tony and katie in Italy
The author (not shown) with her husband (shown) enjoying good food and wines of good value in Italy earlier this summer.

There are plenty of bottles to brag about, lots of labels to plaster your conversation with and be annoyed by and have “Dear Diary” moments with. We’ve all heard folks boast about Cakebread and Veuve Clicquot and other famous bottles with a lot of name prestige, but they certainly have a hefty price tag attached. I love a treat bottle as much as anybody, but I really get excited to share are the best values I can find.

Often when we talk about value and wine, our first instinct is to assume it means cheap. It drove me nuts when people’s only goal in a wine store was to find the least expensive but most tolerable bottle on the shelves (common question: “Is this $6.99 bottle drinkable?”) without considering the value of the product relative to the purpose that it’s serving. “What’s the cheapest?” will lead you astray. The best question to ask may be “What wine in my price bracket will be the most worthwhile, that is, give the most worth, with my pizza/popcorn/movie night/fancy dinner/brunch/barbecue/etc.?”

There are no hard and fast rules about good value wines because that could mean so many things to different people. A “good value” Châteuneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone Valley in France is likely to still cost at least $40, but for the same money, you could get a top-of-the-line Argentinean Malbec. But if you’re looking for a braggable, “I-paid-minimally-for-this-killer-wine” kind of bottle, there are a few geographic locations where the odds are stacked more in your favor than from other places. Keep in mind these are general ideas, but hopefully they will steer you in the right direction.

Pardon me, my bias is showing. I love Chilean wine. And a lot of that may come from the fact that it’s relatively short history made it more conquerable than other regions, but regardless, Chilean wine has a rusticity and charm that oozes the wild, rugged terrain it comes from. Dried herbs, subtle smoke, and ripe, dense fruit play in different proportions in many of Chilean reds, while whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are dappled with tropical fruit, citrus, and flowers. It’s the wild frontier as far as the viticultural world is concerned and offers some of the best bang for the buck in the market. 

The value of Chilean wine lies in its ferocious sense of self and its reliable over-performance next to comparable wines from other places. Californian and French Bordeaux-style blends, that is, wines comprised of some blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other varieties found in the Bordeaux region of France, can be immediately more expensive simply because of where they’re from. Cabernet’s forgotten cousin, Carménère, is another Bordeaux grape that by some great cosmic accident found its way to Chile, where it out-performs any Old World version of itself and generally for much less money. Deep black cherry, smoky plum, spices, sweet roasted red pepper, and dried herbs make for a terrifically unique and specific experience. One of my favorites.

Southern Italy
What? Another bias? Listen, I told you I have a fondness for good value, and Southern Italy often has some stunners. Historically the poorest regions in Italy are south, which makes for a vegetable-based cuisine and a hearty commitment to sunny, deep-fruited wines. Regions like Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria don’t have giant wine productions, but bottles exist on a local level and occasionally, you’ll find grapes like Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera lurking on American shelves.

Primitivo is an awesome buy from Southern Italy, especially from Puglia. It’s the same grape genetically as Zinfandel, but instead of the jammy and over-ripened raspberry soda flavors you get with many California versions, Primitivo is earthy, balanced, fresh, and rich all at the same time. It’s full of flavor but not that heavy — it seems like it was made for pizza night — and can often be an awesome value.

If you’re looking for Rhone varieties, that is, grapes like Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, and others of Châteuneuf-du-Pape  and Côtes-du-Rhône fame, but would like to stick to a budget, the Languedoc is a great place to go hunting. The deep south of France, Languedoc is more Mediterranean than most French regions and there are some phenomenal sites that produce wines with great character, but without the level of prestige of its northern neighbors, Languedoc remains rather affordable.

In places where the terrain is wild and rustic, I often find the wines to be as well. Languedoc reds are typically dark fruited with lots of stewed fruit notes, but can also be herby, animalistic, and minerally, too. The balance is unique and interesting and the price to quality ratio is too high to forgo. There are whites from down here also, most famously the Picpoul di Pinet, a lip-pricklingly acidic wine that’s amazing with simple fish dishes and is a refreshing addition to summer dining.

There was a customer at my shop named Ronnie who was very particular, spoke in the deepest monotone, and wore a general look of disdain. He would come in once or twice a week and ask me to pick him out the best bottle of red for under $16. Apparently, he trusted few other people and I became known as The Ronnie Whisperer, but really all I was doing was finding him the same thing I look for: value. Have a budget but high hopes for your wine? No problem. There are sneaky little treasures hiding in your shop shelves…you just have to be brave enough to trust them.

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of  Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.