Any veteran wine-lover will remember the term fighting varietal. It describes the category a bump or two above the basement and has typically been populated by wines that are affordable and over-deliver. In 2019, fighting varietals will run about $20 and I believe the bang-for-the-buck ratio has never been better.
This has twin causes: one is that several years of stellar harvests worldwide have provided both high yield and consistent quality and two is the proliferation of university-based wine programs; some darn talented winemakers are now in play. With more networking opportunities and technical information available than ever before, they have the connections to get quality fruit and the chops to turn them into darn good juice.
Instead of recommending a bunch of specific wines I am going to give you some can’t-miss regions and the wine types they do best.
Let’s start locally with California’s signature grape Zinfandel. Whether you prefer unctuous jammy wine bombs or dry, spicy balanced quaffs, $20 goes a long way quality wise. As a general strategy for the former, look to Lodi and Paso Robles; they not only have the climate for quite ripe grapes, the philosophies of most wineries there skew big. Sonoma and Mendocino on the other hand are more likely to deliver brambly structured versions.
Another leader in the $20 club is Pinot Noirs from Oregon. Notice I didn’t say just Willamette Valley. That’s because although those folks rock $20 Pinots, there are really wonderful versions from the Beaver State’s other wine regions. So, do not be afraid of Pinots with just Oregon on the label.
Next, we are off to Italy — Enotria and Tuscany specifically. Not long ago, laying down a double sawbuck for a Tuscan Red Wine was a crap shoot. Inconsistent climate, over-cropping of grapes and industrial winemaking were the bad-news bears that made for thin, weedy Sangiovese-based wines. I would still recommend getting direction from a trusted wine-monger for specific wines, but your chances of getting wine goodness flying solo are better than ever.
North to France is next where $20 Côtes du Rhône, of both the red and white persuasions, are achieving new heights. The climate and terroir have never really been limits here, but rather the motivation to grow quality fruit and use better wine-making techniques — both of which cost more. As winemakers realized they could sell Côtes du Rhônes for $20, they turned a huge corner in quality. Reds are generally Grenache based with healthy doses of Syrah and Mourvedré among other varietals. White Côtes du Rhônes are also field blends with many featuring Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier.
The takeaway here is that it’s the best of times to sometimes bump up your budget and now you have the 4-1-1 you need to succeed.