Someone’s got to do it

Annual Plonkapalooza distinguished by the top-to-bottom quality of the 50 nominees

Plonkapalooza Judges make notations after tasting some of the 50 wines (25 reds and 25 whites) nominated for Plonkapalooza by local wine retailers. Wines must cost no more than $12 at retail. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Stephen Meuse
Globe Correspondent / October 28, 2009

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There are 50 of them, four of us, and the task seems a bit daunting. Over the next two hours, we will taste 25 white wines and 25 reds (identities unknown), compare impressions, and take notes. What we hope to find are a handful of wines that deserve to be called the best at $12 and under - the Grand Cru of Plonk.

Five years ago we challenged ourselves to find a better way to help you learn about and locate small-production, value-priced wines. The idea was to shine the spotlight on everyday, rather than special occasion, wines, adhere to a strict price limit, and focus on quality. What emerged was our best shot at harnessing the collective expertise of retailers, sommeliers, educators, and other professionals to identify and report on the best little wines in our market.

In addition to telling you about these wines in Plonk of the Month, we do an annual tasting of 50 wines from local retailers who nominate bottles for consideration. Wines cannot cost more than $12 (per 750 ml) at standard retail markup (up from $10 two years ago) and be available in reasonable quantities in the state.

This year’s Plonkapalooza seems to have benefited from the deteriorating economy. The consequent falloff in wine sales motivated importers and distributors to work harder to find quality wines at the lower end of the price scale. The tasting panel’s overall impression is that the effort is succeeding.

We sampled wines from Andover Liquors in Andover; Blanchards Wines & Spirits, West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Revere, Marshfield, and Hyannis; Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Arlington; Ralph’s Derby Street Wine & Spirits in Hingham; and Salem Wine Imports in Salem. After reviewing the candidates and eliminating the few inevitable duplicates, we settled on 25 reds and 25 whites to be vetted by our tasting panel in a single marathon session. Each of the four panelists is challenged to name his or her top 10 wines - five whites and five reds.

Joining me was a trio of distinguished sommeliers: Michael Meagher of BOKX 109 and Hotel Indigo in Newton, Bronwyn Wiechmann of T.W. Food in Cambridge, and Eric Buxton of 51 Lincoln in Newton Highlands.

Clear winners don’t always emerge, but this year two white wines, the brisk, bright 2008 Domaine du Haut Perron Touraine (France) and the pure-as-the-driven-snow 2008 Cono Sur Bio-Bio Valley Riesling (Chile) distinguished themselves. They were named by all four panelists. Two other whites, the 2008 Collezione Belpoggio Verdicchio Dei Castelli di Jesi from Colonnara and Casa Santos Lima’s lovely 2008 “Palha-Canas’’ Estremadura Branco, each received three votes. The 2008 Chapoutier “Belleruche’’ Cotes du Rhone and 2008 Domaine Salliès Viognier were picked by two tasters each.

Laurels were more evenly distributed among reds. Only one, the curiously named, modestly complex Wine That Loves Roasted Chicken (Spain), received three votes. Three others - the 2006 Quinta de Ventozelo “Vinzelo’’ (Portugal), and a pair of chewy Argentine malbecs from Argento and Altos Las Hormigas - received two votes each. Another 10 reds garnered a single vote each.

This year’s nominating retailers are clearly smitten with aromatic white varietals such as sauvignon blanc, viognier, riesling, and torrontes. That the tasters’ attention was drawn magnetically to a handful of whites is perhaps misleading - the real news is that panelists found the entire roster exceptional in character and quality.

“Often, under $12 means oak chips or staves used to increase flavor to the detriment of quality. Many of these wines were fresh, crisp, and aromatic - the kind that don’t need oak influence at all,’’ noted Meagher.

The panel’s inability to find a single red they could all agree on might be interpreted as a sign of pervasive banality - but this wasn’t the consensus. On the contrary, tasters considered this a strong slate of value-priced reds. Salem Wine Imports owner Eric Olson believes that an influx of tasty and affordable new wines is due in part to the energetic efforts of several relatively new importers/distributors in the state such as Oz Wine Co., Genuine Wine Selections, and Vineyard Road. “We wouldn’t be seeing the quality and value we are without them,’’ says the retailer.

At the tasting, Buxton was the dissenter on the quality of the reds, finding them “too predictable, ripe, and alcoholic.’’ It’s a complaint we’ve heard voiced in previous tastings. However, a look back at last year’s results showed that those tasters only gave 10 of 25 red wines at least one vote; this year more than half the total got a nod. Buxton was distinctly more enthusiastic about the whites.

Wiechmann admitted to low expectations at the outset. “Initially, I thought that the red wines were going to be a letdown, since cheaper ones are more likely to be austere, tight, and abrasive,’’ she said. In the end, she had changed her outlook. “Generally, I thought that the red wines were very good value for the price.’’

Meagher’s impression after his last sips: “The most encouraging tasting I’ve ever done at this price point.’’

We agree.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at