Cabernet Sauvignon Wine of Western Cape (South Africa) 2003 ($6). A plonk sighting lads, thar she blows! Watery redfruited industrial plonk; thin, antiseptic and characterless, without the decency to be ripe or plump or something redeemable. [Buy again? No no no no.]
Indaba Shiraz South Africa 2004 ($7). Medium-light garnet color, oddly pale for 'shiraz.' Touch of plum-berry, touch of acetone, hint of mint, vague ripe aromatics. Tastes bland and squishy, soft and industrial-generic wine, vague and sterile. [Buy again? No.]
EIGHT CHEAP RED WINES FROM THE GOOD OL' U. S. OF A.
Three Thieves Cabernet Sauvignon California 2003 ($11). Smells quietly cherry-grapey, simple Kool-Adey aromatics. Tastes soft and plum-cherried, loosely wrapped and rather watery. Gulpable in an inoffensive airline-wine fashion, even has a sort of bland amiability, but all in all not one to revisit. SCREWCAP! [Buy again? No.]
Echelon Pinot Noir Central Coast 2004 ($10). Soft plum-clove aromatics, gentle touch of mushroom-gaminess. Tastes quietly plum-cherried, very loose and soft, easygoing but pleasantly expressive within a limited range. Tastes like pinot noir, low key drink-now pinot noir, unfreaky and unbent out of shape. More likeable than it sounds, goes down with a clovey hum, not much of a finish. [Buy again? Yes, I did.]
Coastal Ridge Merlot California 2003 ($5/.185). Smells like purple crayon and wood chips, tastes like grape Kool-Adeª with a shot of cheap bourbon. Plump, loose and sterile, industrial dreck, characterlessness incarnate. Finishes bitter, fakey and much too long. Make it stop, for the love of god, make it stop. Horrible. Why can't Air France fly to Portland? [Buy again? No no no no no.]
R.H. Phillips Shiraz Dunnigan Hills 2004 ($7). I bought this thinking it was Australian shiraz, plus there's a cute little cork hanging around the bottleneck on a string with 'cork amnesty' printed on it, which I also thought was darn cute. At any rate, it's a warm, ripe smelling wine, dark cassis and plum laced with toastiness, smells simply fruitbomby, but not dopey or overwrought. Medium acidity, fleshy-textured and glossy-ripe, a puppyish party wine without any complexity to speak of but a good measure of rich juiciness and enough balance to pass muster. SCREWCAP! SACRIFICIAL CORK! [Buy again? Yeah, sure.]
Cult Wines California 'Big Moose Red' 2002 ($10). I was prepared to dislike another dopey animal-label wine, but this nonspecific wine (the label just says it's a 'blend') is pretty decent. Smells dark and smoky-raspberried, simple and juicily aromatic. Tastes something along the lines of the Marietta Old Vine Red, petite sirah & zinnish. Pillowy and loosely wrapped, some slightly spiky acidity, but overall fairly amiable as a ripe, flavorful chugging wine. SCREWCAP! [Buy again? Yup.]
Cartlidge & Browne Zinfandel California 2001 ($8). Loose, gently amiable red raspberry-tinged wine. Not much character, not much grab, not really interesting, a step above airline wine. Inoffensive might be the best thing I can say. [Buy again? No.]
St. Francis Winery Sonoma County 'Red' 2002 ($10). Generously candy-oaky nose, sawdust and toast and sweet black cherry-raspberry jam. Seems like a simple loose redfruity wine that's been infused with a whopping dose of Liquid Smokeª-like wood flavoring. For my tastes it would have been better as a simple loose redfruity wine, but if you like mesquite jam, this one's for you. [Buy again? No.]
Don Sebastiani & Sons/Three Loose Screws Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 'Mia's Playground' 2002 ($13). The label is straight out of Whimsy for Designers 101, but the wine smells raucously zinny--ripe black cherry and raspberry juice swirled with some dark tarry-toastiness and a hint of VA. Big brambly redfruit with a touch of residual sugar, a large-bodied fruitbowl of a wine, with medium acidity and some quiet tannic murmurs amidst the pillowy fruit on the finish. Quite likeably blowsy, the kind of silly zin that gave zin a good name before it got serious and expensive. I could do without the hint of sweetness, but I still like the wine and I have to wrestle it from Lisa so I can have an ounce to ponder. [Buy again? Sure.]
THREE CHEAP SWEETIES
Osborne Late Bottled Vintage Port 1999 ($12). Red clay and plum-cocoa aromatics, gently and simply aromatic, two- or three-tone. Sweet dark raspberry-chocolate flavors, just a bit grapey, simple and rather bland but there's enough richness and sugar to keep the wine pouring. [Buy again? Yeah, you could do worse.]
Cockburn Fine Ruby Porto NV ($11). Cherry cough syrup with a lot of sugar. Simple, one-note cherry flavors, low acidity, relatively light in both flavor and interest. [Buy again? No reason, no.]
Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Muscat Rutherglen NV ($11/.375). Sweetly aromatic, toffee, toasted marshmallow, butterscotch, orange rind. Viscous and shiny, very sweet but with a vivid acidic snap to it as well. There's a bit of a boozy burn in there amidst all the sugar and flavor, but with everything else that's going on it's easily forgiven. Good sweet sloppy muscat, not terribly complex but a lot of fun to drink in small quantities. [Buy again? Yup.]
Happy holidays, everybody! Cheap Crap™ to all, and to all a good night!