When it comes to wine, cheap (what the trade calls 'plonk') no longer means undrinkable. We tasted 25 whites and 25 reds -- each bottle $10 or under -- and picked our favorite everday pours.
Wine magazines often rave about labels so rare and expensive you can neither find nor afford them. But glossy spreads of fancy chateaux and their owners don't do much to change what's happening here in the real world, where nightly fare isn't foie gras or truffled pheasant but rather pot roast and grilled cheese sandwiches. And the wine? Give us a little under-the-radar number we can pick up by the case, store under the cellar stairs, and pour with pleasure night after night and everyone at the table is happy. No pretense. No hype. No trust funds required.
Now to the question of whether these wines exist. Absolutely. Even better, there's more of them than ever. In fact, remarkable improvements in the quality of wines at the low end of the spectrum may be the single most important wine story of the last 25 years.
It wasn't that long ago that picking simple weeknight bottles meant that you couldn't be sure the wine was sound -- never mind pleasant to drink. And it was rarely interesting. No wonder it was all lumped together under the disparaging nickname of ''plonk," a catch-all word to describe the wine equivalent of riffraff (see page E4). Now, with plonk shedding its reputation as thin, unreliable, and unrewarding, competition in the everyday value category has turned fierce. It's good news, if only we could pick our way through the hundreds of bottles vying for our attention and discover the true grands crus of plonk. A comprehensive review seemed an unlikely solution. But a serious tasting of 50 wines might at least be a start.
We asked five retail shops to share their top picks of $10-and-under red and whites that are in stock and in reasonably good supply. We wanted nothing rare or exotic; no roses, sparklers, or sweet wines. The goal was to identify strong candidates that our panel -- Globe staff writers Alison Arnett, Ann Cortissoz, and Joe Yonan joined me in the tasting -- could evaluate for quality, character, and versatility. Wines were wrapped in brown paper bags and identified only by number. Tasters sampled three wines at a time, and then stopped to discuss and record their impressions. Each was asked to identify five top reds and five top whites (see lists on this page).
The shops that contributed their pick of plonk were Curtis Liquors in South Weymouth; Federal Wine & Spirits in Boston; Shubie's in Marblehead; Vintages: Adventures in Wine in West Concord; and Wollaston Wines & Spirits in Quincy. Because we knew there would be duplicates, we asked each vendor to nominate six to eight candidates in each category. We paid standard retail prices for all the bottles and settled on 25 whites and 25 reds that are representative of varietals, regions, and current winemaking styles.
We didn't instruct shop owners to avoid commercial wines such as Yellow Tail, Ecco Domani, or Luna di Luna. As it happened, these didn't show up on anyone's list. Wine made on a modest scale by conscientious vintners using quality locally-grown fruit will always trump generic corporate versions -- no matter how many penguins and little red bicycles are on the label. We settled on $10 as the upper limit since that seems to represent the psychological threshold for plonk. Anything more expensive wouldn't seem like an everyday wine. A lower ceiling would have drastically cut the number of wines we could evaluate, especially since the rise of the euro has jacked up European prices by as much as a third in the last three years. What you buy by the case, however, will be cheaper at the register.
Tasters had their individual preferences, of course, but the wines showed a remarkable consistency in terms of overall quality and drinkability. Notable also was the mix of grape varieties represented, with less well-known regional varietals like arinta, dolcetta, semillon, and chenin blanc outnumbering -- collectively at least -- the more familiar chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and cabernet. This suggests that consumers in search of interesting value wines are more likely to find what they're looking for if they're willing to leave the beaten track and embrace the unfamiliar.
A third striking impression: These are wines with a distinctly modern profile, the kind that tends to favor bright tones, pleasing fruitiness, and comfy textures. And finally, a bit of a surprise. Wines showed genuine differentiation. This comes as especially good news, since, while technology has made better little wines possible everywhere in the world, quality improvements have too often come with a tiresome uniformity of style. With some variation and a few exceptions, these were gratifyingly distinctive.
And now the envelope, please. The highest endorsement would have been to appear on all four lists. No single wine achieved that, but four whites and two reds got three votes each. Top whites included the robust, unoaked 2004 La Noble Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc; the crisp 2003 ''Les Vignes Retrouvees" Cotes de Saint-Mont; the rosemary-perfumed 2004 Cave de Saumur ''Les Pouches" chenin blanc; and the flinty, sauvignon-esque 2004 Bergerac Sec from Chateau Payral. Another surprise: All are French.
Reds appearing on three lists were the rich, chewy 2004 Excelsior South Africa Cabernet, and one of several sleek, new wave Spanish wines, the 2004 Bodegas Tikalo ''Alba Liza," with its pleasing balance of ripe fruit, earth notes, and juicy acids. No fewer than six appeared on two lists, among them the nicely integrated and flavorful 2003 Molissimo Terre Degli Osci IGT, the 2003 San Fereolo Dolcetto ''Valdiba," and the surprisingly characterful 2003 Verget Du Sud.
To choose wines for your own table, ask your retailer to put together a mixed case of reds and whites. Over a few weeks, conduct your own tasting and see what works in your own house. If you're really lucky you might have to sip all 50 before making up your mind.
Curtis Liquors, 486 Columbian St., South Weymouth, 781-331-2345
Federal Wine & Spirits, 29 State St., Boston, 617-367-8605
Shubie's, 16 Atlantic Ave., Marblehead, 781-631-0149
Vintages: Adventures in Wine, 53 Commonweath Ave., West Concord, 978-369-2545
Wollaston Wines & Spirits, 58 Beale St., Quincy, 617-479-4433
Stephen Meuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org