There’s no denying the great pleasure of dipping into your wine cellar for a special dinner—a real occasion—and being able to choose among bottles you’ve collected from the greatest producers in the world: Napa Cabernets that have been sheltering there for a few years, inching toward beauty, or Bordeaux or Barolos that have been on that path even longer. But what about the slightly lesser occasions? The Friday night when your taste buds need waking up and you deserve to drink a really interesting bottle, no matter what’s for dinner? I’m here to help. I recently concentrated on wines that would set you back less than $100, and I can report that the world’s your proverbial oyster on this front!
When it comes to good-value bottles, I generally start with strategies for finding them: Look for so-called “entry-level” or “second” wines from top producers, or their region-wide blends instead of single-vineyard bottles; explore lesser-known wine regions (or at least beyond Napa Valley, Bordeaux and Burgundy). This time, though, I reverse-engineered the plan. I simply started tasting in the price range and then did a look back through the wines that really popped, that over-delivered on quality and excitement. And there they were—the same principles I’ve always relied on for finding good-value bottles: Terrific winemaking and fascinating alternatives came from winemakers whose top bottles are probably aging in your cellar but who offer near-similar fruit and winemaking skill in their “declassified” bottlings. And wines from regions, New World and Old, that might not be hot items on the secondary market proved both delicious and fascinating—from Sonoma, Washington state, Italy, Spain, Portugal, South America …
And finally, don’t give white wines (and sparkling) short shrift. I’ve always wondered why a Chardonnay grown on expensive land should be any cheaper than a Pinot Noir from the same vineyard, when it offers equally complex nuances and expensive winemaking. While it’s true that the process of making some other whites can be a little truncated, between $50 and $100, the world over, lays a sea of seriously exciting bottles.
These 17 wines—red and white—will yield good drinking while those more expensive, bragging-rights bottles are biding their time in your cellar.
Baron Philippe de Rothschild Escudo Rojo 2019 Baronesa P. Valle del Maipo, Chile
All the way back in 1999, the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild decided to make her own wine in the heart of Chile’s Maipo Valley. This complex blend from Escudo Rojo of five varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon (taking the lead), Carménère (a signature red in Chile), Petit Verdot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc—pays elegant homage to the Baroness. Initial smoke and spice notes give way to dark fruit—blueberry and blackberry—with savory asides of espresso, pencil shavings and forest botanicals. Dense, velvety and sensual, the palate opens like black cherry cordial, plush but bright (the Carménère talking) with plum and anise flavors laced through fine tannins.
Beaulieu Vineyard 2018 Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
From the producer of Napa’s iconic Georges de Latour comes the inaugural vintage of a new reserve—“baby Georges de Latour,” Antonio Galloni of Vinous calls it. Classic Cabernet aromatics lift from the glass: cedar, dark berry, graphite and pipe tobacco layered under high floral notes. A juicy and generous palate has the weight of ripe red and black fruit—black currant and berry liqueur—rich with warm spices and velvety tannins.
Bodegas Bilbaínas 2015 Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares Rioja DOC
With concentration derived from mature, low-yielding vines, this 100 percent Graciano from Viña Pomal carries impressive density and power balanced by the mouth-watering acidity characteristic of Graciano. Soaring floral notes lead, joined by alluring blueberry, balsamic-marinated black raspberry and earthy loam. Juicy red raspberry and Rainier cherry fruit is layered with cedar and hints of resiny herbs on a palate that’s structured and velvety all at once.
Champagne Bollinger Brut Rosé
From Bollinger, a house that knows its way with Pinot Noir, comes a saturated-salmon-colored Brut Rosé that juggles power, weight and brightness. The nose swirls with dried cranberry, fuzzy peach and tropical flowers followed by intense flavors of red apple, raspberry, cherry, tangerine zest and almond delivered by exuberant bubbles, bright with citrus. A splash of still Pinot Noir—5 to 6 percent—provides mid-palate density that avoids heaviness with vivid textures, even with significant tannins.
Cignale 2015 Colli delle Toscana Centrale IGT
This Cignale blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (90 percent) and Merlot (10 percent) from Castello di Querceto opens with intensely fragrant rose petals and citrus blossoms wafting over dark, briary blackberry aromas. What follows is both vibrant and structured. Red and black fruit flavors are seasoned with orange peel and a balsamic character, with grippy tannins and red earth lingering on the finish.
Cliff Lede 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
It’s a rare Stags Leap Cab that clocks in under $100, but Cliff Lede has managed an affordable beauty. Sweet hints of vanilla and mocha lurk behind dark berry and cherry fruit on the nose, with savory bay leaf and crushed rock for balance. Juicy, beautifully textured berry fruit follows, layered with appealing spice and an edge of minerality—mouth-filling through a structured mid-palate and lingering finish.
Cornell Vineyards 2018 “Courtship” Cabernet Sauvignon Fountaingrove District, Sonoma County
With vineyards located just west of Napa’s Spring Mountain District in the Mayacamas Range, Cornell’s flagship Cabernets are complex, structured, bright and balanced. This first “entry-level” Cab, produced from younger vines, over-delivers on its price on the strength of the location, impeccably farmed fruit and talented winemaking (director of viticulture and winemaking Elizabeth Tangney working with consulting winemaker Françoise Peschon). Fragrant violet aromas join red currant, brambly berries and touches of cedar and spice on the nose. A lively palate follows, with juicy red and blue berries, plums and savory mountain herbs backed by firm tannins amplified through a lingering finish.
Crescere 2018 Proprietary Chardonnay Sonoma Coast
Longtime growers Joe and Elena Reynoso teamed up with top-talent Philippe Melka to create Crescere wines from their Sonoma estate. Mouth-watering and rich at once, this vibrant Chardonnay opens with fresh apple blossoms, a vein of river stones, hazelnut and oak spice layered under golden apple and melon. Bright citrus leads on a palate marked by beautiful tension and texture. Hints of red apple skin, stone fruit, tropicals and savory herbs dance through a lingering finish.
Delas Freres 2017 Domaine des Tourettes Hermitage
From Northern Rhône’s famous Hermitage hill comes a dense and complex 100 percent Syrah from Domaine des Tourettes. Beautiful dark and earthy fruit scents, along with haunting florals, lift against a backdrop of leather, tobacco, black olive and bay leaf. Spiced plum and blueberry compote lead on a palate with a tannin structure that’s so tight it comes off as silky. An impressive wine for the price.
Devona 2016 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills
Champoux is Washington state’s expression of a Grand Cru vineyard, and John and Molly Abbott—creators of Walla Walla’s acclaimed Abeja wines—make the most of its potential under their new Devona label. The elegant 2016 offers up exuberant aromatics in a swirl of purple flowers, graphite, crushed rock and espresso around dense, dark fruit. Black cherry virtually bursts on the palate, layered with complex savory herbs, minerality and a touch of salinity. There’s impeccable balance here, juicy acidity, fine tannin structure and a long, satisfying finish.
Hamel Family Wines 2018 Isthmus Sonoma Valley
Cabernet leads in this beautifully concentrated Bordeaux blend from Hamel Family, joined by Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. High-toned violet notes get out ahead of intense cherry cordial, crushed herbs, vivid spice, cedar and graphite. The palate that follows is structured but supple, rich but fresh, with black cherry and black raspberry fruit balanced with savory herbs and minerality and brightened with a hint of a tangerine kick on the finish.
Inama 2019 I Palchi Foscarino Grande Cuvée Soave Classico DOC
With this new elegant, complex rendition of Garganega from old vines on the slope of the dormant Mount Foscarino volcano, Inama has raised a bar that was already getting impressively high in Soave Classico. Lovely wet-stone minerality melds with delicate white blossoms as the wine opens, with Asian citrus—along the lines of yuzu or Buddha’s hand—joining up with white nectarine aromas. Beautiful textures fill the mouth with pear, creamy lemon and grapefruit, with a hint of salinity leaning toward preserved lemon through the finish.
Julien Fayard 2018 Classic Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
French-born Julien Fayard brings an Old World terroir aesthetic (including experience at Château Lafite) to his California wines. This 2018 Cab combines the structure of cool down-valley Coombsville fruit with the ripeness of grapes from Yountville. Living up to the wine’s name, the nose opens with classic cassis layered with hints of espresso, spice and graphite. Vibrant fruit follows on a palate full of energy; dark plum and both black and blueberry are brightened with a kick of orange peel, with finely knit tannins lending elegance.
Mira 2016 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay Napa Valley
The wines of Mira enjoy the expertise of partner and winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez, who worked his way up from laboratory technician at Robert Mondavi Winery to head red-wine maker. The nose on his 2016 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay is a thing of earthy beauty—a vein of crushed rock running under orchard blossoms, with a hint of vanilla swirled into golden apple and lemon cream. One sip and textures fill the mouth with the old-fashioned pleasure of an orange Creamsicle; more golden apple is layered with hints of stone fruit and almond through a savory finish that just won’t quit. This one will get even better in the cellar.
Poliziano 2018 Vino Nobile de Montepulciano Asinone DOCG
There might be a lot to like about Sangiovese the way Montalcino does it, but this juicy, concentrated red from Poliziano is a reminder that beautiful value can be found in Montepulciano. Old school in its use of 95 percent Sangiovese (Vino Nobile requires only 70), the wine showcases what Poliziano’s Asinone Vineyard can achieve with the variety. Pretty aromas of red berries and purple flowers are layered with warm baking spices, a hint of tomato leaf and red earth notes. Bright raspberry, strawberry and red plum are sweet on the palate but balanced with an edge of savory herbs and chewy tannins.
Prats & Symington 2018 Chryseia Douro DOC
A partner project founded in 1999 between Port heavyweight Symington Family Estates and Bruno Prats, who owns Bordeaux’s acclaimed Château Cos d’Estournel, Chryseia has set the standard for dry table wines made from some of the Douro’s traditional Port grape varieties—Touriga Franca (or Touriga Francesa) and Touriga Nacional, in this case. Powerful and concentrated, the wine opens with a compelling mélange of perfumed florals over dark fruit, toasted spices, tobacco, wild fennel and dry loam. Dark fruit follows—blackberry and plum—sharing palate space with complex and balancing layers of violets, espresso, anise and leather. Well-managed tannins turn power into elegance.
Terrazas de los Andes 2017 Parcel N°10W Los Cerezos Malbec Las Compuertas, Mendoza, Argentina
This Malbec from Terrazas de los Andes—one of four limited-lots the winery produces to showcase the “Grand. Crus” of Mendoza—is a powerful argument that the variety can rise to complex and compelling heights. Quite literally, in this case: The vineyard sits at about 3,500 feet. Great concentration and structure come of that, but the power here is wrapped in plushness and generosity. Malbec’s signature violets and spice open against touches of licorice, tobacco leaf, black olive and pepper; juicy layers of dark plum, blackberry and black raspberry are delivered with striking textures across the palate.