Remember when a great wine cost $5.99. Ford was introducing a new car called the Mustang. The president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was baring his scars to the world. The Senators, the baseball team, had returned, never again to depart, it was said.
At a well timed sale, you might have come across a premier cru white burgundy, a good classified growth bordeaux such as La Lagune, or even a great second growth, like Pichon Lalande or Leoville Las Cases, in the $5 range. There were truckloads of excellent, unapologetically massive cabernets, zinfandels and chardonnays from Napa and Sonoma as well. Without a doubt, a couple of decades ago $5.99 bought you a wine of superb quality, with generous flavors, plenty of finesse and considerable aging potential.
It still does.
No, the names are not as famous. Nor are all the places as familiar. But they don't have to be. Thanks to advances in enology (winemaking) and viticulture, there is today an ocean of good wine from some very unlikely places. And that's kept the lid on prices, despite the falling dollar and rising aspirations in the land of Falcon Crest.
The list that follows is the fruit of my quest for the inexpensive best this season. All are $5.99 or less, and many are under $4. Many retailers will provide discounts on mixed cases made up of these (and other) wines, which allows you to sample, taste and find the best values among them for you. Your retailer can order wines for you from the wholesaler listed in brackets. (Prices are approximate; wholesale distribution may differ in Maryland and Virginia.)
Chateau St. Jean 1986 Vin Blanc (Sonoma; $4-$4.50): My Penguin Dictionary of Saints lists 64 St. Jeans (or Johns), so I wasn't sure whom I was thanking as I drank this extraordinarily fruity and refreshing bargain white. Cleverly vinified from six premium varietals, this may be the perfect house white -- the sort you'd like to sip casually while reading a good book or watching TV, but with the flavor interest and intensity to serve to guests with dinner. (Forman)
Estancia 1985 Chardonnay (Alexander Valley; $5.99): Despite some alarming trends, they still make California-style chardonnay in California. This is a textbook example, buttery, oaky, opulent and delicious. (Forman)
Rutherford Estate 1985 "Napa Valley" Chardonnay ($5.99); Mountain View Chardonnay 1985 (Mendocino; $5.99): Crispness is the theme of these two excellent offerings. The nod goes to the more concentrated and impressive Rutherford Estate for the main course, but the Mountain View is hard to top as an aperitif. (Kronheim and DOPS/Quality Beverage D.C., respectively).
R.H. Phillips 1986 "Night Harvest Cuvee" (Yolo; $4): Combine a near Napa Valley location and climate with Yolo county land values; harvest at night to keep the unfermented grape must cool; price modestly. That's the recipe for this exuberant sauvignon blanc, another winner for the value oriented Phillips winery. (Beitzell)
Domaine de la Becassonne 1986 Co~tes du Rhone Blanc ($5.99): Not all good co~tes du rhone is red, though some of the whites act as though they hadn't yet discovered that. Becassonne avoids the thick, overly earthy style that plagues so many white co~tes du rhones, and instead delivers refreshingly lively peach-like flavors with a tinge of mineral scents and flavors. (Washington Wholesale)
Bichot 1986 "Co~tes Duras" (Co~tes de Duras; $3.50-$4): No Co~tes de Duras blanc aspires to greatness. But that doesn't change the fact that this is a generous, easy to like mostly sauvignon blanc blend that delivers lots of lively, straightforward fruit, at bargain basement prices. (Ginday)
Lucien Albrecht 1985 Pinot Blanc (Alsace; $5.99): Despite what they may say, nobody really believes that Alsace wines will ever have a mass following, least of all the Alsatians. But this is a wonderfully fragrant wine with juicy, complex fruit that should win more than a few converts to the distinctive, spicy Alsace style. (Robert Kacher Selection, Washington Wholesale)
Vernaccia 1986 "Vigna a Solatio" Falchini (Italy; $4.50-$5): First, catch a fish. Then latch on to a bottle of this. Chill the wine. Grill the fish. Serve concurrently. (Gabriella Selection, International)
Domaine Brusset Cairanne 1985 (Rhone; $5.99): Without doubt, my top pick in an under-$6 red. Sweet raspberry and spice bouquet, lush, silky fruit, and a powerful finish. A complete wine. (Robert Kacher Selections; Washington Wholesale)
Pinot Noir Laroche Bourgogne (Burgundy; $5.99): Unmistakable pinot noir expansion of fruit on the palate, stylish, elegant and smooth. At long last, an everyday burgundy that's really from Burgundy and tastes like it. (Beitzell)
Toro Gran Colegiata 1985 (Spain; $3.99): Gobs of fruit and deep flavors, spicy, oaky bouquet, a rich, hearty wine; exceptionally well-made with distinct cellaring potential; more concentrated than the excellent 1982 Gran Colegiata and the regular 1985 bottling. (Beitzell)
Cha~teau du Moulin 1985 ($4.50); Cha~teau Terres d'Agnes ($5; both from Bordeaux): When the big name Bordeaux chateaux put on airs, petite chateaux like these come out of the woodwork to fill the void. Cha~teau du Moulin has an open, cassis bouquet and the sort of berry-like intensity on the middle palate that would put some good $10 cru bourgeois to shame. The Terres d'Agnes is less refined, but offers lots of robust, mouth-filling cabernet fruit and short-term cellaring potential. (Forman and Beitzell, respectively).
Caves Velhas 1974 Garrafeira (Portugal; $5.99): If we all had a cellarful of good 10-year-old bordeaux or burgundy, we probably wouldn't need gracefully mature wines like this from Portugal. Mellow and velvety, with ripe, deep fruit; versatile wine in a burgundian style. (Washington Wholesale)
Muga 1982 Rioja (Spain; $5.99): Spicy, very full vanillin oak bouquet, lots of oak on the palate, but abundant fruit in just the right proportion. Traditional Rioja style at its best. (Cannan and Wasserman Selection, International)
Domaine Les Goubert Co~tes du Rhone 1985 ($5.99): Loaded with ripe fruit flavor and aroma, deep color, a baby Gigondas from one of that region's best producers. (Dan Kravitz Selection, Beitzell)
Lembey Brut (Spain; $5): Freixenet and Codorniu are excellent, but Lembey Brut is even more champagne-like. Clean, lively fruit, with much of the incredible lightness of true champagne.
Emilio Lustau Old East India Cream Emilio Lustau Muscat Sherry (Spain; both $5-6, half bottles): If you haven't yet tried these remarkable sherries, you're missing some of the best undiscovered delights around. The richness of these two sweeter- style offerings makes them perfect for luxuriant sipping after a good meal.
Finally, don't overlook a few previous recommendations that are now back in stock. From Chile, the remarkable St. Morillon 1983 Cabernet ($4), Canepa 1986 Sauvignon Blanc ($5.99) the 1983 Cousino Macul Cabernet regular bottling ($5.99); from Spain, the 1983 Torres Coronas ($4); from Portugal, the 1985 Joao Pires Muscat ($5); from Australia, the Peter Lehmann 1983 Cabernet/Shiraz ($5) and the astonishing dessert wine, the Peter Lehmann 1984 Semillon Sauternes ($5.99; half bottle).
Marion 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon (California; $4.99): Napa and Sonoma have gone to finishing school, so now we have to go to places like Santa Cruz to find those wonderfully lusty-styled California cabernets of yore (meaning the mid-'70s). Eucalayptus and spice bouquet, big, gutsy fruit -- the genuine article. (Washington Wholesale)
Rutherford Estate 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa; $5.99): Made from young vines and excess production from some of Napa's best vineyards, including some right on the Rutherford Bench, this is the second label of a well known Napa estate. Impressive finesse, well etched, pure berrylike fruit, and a pleasing pinch of Rutherford dust. (Kronheim)
Bell Canyon Cellars 1983 Cabernet (Napa; $5.99): Full, cassis and mint bouquet; ripe, cherry-like cabernet fruit, in a lighter, elegant style. Burgess Cellar's second label. Ready now. (Vintage)
Mirassou Petite Sirah 1984 (California; $5.99): Nothing petite about this warm and generous wine. Incredibly deep, purple color. Decadently rich, velvety, raspberry fruit. Perfect with a hearty beef dish, the adventurous should try this with a bit of chocolate dessert. (International)