Best wines under $20 blog

Sometimes such wines are new discoveries, new stars on the horizon that have not yet attracted attention; other times these are commercial wines that transcend their humble origins in a given vintage. The Topers Chardonnay 2013 was a great example of the former, Wynn’s black label Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 was a lovely example of the latter.

I’m one of many who wish they’d bought more cases of the glorious Topers from a vineyard in Cowra, at the ludicrous price of $13 a bottle. I found it by accident: our webmaster asked if I’d like to see a sample from a client of hers who made wine. I said: sure.

That’s easily said but it’s the hardest thing to assess a wine with no history, no show record, no reference points and no entry in Halliday’s Companion. You have to make your judgement and be prepared to back it.

The Wynns Black Label was the opposite: a racehorse from a famous blood line, and a family history spanning 6 decades. The trick here was that TWE decided to offer heavy discounts on the wine soon after its release. It would’ve been released in 2012/13, with an RRP between $35 and $40, and here it was on sale at Vintage Cellars for $19 a bottle. The reviews from the Winefront and Huon Hooke were positive but their scores were just 93 with a + added by Gary Walsh.

I thought it deserved 94 points at least, and 2 ++. James Halliday scored the wine 96 points, but we know his scores are inflated. His review matched my impression though: ‘Deep colour; it spent 15 months in a mix of old and new French and American oak barriques, giving rise to a fragrant and expressive bouquet of black fruits, spice and cedar nuances. The palate really sings with dark berry fruit, oak and tannins the supporting orchestra. Right up there with the best Black Labels. 96 points.’

Pewsey Vale Rieslings are the white foil to Wynns black label, a long line of wines going back to the sixties. I’ve enjoyed most of these wines since I came of drinking age, but lost touch with them after turning my back on a fine wine world gone nuts in the late 1990s. In 2011, with my interest in wine rekindled, I saw the 2006 at Dan Murphy’s in the form of a cellar release selling for $20. I bought a bottle, then a case. I’ve bought most vintages since.

Torbreck is better known for its heroic reds than its polished whites, but the 2015 suggests that they’re sitting on a wine style with few equals: a rich and vibrant white, full-bodied and full-flavoured. This style is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the crisp, green, lemony Hunter style, in part because some of the wine spends time in seasoned French oak.

It’s usually closer in style to the whites of the southern Rhone, but 2015 was a hot year and the wine is rich, ripe, full and round, not unlike the Chardonnays of old. Its restraint is a surprise: at this stage it just hints at butter and toast and almonds, and there’s enough acid to balance the generous proportions. A slightly creamy texture adds a final touch of quality. Another under $20 wine that laughs at more expensive counterparts, and another wine I wish I’d bought more of.

I’ve been a big fan of Andrew Mitchell’s wines since the early eighties. By now the vines are over 40 years old, and the fruit is dry-grown. Andrew ferments the wine in oak barrels with wild yeast, and lets it sit on lees for 12 months. The result is a Semillon with more complexity and texture than most, yet the fruit shines like a beacon with hints of lemon, butter and almonds. Very fresh for an almost 5-year-old wine.

Given your view of the 2018, you might also reflect on Halliday’s comments on the 2010 version: ‘A silver medal at the Sydney Wine Show 2011 (along with other medals) is a very impressive endorsement for this still incredibly youthful wine. Its colour quartz-white, its palate folded tight and crisp, mineral and citrus zest to the fore, this wine has a bright future that will be denied to it by 99% of those who buy and drink it the same day.’

Many of those descriptors can be applied to the 2016 and 2018 as well. The Classic Riesling is typically trim and crisp in its youth. It has never failed (in recent years) to exhibit fine varietal character. It also ages very gracefully. It is a triumph of modern large scale wine production. Similar things may be said about its sister wine the Classic Pinot Grigio.

In my response I said: ‘The winemakers at Jacobs Creek are smart, and turn out clever concoctions that clearly succeed in fooling the judges. If you’ve been tasting wines with Colin Gramp, I suspect you know your Rieslings so I’m surprised you defend the Jacobs Creek Classic so vigorously. To rank the JC Classic alongside top Rieslings like Naked Run, Rieslingfreak No.4, Lodge Hill and St Johns Road Peace of Eden is ludicrous.’

Hubris is a bit far-fetched I feel, but arrogance is a fair call. I have strong opinions, and I don’t hold back on sharing them. When it comes to wine, I often find myself alone, and I often find my call was on the money. I remember one occasion where I stunned my wine friends and Peter Bourne, our host on Monday night tastings above his bottle shop in Cleveland St. Redfern, when I declared that the Rouge Homme Claret 1982 they raved about was deeply flawed. It was jammy, I argued, and the fruit had a stewed character. It was a tricked-up wine. (This became a feature of other Lindemans Coonawarra reds at the time, until they saw the error of their ways).

With one exception, my mates whose palates had seen more wines than mine laughed at me and lined up to buy cases of the Rouge Homme (which had just been released). On another occasion about a decade later, I was with the same group tasting some old wines that happened to include the 1982 Rouge Homme. It was liquid jam past its use-by date. No one was laughing this time.

A more recent example was the Dashwood Pinot Noir 2016, a $16 wine that won 3 trophies at the Air NZ Wine Awards 2017, including Champion Pinot Noir of the show. I tasted this a year ago, long before it hit the shelves. It was a decent Pinot but I couldn’t work out how it won the champion trophy, given the many great Pinots the Kiwis produce. I shared my feelings with Warren Gibson, the chairman of judges, at the NZ awards trade tasting lunch in Sydney. The people at the big table looked at me with surprise as I argued my case, and my old friend Peter Bourne who knows that I never hold back gave me hints that suggested I was out of order, disrespectful and more. Warren didn’t look too happy either.

‘Wine judging is obviously subjective and difficult,’ says our subscriber. ‘Even superior palates have off days or even hours.’ I couldn’t agree more. ‘That is why the best judging systems require consensus of multiple palates,’ he adds. ‘It is the norm for many “wine writers” to make fun of wine show results. But, when a wine is recognised as being superior by multiple independent judging panels, it is wise to take note. It is not rational to merely declare/assert that the judging results are ‘ludicrous’ (as you do).’

That’s where we part company. What the email above shows, and what most wine shows prove time and time again, is that show results are only consistent in one aspect: getting it wrong. I’ve covered the reasons in more detail in several posts, but the main reason is the vast number of wines judges have to plough through in a short time. That leads to superficial judgements, in this case mistaking a lean and acid white of no distinction for a classy young Riesling that just needs more time.

Wolf Blass famously exploited our show judging system. He made reds that were seductive in their youth, reds that ‘made weak men strong and strong women weak.’ He saw that he could win trophies for the best young reds, such as the Jimmy Watson. At the time most Aussie reds were tannic youths that needed time to mellow, and Wolfie knew he would beat them in the one-year-old section.

There was just one problem: no one had ever heard of Jimmy Watson who’d established a wine bar in Lygon Street, Carlton. So Wolf did what came naturally to him: promote the Jimmy Watson as the holy grail of red wine trophies. Ask any punter out there to name a red wine trophy, and I bet you the Jimmy Watson will come first by a mile. The rest, as they say, is history.

Here we find a surprise entry in a Jacobs Creek Classic Riesling 2018, which we can buy for $7 at Liquorland. So how did a wine mass-produced to a price win an elite gold medal? This is the lowliest wine made by Jacobs Creek. The company’s flagship Riesling is the $30 Steingarten 2017, which scored a measly 83 points, just about off the bottom of the scale.

I grabbed a bottle of the $7 Jacobs Creek to check my bearings, and found pretty much what I’d expect from this kind of wine: it lacks varietal character on both nose and palate – the limes and talc and minerals, let alone aromatics; the wine lacks flavour, it’s mostly an acid trip of no distinction but perhaps the judges mistook it for an austere cool climate Riesling. I used it in the kitchen, and it was OK, but I’m not tempted to buy more of it.

This competition arranged by Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer, which celebrates the Aussie blend of Cabernet and Shiraz, is a much more predictable affair, except that the $30 Pepperjack Certified Shiraz Cabernet 2016 won best wine overall. For those of us looking for sub $20 bargains, the $14 George Wyndham I Am George Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 won the under $25 category.

TWE has shown no shame when it comes to squeezing money out of its Grange brand. Peter Gago has been a great ambassador for the prestigious label, while his masters screwed the price up higher and higher. It’s been easy lately, with the Chinese willing to hand over big money for prestige bottles. The RRP for the new Grange is $100 off $1000.

Most of the Grange bottles made are never opened. Collectors show them to friends at dinner parties, investors buy and sell them, but very few people drink them. If you actually want to buy some Grange to drink, I have wonderful news: the average auction price for older Granges runs around $400 to $500 a bottle, half the cost of the current wine. Plus the auctioneer’s take and freight, of course.

The lowly bins have gone up 33%: Bin 128, Bin 138 and Bin 51 have gone up 33%. Bin 707 is now $600, Yattarna is $175 and Magill is $150. Tyson makes the same point that I make above, in relation to recent releases which drop in value pretty much straight away. For example, the RWT 2015 sells for $105, while its release price was $200. You can buy Grange 2013 at auction for $550, $300 under its list price last year.

Ah yes, all the wine scribes heed the call from TWE. 40 of them in Australia alone. I didn’t get an invite, I’m happy to say. It’s far more fun finding wines for $20 or less that you guys give me great feedback on. As I said when I started this: anybody can buy a good wine for $100 – or $1000 – but buying a good wine for $20 or $10 is takes a bit of skill.