It’s a little-known, and completely useless, fact that I published my first piece of wine criticism back in university. As co-editor of a large campus paper, I had been looking to invigorate the weekly journal’s lifestyle coverage, so I figured: Why not a piece on bargain bottles for student budgets? Wearing my editor’s hat, I knew I had to find the right correspondent for the job, someone who enjoyed cheap wine, was willing to hit up importers for freebies and could put in hard time at the tasting table. Naturally, I overlooked all other eager candidates and assigned myself.
We needed a price-point ceiling for the sake of a grabby headline and eventually settled on – are you ready? – $6 a bottle. Mind you, this was in the Paleolithic wine era, when that kind of coin could score decent juice. I won’t reveal the year because I like to keep my age vague in case I ever need to apply for work in Hollywood, but suffice it to say that a certain promising young singer had just released a debut album that year titled Like a Virgin (which we also reviewed in our paper and which I predicted would go nowhere). My top pick, as I recall, was no less than a basic nebbiolo from Piedmont, which today would cost about $25. Plonk it wasn’t.
That article came to mind recently as I pawed a crisp $10 bill, the newly minted one carrying the image of pioneering black activist Viola Desmond. I wondered: Could a wine critic accustomed to the good stuff find much, or anything, worth guzzling for a tenner or less these days? It was time to dredge the bargain bins for another round of sensory research.
I’m alive to report that I’ve been to hell and back in pursuit of an answer. Mostly, that hell came courtesy of California, whose sub-$10 selections, at least at the large Liquor Control Board of Ontario store in Toronto where I purchased all the bottles, were either sugar bombs or disjointed with cheap oak. One example: Flipflop Merlot, which contains 14 grams per litre of residual sugar, which I would call cloyingly sweet for a merlot. In fact, for that reason, not every sub-$10 bottle made it into my two large and overfilled shopping carts. I consciously steered clear of anything that I knew from experience would not make my cut, such as the venerable German standbys Black Tower and Blue Nun.
To narrow down the universe, I also drew the line at wines available only in large formats, such as double-bottle magnums and multilitre bag-in-box cartons. I’m the kind of guy who thinks cheap bathroom tissue isn’t such a great deal if you must commit to buying 400 rolls at a time at one of those club-membership stores. Also, the boxed-wine market in Ontario, unlike elsewhere in Canada, is a joke thanks to the LCBO and its restrictive shelf-space allocations, which have long favoured cheap foreign-domestic blends that I think unfairly bend the wine-classification rules.
I wish I could report that I’d struck gold. Instead my scores peaked at 88. Frankly, if you are the sort of person who believes there are Petrus-like diamonds hiding in the rough of the bargain aisles, I have a bridge in Bordeaux I’d like to sell you. Quality begins with low yields in the vineyard to concentrate flavours and ensure full physiological ripening. Virtually all under-$10 wines – whose prices must include packaging, shipping, duties, taxes and substantial retail-store markups – rely on industrial farming practices that deliver high fruit yields per vine. And there are other cost challenges, such as using good-quality barrels from French forests that cost in the ballpark of $1,200 apiece. The speedy, cheap-route alternative? Oak chips, which are a lame attempt to mimic the vanilla-like flavour imparted by months or years spent in actual barrels.
Unsurprisingly, three countries in Europe, Portugal, in particular, as well as Italy and Spain, came through with admirable, if humble, efforts, as did Chile and Argentina. Many producers in those countries sell their products in Canada for not much more – and in many cases for less – than they do in the United States (after currency adjustments). Castillo de Monseran Garnacha from Spain, for example, is priced at an impressive $9.95 in Ontario, including all taxes. Compare that with US$7.99 at a California location of the American chain Total Wine & More, where the state sales tax of 62 cents brings the grand total to $8.61. In Canadian dollars, that converts to about $11.50, or $1.55 more than in Ontario. Incidentally, Castillo de Monseran happens to cost $10.99, not including sales taxes, in British Columbia, a province with some of the highest wine markups in the country. So, yes, many bottles I bought for this article exceed $10 in certain provinces, but not by much.
The selections below represent the better half of what I sampled, though they don’t include a new and popular Spanish red released in Ontario called Toro Bravo, which I ranked 87 and costs $7.95. It’s omitted here because it’s currently sold out.
Most of these brands are available in at least several provinces, some in select private stores rather than at liquor-board retailers, so if you’re in a semi-private province such as British Columbia, you’ll have to shop around. But bear in mind that even mass-market, popularly priced wines such as these are in almost all cases not available in all provinces at any given time. That’s simply how our ridiculous, balkanized Canadian system works thanks to antiquated legislation and a liquor-board system that does as much to restrict product selection as to enhance it.
If you want to know about the dreck that didn’t make my cut, ask me on Twitter – and please also share your cheap-wine horror stories and dirt-cheap favourites. But don’t cite anything over $10 – that would be cheating.
Castillo de Monseran Garnacha 2017, Spain
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $9.95
A perennial bargain from Aragon in Spain. Medium-full-bodied, with succulent cherry, lively spice and juicy acidity. Remarkably genuine and regionally distinctive for the money, and a far cry from mass-market industrial. Perfect for lamb or charcuterie.
Santa Carolina Chardonnay 2018, Chile
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $9.45
Medium-bodied, round and polished. A surprisingly balanced, moderately oaked chardonnay. Creamy tropical fruit and vanilla with a fresh spine of acidity. Better than many $15-plus chardonnays. I don’t award fractional scores, but this really merits 87½. It would pair well with creamy soups or rich fish dishes.
Bacalhoa Terra Boa 2016, Portugal
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $8.35
The designation “high altitude, old vines” on the front label would suggest a wine made with more exacting standards than most at its price. True enough. A blend of tinta roriz (a.k.a. tempranillo), touriga nacional and cabernet sauvignon. On the heavier side of medium-bodied, it comes across like raspberry chews lightly dusted with spice and served on a cedar plank. Confidently balanced and energetic, with a sangiovese-like salty snap on the finish.
Fantini Farnese Sangiovese 2017, Italy
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $8.85
Sangiovese, the main grape of Chianti in Tuscany, gets a commendable interpretation here in a consistently undervalued wine from the sunny southern region of Puglia. Riper than most affordably priced Chiantis. Salted dried cherries with underbrush and sticky caramel. One generous Italian reviewer actually awarded this red a score of 96. Mamma mia!
El Abuelo de Piqueras Tempranillo Monastrell 2017, Spain
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $9.95
Medium-bodied and intriguingly savoury for an inexpensive red. Shoe leather, licorice and coffee grounds left in the herb-spice drawer. Nicely firm backbone. Pair it with lamb or other fatty red meats. Bonus: It’s organic.
KWV The Vinecrafter Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, South Africa
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $9.95
Crowd-pleasingly full and smooth, with notes of currants, grilled herbs and melted rubber. For those with a preference for the familiar, comforting flavours of cabernet. Enjoyable on its own and suitable for steak or beef roasts.
Fonseca Periquita Red 2016, Portugal
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $9
Medium-bodied, juicy, spicy and almost salty, with good flavour depth, spicy warmth and tannic backbone. A long-established and respected Portuguese value brand. Versatile at the table.
Fonseca Periquita White 2017, Portugal
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $8.50
An unusual – dare I say unique? – blend of verdelho, viosinho, viognier and sauvignon blanc. Light-medium-bodied, crisp and mouthwatering. Gently oily (is that the viognier talking?) and subtly aromatic, with suggestions of green melon and grapefruit. Need a party wine worth buying by the case? Learn to pronounce “Periquita.”
Spinelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2017, Italy
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $8.75
Supple, smooth and aromatic, with a pleasantly dry grip and saline tang on the finish. Similar to Chianti but made from a different red grape (montepulciano) in a more down-to-earth region than hallowed Tuscany. Bring the pasta water to a rolling boil.
Domaine Boyar Cabernet Sauvignon Selection 2017, Bulgaria
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $9.50
From the first wine producer to emerge in Bulgaria after the fall of communism in 1989. Here’s a red that actually tastes like cabernet sauvignon, unlike many cabs at its price. Full, dry, with good ripeness. Cassis, dark cocoa, vanilla, powdery tannins and a hint of black olive. For steak, it’s hard to beat this one at this price.
Finca Flichman Misterio Malbec 2017, Argentina
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $10
Full, smooth, round, fruity and creamy, with sweet tannins – that’s par for the course when it comes to affordable Argentine malbec. But what’s especially nice about this one is the exceptionally low price. A crowd-pleaser from a respected Argentine producer known for more rarefied fare. Well-made if basic – like a Hyundai Accent.
Vila Regia Douro 2017, Portugal
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $8.95
Gutsy, fruity, very dry and a little bit woodsy and smoky. A basket of forest berries with a firm handshake. Good for cheeses and red meats.
Hardys Stamp of Australia Shiraz Cabernet 2017, Australia
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $10
Attractively perfumed, with the sort of concentrated and lifted blackberry fruit classic to southern Australia, followed by nuances of vanilla and pepper. A decent 10-buck Aussie red.
Fuzion Shiraz Malbec 2018, Argentina
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $9.45
Medium-bodied and juicy, with proper balance and notes of plum and cherry carried on a creamy texture. One of Argentina’s flagship bargain exports. Somewhere there’s an Uber Eats pepperoni pizza that would like to make its acquaintance.
Negrar Corvina Verona Red 2016, Italy
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $9.95
Medium-bodied and gusty. Ripe, cedary, warm, tangy and redolent of baking spices beneath the fruit. Enjoy this with a “meat-lover’s” pizza and you may be ordering pizza more often.
JP Azeitao Syrah Castelao Aragonez 2017, Portugal
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $8.95
Bordering on overly ripe, but admirably dialing back the raisin essence to reveal cherry, licorice and hot rubber. Eminently quaffable, particularly with game meats or chili. It’s worth $12.
Fantini Farnese Pinot Grigio 2017, Italy
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $9.95
It’s a pinot grigio, so we don’t ask much of it, especially at this price, except that it be light, crisp and inoffensive. And it’s got all those boxes checked. Yet this offers more of a ripe-fruit character than most competing Italian pinot “cheapos” – undoubtedly because it’s from sunny Sicily rather than the northeast.
Fuzion Chenin Chardonnay 2018, Argentina
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $9.45
Medium-bodied and crisp, with the subtly aromatic character of chenin blanc almost overshadowing the chardonnay (and that’s not a bad thing). Crisp, clean and floral. Grapefruits in a flower shop. Flexible with food.
Grao Vasco Dao 2017, Portugal
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $8.75
Creamy red fruit, wood spice and a solidly astringent backbone. Imagine eating strawberry jam and marinated cherries using an old twig – but without the splinters.
Tini Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Italy
SCORE: 84 PRICE: $8.95
Light, crisp, zesty and with pronounced gunmetal and citrus flavours. Picture lemons fired out of a cannon. Good wine for salads, shellfish or young, soft cheeses.
Join wine critic Beppi Crosariol and other Globe and Mail journalists this July aboard the Globe Portugal Cruise. For itinerary and booking information, visit globedourocruise.com.