Cheap Cheer Lifts Spirits
Call them “quaffers”, “cooking wine”, “everyday drops” or even “two buck chuck”, there’s an undeniable place for wines at the budget end of the price point spectrum. Very often these much maligned wines are seen as one step up the pyramid from “chateau cardboard” that comes in its own bladder and a rung or two down from what you’d serve to Saturday night dinner party guests. And while we might hesitate to admit it, there are times when the oenological ignorance of our guest makes it difficult to justify reaching to the upper shelves of the cellar; like when my sister arrives and sets up camp at Easter and Christmas time! You just know that there will be an awful lot of stelvin caps being discarded in the kitchen bin, so why amplify the discomfort of alcohol-fuelled opinions by serving anything top shelf?
And I am sure that I’m not Robinson Crusoe when it comes to committing the cardinal crime of serving the C-Grade plonk to those whose palates are unsophisticated but overtly thirsty. So it got me thinking, perhaps this is a good time of year to road test the cheap and cheery wines that are displayed in abundance at most of the major bottle shops? Are they all at the same level or is it possible to find diamonds in the rough at the sub $10 price point?
I recently asked the staff at my local BWS to give me their top selling wines under $10 and some of the better performers were:
1. The Koa Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2018 – typically pungent gooseberries and tropical fruit up front, though not a lot of depth and the fruit fell away very quickly into a watery abyss.
2. The Yellow Tail 2018 Chardonnay – great vibrance to the colour in the glass, some lively peach and honeydew characters before a nicely balanced conclusion. No wonder it sells so well overseas!
3. The Jacob’s Creek Cabernet Merlot 2017 – a nice amalgam of cassis, spice and red berries and tannin, though the finish is rougher than the second cut of rough at Augusta!
Having spent a couple of hours sampling some of the cheap household name wines I think it’s fair to arrive at a few very general conclusions. While there are exceptions to every rule, more often than not a really cheap pinot will be really very ordinary. It’s a difficult grape to grow well and is usually lower yielding so if it’s priced at $10 a bottle, there’s probably a reason for that!
On the other hand, some varietals like Chardonnay and Shiraz can do very well when they come from a region that is well suited to the grape. For Chardonnay I’d look for wines from cooler regions rather than those labelled “South Eastern Australia”, and for Shiraz, the value of wines from the McLaren Vale or the Barossa Valley is largely indisputable. If Riesling is your thing, then the Clare Valley is the best place to start your search and for Sauvignon Blanc drinkers, the New Zealand South Island mass-produced commodities are not my style but do offer a better value proposition than the mainland’s cool climate regions. And finally, blends can work really well at the lower end of the market as one varietal can compliment the other while masking imperfections that would otherwise detract from the drinking experience. I particularly like Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blends for white wines drinkers, and shiraz cabernet for a red.