Let's face it. You spent too much on Christmas. That punishing credit card bill you just got has you worried, but you've still got other obligations. Like showing up with a bottle of wine for some occasion or another. You know what I'm talking about — you're off to a Super Bowl party, or a friend has a bunch of people over for chili — not a fancy event, sure, but you don't want to drink swill either. So, there you are, standing in front of the intimidating wine display, trying to make a selection from the bottom shelf of big bottles. These big bottles have several advantages — they're big, for one, and they're generally cheap, for another. I decided it would be fairly useful to test a few of these out, to give you a little direction while you stretch your budget, because saving a buck is no reason not to choose wisely.
Lots of wine articles try to find elusive greatness in wines under $10 for a (750 ml) bottle. I went a little further than that. I picked out six wines, all priced under $10 for a 1.5-liter bottle. One was on sale to get it below that $10 mark, but under $10 it was.
When reading the labels on these cheap bottles, realize that the designations are pretty useless for the most part. "NV" means that no vintage information exists on the label, meaning the makers could have used a blend of several vintages. Classifications such as "California" (or the equally vague "Central Chile" and "Southeast Australia") mean that the fruit used to make these wines could have come from any of a wide variety of vineyards, and usually do. In these price-point-sensitive wines, buying low-cost fruit wherever one finds it is a key ingredient in keeping prices down. Winemakers buying fruit from somewhere like the Russian River Valley have paid premium prices for those grapes, and they're going to want to tell you about that fact (on the label). They're also going to pass those costs along to you.
Bottles in hand, my tasting panel and I sat down and got to testing. We did not test them blind, mostly because we figured knowing which was which wouldn't affect our opinions all that much. Think about it: knowing you're drinking a $100 bottle makes you believe it tastes better; knowing that everything in front of you is cheap just seems to lack that psychological warping factor. We did, however, use decent glasses. Reidel Vinum Bordeaux glasses, to be exact. Six-bucks-a-magnum wine in $30 glasses. Perfect.
Results were mixed and I suppose a bit surprising. First, there was no clear winner amongst our four tasters, although there were favorites. After all, this taste test was a bit like picking the hottest nun in the convent. People seemed to favor the Yellowtail Shiraz/Cabernet quite a bit, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. It's become virtually impossible to buy at $10, as it proved so popular early in its introduction in the U.S. It's easy to see why — nice body, not too big, but not thin or watery as some cheaper brands can be, pleasant flavors of red fruits, soft and round. Likewise, the Concha y Toro Cabernet/Merlot (15 percent Merlot) came off nicely. I was surprised to find this wine darker and earthier than the others — much more of a French feel to it than the North American wines — but enjoyed it all the same. We gave both of these a "B" overall. Another surprise came with the Sutter Home Zin. I liked the wine, which was only faintly Zinfandel-like, for its lack of tannins and medium-to-full body. Then I went to check labels for the purposes of writing this article, and found "2001" on the bottle.
These wines are not generally made to mature in the bottle. High-quality grapes are often pressed in ways that extract lots of the flavor of the grape but also a lot of the astringent tannins that can make wines seem bitter. Those tannins sit around in the barrel and the bottle and slowly evolve into complex layers of flavors (usually, anyway). Other wines spend little time with the skins and stems in contact with the pressed juice, and thus have so-called "light tannins" and are meant to be drunk as soon as they hit the bottle. That's what we've got here. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find any trace of tannic qualities in any of these wines, least of all in the 2001 Zinfandel. I'm guessing Sutter Home is selling 2004 Zinfandel these days, meaning that the bottle I bought has been sitting in a warehouse for at least three years as the few tannins in the bottle matured into nothingness. Plus, it explains it being on sale.
The other wines ranged from forgettable to pretty darned lousy. The Redwood Creek was a good value — toward the expensive end of our admittedly cheap-ass spectrum — big-bodied and fruity but nothing spectacular, while the Foxhorn and Corbett Canyon were decidedly bottom-of-the-barrel (and the cheapest in the tasting).
I guess that really is the lesson — and a lesson that does not apply to the "over $10 per bottle" wine world — you get what you pay for. After all, there's no rule that says a $50 bottle is inferior to an $80 bottle, and examples of $20 wines outscoring $40 wines abound. But when you get down to $10 magnums versus $6 magnums, the slightly more expensive ones (Yellowtail, Redwood Creek, Sutter Home) handily beat the truly cheapies (Foxhorn, Corbett Canyon). The very good news is that it'll cost you only $3 for the upgrade.