Friday, February 15, 2013

Budget Wine Favorites in 2012

These are the budget wines I tasted during 2012 and found most rewarding.  Some budget wines (under $20) maintain consistency from year to year so the vintage matters only a little.  With other wineries, however, vintages can make a major difference, even when the overall style might continue to be similar.  With each wine below, please assume that I am only recommending the vintage cited unless I mention otherwise.

I do not try that many new budget wines and tend to stick with the few I have found to be consistently good.  New ones I do try are usually recommended by other people I have found to be reliable. Finding a good wine under $10 is a real challenge. It becomes much easier in the $10 to $20 range. Being a writer who focuses on reviews of Napa Valley wineries, most of the wines I taste and purchase are from Napa Valley and my favorites rarely fall in the budget price range, but you may view these wines here: Favorite Wines from Napa Valley Wineries

Babich 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand: $10.99 Safeway. Very pale straw color. I found the aroma to be light but my wife (who has a much better sniffer than I do) thought it had a pronounced aroma. Medium body. Good but not intense tropical fruit with a touch of lemon on the palate. Well balanced. No herbaceousness. Medium finish. Moderately recommended at this price.

Brancott Estate 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand. $8.99 Safeway Pale straw color with a good nose. Dry, crisp and bright on the palate with mostly lemon and some melon. Slight pleasant grassiness. Clean finish. Should appeal to those who find some New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs to be too fruit forward, although this certainly has decent fruit. I've had three bottles now. Moderately recommended at this price.

Castle Rock 2009 Mendocino Pinot Noir-$5.99 to 7.99 Cost Plus, Safeway or Trader Joe's. The $5.99 price was a sale at Cost Plus but they don't seem to carry the Mendocino one anymore. Castle Rock sells many different Pinot Noirs so be sure to get Mendocino and the 2009. Castle Rock has no vineyards and seems to sell almost all of their wine for below $10. My understanding is that Castle Rock does not have its own vineyards but purchases or sources their grapes from various vineyards and then produces the wine at leased facilities. I do not believe they buy wine and simply bottle it. This PN has more substance and depth than many California Pinot Noirs in the under $20 range and is a steal at the price. It is, of course, not as complex as a really good Pinot but those are all in the $30 to $60 or more range. It is almost impossible to find a decent PN for under $10. A great bargain. Very highly recommended for the price but I did not care for the 2010.  One bottle was thin, unbalanced with an unpleasant finish. A second bottle was better but not nearly as good as the 2009. (I suspect the first bottle was not stored properly.)  The 2009 is very highly recommended for the price.

Castle Rock 2009 Monterey Pinot Noir-$7.99 Trader Joe's or Safeway. Moderate to full body. Some forest floor. More black cherry than red with some tart plum on the finish. Good, smooth tannins. Well balanced . Very nice for the price. I also like the Castle Rock 2009 Mendocino PN at the same price as the Monterey ($7.99). When comparing the 2009 Mendocino and 209 Monterey side by side, I actually liked them equally. Very highly recommended at this price.  I tried the Castle Rock 2010 Monterey Pinot Noir and it was not as good but was still a decent buy and is moderately recommended.

Castle Rock 2009 Russian River Reserve Pinot Noir -$19.99 at Whole Foods. I got some raspberry and slight floral notes on the nose with a very smooth, full mouthfeel of cherry and red fruit and a nice finish. It does not have much complexity, however, not that one should expect very much in a PN for under $20. The 2009 Castle Rock Mendocino or 2009 Monterey sell for about $7.99. This reserve is possibly a point or two higher, but then it is over twice the price. This Russian River Reserve is one of the better PNs for under $20 but do not expect it to be as good as some of the premium Russian River Pinots. It just doesn't work that way with Pinots. I’m not sure how much year-to-year variation there is on this Reserve. Moderately recommended at the price but only this year.

Delas St. Esprit 2010 Cote du Rhone Rouge, France-$13 or $10 on sale Cost Plus. Very nice for money. Decent fruit. Well balanced. Enjoyable. Tastes like a decent French Rhone and is a very good buy. I plan to buy more and take detailed tasting notes. Moderately to highly recommended at this price.  (I later tried the 2011 and can only mildly recommend that vintage.)

Epicuro 2009 Agliancco Beneventano IGT, Compania, Italy- $4.99 Trader Joes. Would you believe a wine this decent at this price? This one comes from Southern Italy, the region of Campania. Dark purple in color, with a nice nose, it is a smooth, well-balanced wine with good tannin and acid with blackberry on the palate plus a hint of pepper. Almost all wines under $5 are very one-dimensional. This one is not. The 2009 is my favorite red wine for under $5. The wine expert at our local TJ’s told the story of how a customer took this to a blind tasting of Italian red wines and it came out top, over many more expensive wines in the $20 range. BTW I tried the 2008 back in May and did not find it nearly as good, so be sure to look for the 2009. Epicuro's varietals seem to vary from year to year. Great bargain. Addendum 9/18/2012: I just had a bottle of the 2010 Epicuro Aglianico Beneventano IGT and it was more fruit forward than the 2009, had less tannin and was not as balanced or interesting. It is still recommended as a drinkable wine for under $5, however.  The 2009 is highly recommended for the price.  Skip the 2008, but the 2010 is mildly recommended.

Kim Crawford 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough New Zealand-$14.99 Trader Joe's. This is very easy to drink. Some nose with decent acid and fruit, mostly grapefruit with some herbaceousness. A bit light on the fruit but very well balanced. This is as easy to drink as the Kono but much more interesting. I think it is a very nice SB for the price. Don't worry about vintages with Kim Crawford. Moderately recommended at this price level.
Nobilo Regional Collection Marlborough 2011 Sauvignon Blanc New Zealand-$9.99 Safeway. Light lime nose. Smooth and well balance with white grapefruit and lemon on the palate and a hint of guava. Good acid. Long lemon finish. Might vary from year to year. Moderately recommended at this price.

Oyster Bay 2011 Sauvignon Blanc New Zealand-$9.99 Safeway. Pleasant nose. Grapefruit on palate with great balance. Long finish. I tried two bottles of this. One of the more readily available Kiwi SBs. Moderately recommended at this price.

Piper Sonoma, Sonoma Valley NV Brut-$11.99 widely available. My favorite budget sparkling wine, and I've tried many of them in the $10 to $20 range because I'm very fond of sparkling wine and can't always afford Taittinger or Schramsberg. (I'm not going to list all the ones I tried but didn't like.) On the nose I get green apple and pleasant yeast, more aroma than most budget bubblies. Palate-wise I get mostly citrus, dry and crisp, but not at all austere and very well-balanced, with more yeast and minerality than most inexpensive sparklers plus more delicate bubbles. This is a real class act in this price range, and I haven't found anything at this price that comes close. The Gloria Ferrer NV Sonoma Brut is several dollars more and tastes sweeter and fruitier. It use to be my favorite budget bubbly until I started drinking the Piper Sonoma and now it is hard to go back. I tried the Piper Sonoma Rose bubbly, too, but didn't care for it. This Piper Sonoma NV Brut is 60% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier. If you find a sparkling wine for under $20 that you really like, please email me. Very highly recommended for the price!

Robert Mondavi 2009 Fume Blanc: $13 on sale Safeway. Fume Blanc is not a varietal but is Robert Mondavi's created label for a dry, premium quality, California Sauvignon Blanc.  This one is a great value.  One of the best white wine bargains and very pleasant. One of my wife's favorite wines. It has a very nice aroma of melon, is dry and beautifully balanced, with some herbaceousness, good fruit and acid and a good finish. I think the Mondavi Fume Blanc is a very affordable wine that almost anybody would like and I've never had a bottle without really enjoying it.  It is the least expensive Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley that I can recommend.  Mondavi has an affordable winner with this wine!!!  Very highly recommended $20 or less and consistently good from vintage to vintage. 

Rodney Strong Russian River Estate 2010 Pinot Noir-$14.99 Safeway. An easy to like PN. Light nose. Medium body. Nice red cherry fruit and vanilla (French oak) on the palate with smooth tannins. Decent enough finish with a touch of spice. No problem recommending this one. It is one of my favorite under $20 Pinots. If you object to French oak with your Pinot, though, you might want to steer clear. Moderately recommended at the price.

Trader Joe’s Russian River 2010 Pinot Noir-$12.99 Trader Joe's. Light red cherry nose with cherry and a touch of cinnamon on the palate. Very smooth, well structured, with good balance and some depth. In addition to a great mouthfeel, it has a very long finish. I really like this PN for the price and enthusiastically recommend it. It could easily sell for twice the price. This is a good buy in a Pinot Noir. It is not one of their reserves and seems to be sold out. Moderately recommended for the price.

Trader Joe's Grand Reserve 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir-$12.99 Trader Joe's-Good aroma of red, ripe cherries. Medium bodied with lush mouthfeel of red cherry and some baking spices. Extremely well balanced! Medium length finish. This one tastes like a Pinot that should sell for at least three times the price. (If I tasted this blind I would think it was one of the better Pinots in the $30 range.) I like it much better than the decent Trader Joe's Grand Reserve 2010 Russian River Pinot Noir (see below) or the very pleasant Trader Joe's Reserve 2011 Napa Valley Pinot Noir listed below.  This is a fantastic buy! The best under $20 Pinot I've encountered and a complete winner!! Very highly recommended at this price but only the Grand Reserve 2010 Carneros.  Addendum 6/21/13: Long gone. Don't confuse it with others with a similar sounding name.

Trader Joe's Grand Reserve 2010 Russian River Pinot Noir-$12.99 Trader Joe's. Decent nose of cherry and vanilla. Somewhat tart red cherry on the palate with medium body. Not much finish. A fairly good Pinot for the price. (Inexpensive Pinots are usually not very good.) At under $20 it is worth trying. Moderately recommended at this price.  Addendum 6/21/13: Long gone. Don't confuse it with others with a similar sounding name.

Trader Joe's Reserve 2011 Napa Valley Pinot Noir- (ABJ Wines, Geyserville) $9.99 Trader Joe's. Easy to drink and pleasant but somewhat simple and one-dimensional. One cannot expect complexity, however, at this price level. Well worth it considering that it is a Pinot and under $10. A great bargain. My neighbor is a Pinot devote and loves it for the price. You might too. I've tried several bottles and they have been consistently enjoyable, especially since I know how much I paid. Highly recommended at this price.  Addendum 6/21/13: Long gone. Don't confuse it with others with a similar sounding name.

Villa Maria 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin Marlborough New Zealand- $9.99 to 11.99 Safeway. Aroma of lemon with a hint of grass. Bursting with fruits, apple, grapefruit, and lemon with exotic fruit undertones. Some herbaceousness and minerality. Really well balanced, with a very slight hint of sweetness and good acid. Good crisp finish. Very easy to drink but interesting and complex. Classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Really delightful! Enthusiastically recommended! This is a great bargain and a really good wine for the regular price. At the sales price of $12 it is an unbelievable bargain. My favorite of the lot. This seems to be the price point at which you get the most for your dollar. I have not found any SB from any other country that is this good in this price range. I tried several bottles of this. (I later tried the Villa Maria 2011 Sauvignon Blanc which was on sale for only $9.99. It, too was very good, but not as bursting with fruit. It remains my favorite New Zealand SB for under $20.) Very highly recommended at this price regardless of vintage.

Whitehaven 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough New Zealand-$15.99 Safeway. Aromatic. Slightly herbaceous with a hint of minerality. Good tropical fruit but not fruit forward. Fairly dry and well balanced. A lighter style but certainly not insipid, more like the Kim Crawford than the Villa Maria. Clean finish. I like this a lot although the bursting fruit in the Villa Maria wins me over in the end. Highly recommended at this price regardless of vintage.

Other Budget Wine Reviews may be viewed here:
Budget Wine Review 1
Budget Wine Review 2 Alsatian Gewurtztraminers
Budget Wine Review 3
Budget Wine Review 4
Budget Wine Review 5 Pinot Noirs
Budget Wine Review 6
Budget Wine Review 7 Pinot Noirs
Budget Wine Review 8 New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs
Budget Wine Review 9
Budge Wine Review 10 


  1. Nice list, TJ. Particularly agree with Mondavi's Fume Blanc, consistently a great value.

  2. Thanks, Nick. The Mondavi lists at $20 but sells at Safeway for $13 and is consistently good. Many budget wines vary from year to year or even within the same vintage. I'd love to see a list of your favorite budget wines, espcially sparkling. Cheers, TJ


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