20 Wines Under $20: Plenty of Variety and Not One Chardonnay

Posted May 22, 2018 5:54 p.m. EDT

Among the many harbingers of warm weather, one of my favorites is the NYU Hawk Cam, starring a pair of red-tailed hawks that have nested since 2011 on a ledge, overlooking Washington Square Park, outside the office of the president of New York University.

As I sit at my computer, I’ve got half an eye on this year’s nestlings, three little hawks that are now tiny white balls of down, too weak to sit up for long. By the beginning of summer, they will be nearly fully grown and strutting the ledge, impatient to fledge into the wilds of Greenwich Village.

The hawks are a reminder that human behavior, too, is informed by the seasons. Just as many people gravitate to lighter foods as the weather warms, so do they seek out lighter wines as summer approaches. For this edition of 20 Under $20, whites and rosés predominate, though reds will always have their place, accompanying the grilled steaks, ribs and burgers of summer.

For some years now I have made the case that the greatest values in wine are in the vicinity of $20 a bottle. It’s easy to find palatable wines for under $10, but very rarely will those bottles offer any sense of excitement or distinctiveness. Spend a little more, say, $15 to $20, and the number of distinctive, exciting bottles increases exponentially. Occasionally, such bottles can be found for less — one of my favorites here is just $12.99 — but the probability is low.

What makes the following wines great values? Almost entirely, they are from regions of lesser status and made from grapes that have not been highly valued.

Among these 20 bottles are no chardonnays or cabernet sauvignons, nothing from Napa Valley or Burgundy. I do include two pinot noirs, but they are both sparkling rosés, one from Portugal, the other from Alsace, neither renowned for pinot noir (though those from Alsace may surprise you).

Instead, these wines, from eight countries, are made from grapes that are practically unknown. Limniona, anybody? I’ve had a few sensational bottles from Greece. How about encruzado from Portugal, or grillo from Sicily? Salamino from Emilia-Romagna, or trepat from Spain?

Try them, and you may be surprised at how delicious they can be. For those less experimentally inclined, I have an awfully good sauvignon blanc, and delicious California rosés, made from the gamay noir grape, which may be more familiar in its Beaujolais incarnation.

Of these 20 bottles, five are rosés. If that number proves too few to meet the unquenchable thirst, I devoted an entire column to 20 rosés last summer. Those bottles in a new vintage should still be excellent choices, as will many of the wines I have cited over the years in this series, though for some, the prices may have crept up a bit.

These 20 great values are in no particular order. Many are from small producers, and, even if you live in New York City, you may not be able to find all of them. If you have access to a good wine shop, and it does not stock these bottles, ask for an approximate recommendation. In no time, I predict, you will be making your own seasonal discoveries.

Domaine Zafeirakis Rosé of Tyrnavos Limniona 2016, $12.99

Greece has many little-known, ancient grapes like limniona, which could have disappeared entirely without the efforts of Christos Zafeirakis to resurrect it. From a vineyard in the Tyrnavos region, near Mount Olympus in Thessaly, he makes a wonderful red limniona and this rosé. It has a lightly fruity aroma, but on the palate it’s savory and stony, a superb value. (Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York)

Prà Soave Classico Otto 2016, $16.99

Soave has had its critical ups and downs, but from a good producer like Prà, the wines can be wonderful. Otto is Prà's entry-level bottle, but it is exceptional nonetheless, made entirely out of garganega, the leading Soave grape, from the volcanic soils of the Classico subzone. It is floral and brisk, with flavors of almonds, pears and discernible minerality. (Vinifera, Ronkonkoma, New York)

Barberani Orvieto Classico Superiore Castagnolo 2016, $16.99

Like Soave, Orvieto has had to overcome a reputation for characterless wines. Barberani is one of the better producers. The Castagnolo is crisp, lightly fruity, a touch savory and very refreshing. Drink with seafood pastas, with salads or all by itself. (Vinifera)

Valérie Forgues Domaine de la Méchinière Touraine Sauvignon 2016, $18.99

Sauvignon blanc is more typically associated with Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the eastern part of the Loire Valley. This white, simply called “Sauvignon,” is from the Touraine region, where the white is usually chenin blanc. It is bright, juicy and herbal (not at all pungent), delicious and easy to drink. Valérie Forgues is a disciple of Didier Barrouillet of Clos Roche Blanche, the influential Loire estate that closed after the 2014 vintage. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)

Ca’ Lojera Lugana 2016, $17.99

Trebbiano refers to a large group of Italian white grapes that share many characteristics, but are not necessarily genetically related. They also vary widely in quality. This wine from Lugana, near Lake Garda in Lombardy, is made from the trebbiano di Lugana, which, to confuse matters more, is not a trebbiano at all. Trebbiano di Lugana is actually the same grape as verdicchio, according to Ian d’Agata’s book “Native Wine Grapes of Italy.” Regardless, it’s refreshing, dry and textured with flavors of citrus, melon and minerals. (Moonlight Wine, New York)

Folk Machine Arroyo Seco Gamay Noir Rosé 2017, $19.99

The vast wave of rosé that swamps our shores each summer generally leaves little record of its existence. The parties are memorable, not the wine. So when a distinctive rosé arrives, I take notice. This one from Folk Machine is fresh and light — just 10.4 percent alcohol — yet vibrant, dry and energetic, steely with gorgeous flavors of berries and peaches. Folk Machine is a label of Hobo Wine Co.

Edmunds St. John El Dorado County Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir Rosé 2016, $19.99

Another gamay noir rosé? Well, you cannot have too many, though this is quite different from the Folk Machine. Aside from being a year older (age is fine in a good rosé), it is a more serious wine, with savory saline and mineral flavors, yet delicious nonetheless. Bone-Jolly — a play on Beaujolais, get it? — is a favorite year after year.

Valle dell’Acate Sicilia Zagra Grillo 2017, $15.99

In recent years, I have seen more dry whites made from grillo, a grape once known as the backbone of sweet Marsala or for making big, blousy dry wines. This one — from various coastal vineyards in eastern Sicily — is young, fresh, floral and refreshing, with lingering earthy notes. Delightful. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York)

Casa de Mouraz Dão Encruzado 2015, $17.99

I don’t know a lot about the encruzado grape, except that I see it occasionally in whites from the Dão region of Portugal. When I’ve tried them, I’ve found them delicious and unusual. This wine is extravagantly herbal, with pronounced minerality and a winning texture. A few years of age adds complexity. (Savio Soares Selections, Brooklyn, New York)

Folias de Baco Portugal Uivo PT Nat Rosé de Pinot Noir 2017, $18.99

This pétillant naturel, a sparkling wine produced by bottling the wine as it is still fermenting to trap the carbon dioxide trying to escape, looks like the palest possible rosé. It smells like flowers, berries and fresh earth, and is bright, exuberant and refreshing, with citrus highlights. To my mind, it’s as fine a use for Portuguese pinot noir as any. (Savio Soares Selections)

Domaine Ilarria Irouléguy 2014, $19.99

I’ve long been smitten with the wines of Irouléguy, a tiny region in the beautiful Basque country in the extreme southwest of France. Domaine Ilarria, one of my favorite producers, makes a great rosé, and this superb, lithe, earthy red, made primarily of tannat and cabernet franc, with a bit of cabernet sauvignon. Peio Espil, who started Ilarria in the 1980s, follows a hands-off style of farming and winemaking, yet his wines are always precise, detailed and solid. (A Thomas Calder Selection/Moonlight Wine, New York)

Teutonic Wine Co. Willamette Valley Riesling 2016, $19.99

As you could guess, Teutonic Wine Co. is dedicated to grapes associated with Germany. That list begins with riesling, and this one is superb. It’s described as off dry. What does that mean? It is not specifically sweet, though the wine has just enough residual sugar to give the texture a bit of roundness. What does it smell like? Pure riesling. If you want to break it down further, go right ahead, but that’s good enough from me.

Château Combel La-Serre Cahors 2015, $19.99

Malbec is now most familiar to Americans in its Argentine manifestation, often bountifully fruity and sometimes jammy sweet. This is malbec from the limestone plateau, or “causse,” in Cahors, the historic home of malbec. It is a very different glassful: earthy, minerally, spicy and just right for a steak off the grill. Julien Ilbert of Château Combel La-Serre is one of a handful of young winemakers injecting new energy into this ancient region. (Louis/Dressner Selections)

Y. Amirault Bourgueil La Coudraye 2015, $19.99

This red, from the Bourgueil region of the Loire Valley, is made with cabernet franc grown organically in soils of clay and sand. It’s juicy and spicy, easy to drink, yet lovely, with clear personality and character. When wine writers talk of the Loire’s great values, they mean wines like this. (Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Pennsylvania)

Monte Bernardi Chianti Classico Retromarcia 2015, $18.99

I often hear Chianti Classico maligned, and I wonder why. Are people jaded by Tuscany? Looking for more trendy Italian reds? Operating on old information? I love Chianti, and I love sangiovese, one of the world’s great grapes. This is not to say Chianti does not have problems, but try a wine like this entry-level Retromarcia, made of 100 percent sangiovese. It’s pure, dry and juicy, without the complexity of a more ambitious Chianti, perhaps, but absolutely delicious. (T. Edward Wines, New York)

Luciano Saetti Lambrusco dell’Emilia Rosso Viola 2016, $18.99

I am a big fan of good, dry Lambrusco, and, as I have said, Luciano Saetti’s are my favorites of all. Year in and year out, Saetti produces brilliant farmhouse Lambrusco, made in the traditional method rather than in an industrialized fashion. Floral, meaty and earthy, the Rosso Viola smells like a platter of salumi, which is not inappropriate, given that it is made of the salomino grape, so named because the grapes look like miniature salami. (Louis/Dressner Selections)

Lectores Vini Conca de Barberà Pomagrana 2016, $17.99

This translucent red is made of the trepat grape, which typically makes pale, airy reds. The Pomagrana, from the Conca de Barberà region in northeastern Spain, is light, herbal and fruity, as in, yes, pomegranates. This refreshing bottle will especially benefit from a light chill. (Selections de la Viña/Fruit of the Vines, Long Island City, New York)

Stein Mosel Blauschiefer Riesling Trocken 2016, $18.99

Sometimes dry German riesling can be so dry it’s practically harsh. This one from Stein is gently dry, with just the barest bit of fruity roundness to give the wine depth and dimension, along with plenty of stony minerality. It is a wine to savor. (Vom Boden, Brooklyn, New York)

Valdesil Valdeorras Montenovo Godello 2016, $16.99

Godello is a grape with a lot of promise. Grown in regions of western Spain like Valdeorras, Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, just to name a few, godello has the transparent ability to both display its terroir and adapt to a winemaker’s style. In the capable hands of Valdesil, the Montenovo godello is fresh, creamy, herbal and spicy, reminiscent of chardonnay but with a Spanish accent. (Polaner Selections)

Pierre Sparr Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé NV, $19.99

The crémants of France are an excellent resource for good values in sparkling wine. The wines, which come from pretty much all over France except Champagne, are made using the same technique as Champagne, in which still wine is refermented in the bottle, trapping carbon dioxide and producing bubbles. This rosé is made entirely of pinot noir. It’s dry and refreshing, not complex or deep, but as easygoing as a holiday weekend. (Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, California)