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The Serious Eats Budget Red Wine Hall of Fame

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[Wine stains photograph: Shutterstock]

When I tell anyone that I run a drinks website, the first question I always get is: "So, you sit around drinking cocktails all day?" "Well...not exactly," I answer. (I occasionally edit and write stuff, too.) The second question, without fail, is: "What's the best affordable wine?"

To answer that one, I have spent the past few months gathering dozens of wines from all over the globe, looking for the best deals under $15. After tons of tasting and a number of exciting discoveries, today I'm pumped to present the first-ever edition of the Serious Eats Budget Wine Hall of Fame.

What makes a bottle of wine qualify for our Hall of Fame? First, it must fit in our under-$15 budget. While many of these wines are $10 and under, the state of international currencies in some regions, the availability of land and grape prices, as well as a number of other factors has made some wines that were once $8 (or sigh, $6) now $14. And we weren't just looking for passable party wine: these value wines have some character; they're not like every other bottle on the supermarket shelves. If the price means we can afford one great bottle for $13 instead of two so-so ones for $6.50 each, we can live with that—we'd rather really enjoy what we're drinking.

If you're seeking out the best bang for the buck, we recommend that you follow these tips:

  1. Be Adventurous: Retailers can mark up familiar brands; plenty of folks will still buy those bottles. But a cheaper price can help sell hard-to-pronounce grapes like Blaufränkisch, so there are deals to be found among delicious lesser-known grapes and regions. "It pays to buy beyond the usual suspects," Christy Frank, owner of Frankly Wines in New York told us. "If a customer tells us she typically likes, say a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, we might recommend a Verdejo from Spain's Rueda region, a Picpoul from the Languedoc, or a Jacquere from the Savoie—all of which retail for $10 to $15. This is the sort of request that any good retailer loves to hear, so don't be afraid to ask."
  2. Skip the oak: In many cases, barrels drive up the price of wine. Unless you're really craving toasty flavors, consider an unoaked wine. For the same price, you'll probably be paying for quality grapes and careful farming rather than barrels, and you're likely to get a food-friendly wine while you're at it.
  3. Buy a mixed case: If you have space to store wine safely, buy a 12-pack of assorted wines at a store you trust. You'll often get at least a 10% discount for buying in bulk.

Got those basics down? Here are some specifics: 15 awesome red wines for under 15 bucks. Don't worry, we'll have white wines (and bubbly and rosé) for you soon.

15 Great Red Wines Under $15

20120425firstfourbottlesrev7.jpgLet's start off with an $8 steal, Saumur Rouge Réserve des Vignerons (2009) from the Loire region of France. This earthy Cabernet Franc walks the line between silky and rustic. It's concentrated and spicy, with hints of dark cherries spiced with paprika, rosemary, and char. Serve it with pizza or spaghetti Bolognese.

I've long been a fan of Bibi Graetz's mineral-driven white wines from Tuscany, but the $10 red, Bibi Graetz Casamatta Rosso, should not be forgotten. The 2010 edition is only 12% ABV, but full of flavor: black cherry and dark iron-rich earth, cracked pepper, purple plum, and lavender. This smooth, easy-drinking Sangiovese has an equal balance of earth, fruit, and spices, but it's not gamey. Perfect for serving with a plate of salami and some black olives—I'd eagerly declare this wine my house red.

We love a red wine that whets your appetite, and Schola Sarmenti Critèra Primitivo (2008) does just that. From the heel of the Italian boot, this earthy wine offers good acid wrapped in a bit of smoky oak—think dates wrapped in bacon, and order soppressata pizza or put some sausages on the grill. The tannins and meat match up well, and the bright cherry fruit flavors fill in any holes. Perfect for casual dinner parties at $15.

Time and again, we find the best value in stainless steel-aged reds. Another example: Parrina Rosso Sangiovese (2009), a silky red with the bright, pure fruit flavors preserved (though wrapped in a meaty, sundried tomato-like earthiness that isn't coming from oak.) This wine tastes like the grapes were fermented with lavender and rosemary. It's a red wine you could serve with fish (try salmon with soy, miso, and mushrooms or cioppino, the seafood stew) but it would also be killer with tomato-based pasta sauces.

While we're talkin' Italian reds, don't overlook Barbera D'Asti. One recent favorite: Da Capo Barbera D'Asti 'Sanbastian' (2008), which sells for aroung $12, and is made from 25-40 year old Barbera vines. This tart little number reminded us of pomegranate juice and a big of plum—give is a little chill and serve with grilled sausages, mushroom, polenta, and sage. (It would work well with salumi and olives, too.)

We often find good values in blends, and the $11 Oliver Conti Turó Negre (2009) is a great example. This blend from Catalonia (along Spain's eastern shore) brings together 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 20% Grenache, 20% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Carignan, all vinified separately. It's juicy and supple but balanced with acidity and a pinch of cloves and black pepper, and enough tannin to make you crave lamb chops or steak with a mushroom sauce. There's a hint of smoky char that suggests this wine would be good with barbecue, too.

We were also blown away by a Cellars Can Blau red blend (2009) that can be found at some Whole Foods for around $11 (tastes like $17). Grapes mentioned on the bottle: 25% Syrah, 25% Grenache, and 50% Mazuelo. What the heck is Mazuelo? It's just another name for Carignan. This delicious wine from the DO Montsant, near Priorat, Spain, has tons of peppery star anise flavor, with lip-smacking blackberry and dark wild blueberry fruit and a mineral wet-slate backbone. Pick up two bottles of this stuff and cook up some lamb chops.

We love Grenache (or Garnacha) on its own, too, and though it gets luscious in the higher price range, we'd happily stock up on Monte Oton Garnacha (2010) which sells for around $7. It's juicy and a little smoky, like blueberry juice spiced with cinnamon and clove, and it's a great barbecue wine, perfect with grilled sausage, grilled red peppers and eggplant, and grilled lamb or beef kabobs.

Mencia is a grape to watch if you're looking for value. Last year, we tried a delicious version in a box from Bodegas Adria. Our recent pick in bottle format is the A Portela Mencia (2010) from Ladera Sagrada in Valdeorras, Spain. It's 100% Mencia that never sees oak, which leaves it with a pure plummy freshness that we loved, and lets the dusty, peppery flavor of the grape shine through. This silky-smooth just-shy-of-medium-bodied wine has a slightly salty smoky side—think sundried tomatoes, graphite, and star anise, with a little char as you swallow. Serve it up with a Neopolitan-style pizza or some grilled lamb kabobs.

Budget-focused wine drinkers should definitely get familiar with Portugal. Since people still think of them as only port producers, the table reds are still pretty reasonably priced (though not as cheap as they used to be.) I love Niepoort's Douro 'Twisted' Red (2009) which is a blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo), Tinta Amarela, and Tinta Barroca. Remember what I said about seeking out lesser-known grapes? This wine is more earthy than fruity—full of dried porcini, fennel seed, and clove, with a backbone of dried blueberry and unsweetened cocoa, and lots of fresh acid and mintiness to keep it bright. Serve this wine with a plate of salumi: the savory side will latch right in to prosciutto and speck, salami, and black olives, and follow it with a mushroom-heavy pasta dish or any slow-braised meat. (It's also pretty good with burritos.) Sells for around $15.

Don't be afraid of a bottle labeled Pittnauer Bürgenlander Rot: 'rot' in German just means red (it's pronounced 'rote'.) This biodynamically farmed blend of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, and St Laurent (a relative of Pinot Noir) from Austria is so easy to drink you'll find your $13 liter is gone quicker than you expected. It tastes like tart pomegranate and Bing cherries, spiced with clove. There's lots of nice acidity and a bit of black earth, but this is a friendly, chuggable wine that won't make you think too hard.

We also love Zweigelt straight up. We recommend Paul D. Zweigelt (2009)—it's about $12 for a liter, and full of spice and freshness, like tart raspberries and ripe blueberries with cracked black pepper on top. Try it with hamburgers or peking duck. The winemaker, Paul Direder, is under 25 years old, and this wine is ready to have a good time.

As the weather warms, gamay is one of our favorite grapes, since it's especially delicious after 15 or 20 minutes in the fridge. Our favorite under-$20 bottles (from Beaujolais producers like Pierre Chermette and Nicole Chanrion) were just over the 'budget' limit, but we also like Christophe Pacalet's Chiroubles (2010) which sells for around $15. The winemaker worked as a chef before returning to Beaujolais to study winemaking with his well-known uncle, Marcel Lapierre of Morgon. This bottling is gamay at its most floral, perfumey and fresh with flavors of crushed cherries, strawberries, orange zest, and pepper. Give it a little time in the glass—it fills in nicely after 15 minutes or so. Serve chilled with pork chops or turkey cutlets.

From closer to home, we were really impressed by Sobon Estate Old Vines Zinfandel Amador County (2010, about $13). The leather-smoky scent of this wine gives way to bright berry flavors—this is a very fresh tasting Zinfandel, perfect for drinking with a juicy burger. It's grippy on the tongue and fruity without being sweet. The key here is balance, which is helped by a cranberry-like bitter tartness that holds the fruity side in check. Note the name carefully—we weren't wild about the less-expensive Zinfandels in Sobon's line.

McManis Family Vineyards is another source of budget-friendly, widely-available California wine. Their Petite Sirah, which retails around $11, is the best of the bunch: spicy and peppery, fruity enough to please fruit lovers, but with enough structure to stand up to a hanger steak or even a carne asada burrito. Serve slightly chilled. We'd skip their Syrah, but happily drink the Merlot again, too: it has loads of bright cherry fruit, with a bit of peppery bite. Just perfect for burger night.

Add Your Recommendations!

What affordable wines should we try next? Which reds would you nominate for induction into the Serious Eats Hall of Fame? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author: Maggie Hoffman is the editor of Serious Eats: Drinks. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejane.

Disclosure: All wines mentioned above were provided as press samples for consideration, with the exception of the Saumur Rouge Réserve des Vignerons and the Pittnauer Bürgenlander Rot.

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