Always Loved and Happy to See: Reliable, Inexpensive Wines

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vina alberdi rioja

As a food and wine enthusiast, I live a pretty charmed life: I worked in an environment where both food and wine were celebrated and encouraged as part of my daily lifestyle and were presented at fractions of their normal cost, was surrounded by people who shared my particular shade of geek, married the best guy who happened to also have a deep cellar and be a stellar cook. I can’t ask for more and often find on any average weeknight wine in my glass that I would have previously hemmed and hawed over purchasing (let alone opening) for weeks. But often, all I want is a glass of something just good, tasty and not expensive or pretentious, something I used to love and am always happy to see.

Viña Alberdi Rioja 2005

I spotted a bottle of this in our sink (aside: we have an old tub sink in the basement of our house that serves as the catch-all for great wine for every day drinking, not expensive and not for aging necessarily) a few weeks ago and last night, after a day of the baby refusing to nap, refusing to be left alone, refusing to be held, and flexing her new screaming muscles, I decided it was a good night for a not fussy wine and not fussy food. Husband whisked in with to-go boxes and what may be the last bottle of the Alberdi appeared. 

It only takes a sip to remember a first love. This wine, which first arrived on our shelves in the shop maybe three years ago, is a Rioja, which means it’s from Rioja and is comprised of primarily Tempranillo, a medium-acid, medium-tannin grape that generally makes medium-bodied wines, though it can be plumped up with the aid of oak. The Viña Alberdi is medium weight, but is packed with a sweet-tart dried cherry fruit accented by vanilla, cedar, spices, and Rioja’s telltale dill notes. It’s…it’s just phenomenal. I wanted the rest of the bottle to myself, but I fell asleep. 

I’m pretty confident the 2005 doesn’t exist in retail anymore, but you may see it on a wine list. If you do, try it. It’s ridiculously food versatile; last night was a maple-orange glazed salmon with kale stir-fry. You know what was great with that? Viña Alberdi. Seriously.

Brezza Dolcetto d’Alba 2011

Brezza is a producer in Piedmont, probably the most prestigious growing region of Italy’s twenty, and they make the famous Nebbiolo-based, age worthy Barolo, but they also make wines from the every day varietals intended for drinking whilst one waits for the Barolos to mature. Barbera, a red-fruited, juicy, high acid grape is one of my all-time favorites and can be super simple and cheerful and more complex and worthy cellar time. Dolcetto is its more tannic counterpart, plumy and dark blue fruited and just all around delicious. 

The Dolcetto d’Alba from Brezza is very boysenberry-y and ripe, straightforward but utterly delightful. I readily admit that I love this wine straight from the fridge and served in a large jelly jar. It’s like really excellent grape juice and is both satisfying and unpretentious. If you’re looking for a pizza wine, or burger wine, or a hummus and carrots wine, or a leftover goat cheese with crackers wine, look no further. 

Pichot Vouvray

This was the first bottle of wine I purposed in my heart to complete singlehandedly in one evening. This proved to be a bad idea. But my mistake did not dissuade me in the long run and I am still super pleased to spot this bottle on a wine list or on a shop shelf. Vouvray, is made of Chenin Blanc (which I’ve sung the rapturous praises of many a time before), which can range in degrees of sweetness from very to not at all. The Pichot tends to be a touch sweet, but Chenin Blanc’s naturally high acid tends to keep that sweetness in check, like good lemonade. Honeyed pear and lime with little hints of peach and other pit fruit make this delightfully quaffable. Too much so, as previously mentioned.

The vintage is of course an important thing to consider as growing conditions year to year greatly affect the sugar and acid content of grapes, but in this case, I care less simply because of my bottle nostalgia. If I want something inexpensive, a little sweet, crowd-pleasing, and cold, I’m probably at least going to consider this wine. Bottle nostalgia can be risky, but even if I end up not wanting this after the first sip, my $15 mistake won’t send me into fits of weeping. 

Vinho Verde

My embarrassing confession is that on a hot, sticky summer day—in Maryland that’s anytime from May 30 to September 25—what I really want is a very large tumbler clinking with ice and filled to the brim with Vinho Verde. Allow me to count the sins of my confession:

  1. One shouldn’t drink wine from tumblers, or with straws: it’s an easy way to get pavement-to-the-face drunk and have a hangover for days.
  2. One shouldn’t put ice in wine, it dilutes it and if I really believe all that “respect the wine, respect the craft, respect the winemaker” mumbo jumbo, I wouldn’t even dream of it.
  3. Vinho Verde is not prestigious or fancy at all. It’s fizzy, actually, and doesn’t taste like too much, and can be purchased starting around $8 a bottle, which is right around the “is this frighteningly cheap for a reason?” price.

In my defense: Vinho Verde is a Portuguese wine made up of a lot of curious native varieties and is light, spritzy, refreshing, and seldom over 8% alcohol. It’s generally a dry wine, too, which means the deadly alcohol-sugar combination is unlikely to plague the consumer, and a tumbler-full of the stuff probably would be equivalent to drinking a beer or a very potent iced tea. The ice part is just a desire to keep it frigid because warm Vinho Verde is kind of terrible, and there isn’t much to dilute in the first place: it’s a simple wine. For these reasons, the fact that I can buy a bottle for $8 is all the more attractive. 

There are hundreds, thousands of bottles of very good wine mere feet from where I sit right now. I could walk downstairs and lift a wine older than me from a wooden crate, and there are certainly times for that. But these days, when my time is controlled by a tiny dictator with a temper, I just want something straightforward I can count on. So bring on that mason jar, and don’t judge me when you hear the ice clinking. 

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


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