Prices for many popular imported wines are soaring almost as dramatically as the price of foreign oil. But don't think of this inflation as a change in price. Look at it as a chance to make a change of scenery.
Instead of the familiar vineyards of Burgundy, Condrieu and Graves, explore (with your wine goblet) those of the South of France, such as Languedoc and Bergerac. Consider Italy's coast, or perhaps Victoria, Australia. In short, look for what's in the bottle rather than what's pasted on the outside, and you'll never be lost, however far flung your wine travels.
Fortunately, there is still a plethora of excellent white wines in the under-$8 price range, where most of us do our shopping (reds will be treated in a future column). So, even though price inflation seems to have hit hardest in some of the best known regions, lots of newcomers stand ready to take their place in the bargain bins of area retailers.
The following wines, listed in order of preference, represent the pick of the crop of new releases of inexpensive imported whites now on the market (prices approximate). Your retailer can order from the wholesaler listed in brackets. (Maryland and Virginia distribution may vary.)
Cha~teau Saint Andre' 1989 Clairette du Languedoc ($6; France): From a little known part of France's generally undistinguished Midi region, this thoroughly delightful wine combines the delicate peach and pear notes of a $20 Condrieu with a perfectly proportioned dash of opulent muscat-like spiciness. Though superb as an aperitif, it has the complexity and liveliness on the palate to match well with light seafood or poultry. A must try. (Laurent Selections/Blanchon Cellars)
Lindemans 1990 Chardonnay Bin 65 ($6; Australia): While the value offered by many Australian chardonnays has slipped alarmingly in recent years, this freshly bottled example provides generous, exotic fruit with a fine overlay of vanilla oak. Made in a California style and could embarrass many $12-$15 chardonnays from Napa and Sonoma. (Port Dixie)
Cha~teau Grinou 1989 Bergerac Sec ($8; France): Located just east of Bordeaux, the picturesque Bergerac region has struggled to establish a commercial identity outside the shadow of its illustrious neighbor. This is the type of wine that may do it. Made mostly from semillon, it combines an aromatic intensity with luscious, somewhat spicy fruit. (Kacher Selections/exclusive in D.C. at Calvert Woodley)
San Pedro 1989 Chardonnay ($6; Chile); San Pedro 1989 Sauvignon Blanc "Gato Blanco" ($4; Chile): The tasty chardonnay is made in the clean, fresh style of a petit chablis, with subtle buttery notes and good weight on the middle palate. Though not as silky, the sauvignon blanc is an incredible value, with an earthy zestiness and plenty of sauvignon blanc fruit. (Kronheim)
Domaine de Pouy 1989 Ugni Blanc ($4-$5; France): Bursting with fresh, aromatic apple-like fruit, this zesty, extroverted wine, amazingly enough, is made from the same ugni blanc grape that makes the serious and somber distilled wines of Cognac. (Kacher Selections)
Lauretan Blanc 1989 ($5; France); Cha~teau Tayac 1989 "Cuve'e Oceane" ($7-$8; France): Chateau Lauretan is the prestigious house of Cordier's answer to Mouton Cadet, but is superior in every way. Appealing in the '89 are the especially ripe peach and melon notes. The crisp Tayac is a more traditionally styled white Bordeaux that is similar to a good Entre-deux-mer, meaning that it is an ideal accompaniment to oysters and other fresh shellfish. (Lauretan is from Kronheim; Tayac is from Hand Picked Selections)
Pierre Frick 1989 Sylvaner "Bergweingarten" ($6; Alsace): Exploring the lesser known grape varieties of Alsace, such as sylvaner, is a sure route to value. This wine is enjoyably mouthfilling and fruity. The acidity is moderately low, but there is enough to hold it together with grilled poultry or fish. (Weygandt Metzlar Importing/exclusive in D.C. at Pearson's)
Cha~teau de Campuget 1989 Chardonnay ($6; France): Once all worthwhile French chardonnay came from the Burgundy region. Not any more. This humble vins de pays ("country wine") has the non-oaked, pure chardonnay fruit of a Ma~con, but with a lower degree of alcohol, which makes it a bit lighter. (Kacher Selections)
Foss Marai 1989 Prosecco ($6.50; Italy): Though Italian whites tend to be insipid, this Prosecco breaks the mold with solid fruit wrapped around a firm core of acidity. Try this with a pasta in white seafood sauce or perhaps even a rich fettucini alfredo.
Ma~con Vire "Le Grand Cheneau" 1989 ($6; France); Ma~con Ige' Carpi-Gobet 1989 ($7-$8): Although the distributor of Grand Cheneau has recently raised the price, there are still adequate retail stocks at the old price of this easy drinking, soft Ma~con chardonnay. The Ige' is more serious stuff, with a chablis-like mineral-scented nose and excellent structure. (Le Grand Cheneau is from Kronheim; Ma~con Ige' is from Kacher Selections)
Martinsancho 1989 "Verdejo" ($8; Spain): This wine works beautifully with food because it has good acidity, fleshy, somewhat Riesling-like fruit, and a strong finish. Unfortunately, only 3,000 cases are produced, so it won't last long. (Franklin Selections)
Michelton 1989 Semillon/Chardonnay ($7; Australia): Although the marriage between semillon and chardonnay can work brilliantly, it seems that only the Australians have fully embraced the possibilities inherent in the blend. The result is a strong wine with genuine character, lightly finished with spicy oak and well suited for bluefish or other oily fish as well as dark meat poultry such as duck or goose. (Franklin Selections)
Balada 1988 Gran Blanc "Macabeo" ($7; Spain): Like Italy, Spain is working hard to bring the quality of its white wines up to that of its reds. The Balada has assertive, citrusy flavors and good weight on the palate, and is something of a cross between a pinot gris and a chardonnay. (DOPS)
Vernaccia 1989 "S. Quirico" ($7-$8); Vernaccia Teruzzi & Puthod ($8-$9; Italy): Vernaccia is a perfect match for grilled fish, with a crisp structure, somewhat lemony fruit, and a touch of fig flavor on the finish. S. Quirico is consistently among the best Vernaccia, and the '89 is exceptional. The Teruzzi & Puthod is a richer style, a bit less crisp, but also quite good (Quirico is from Wine Source; Teruzzi is from Bacchus)
Los Vascos 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($5.50; Chile); Cousinåo Macul 1989 Sauvignon Blanc ($4.50; Chile): Two different styles, both appealing. The Los Vascos is light, smooth and pleasantly tart. The Cousinåo is more assertive, with flinty, herbal sauvignon fruit. Use the first as an aperitif or with delicate seafood; use the second with stronger flavored dishes, such as barbecued chicken. (Los Vascos is from Wine Source; Cousinåo Macul is from Billington)
Valfieri Zeffinello 1988 Sauvignon Blanc ($7; Italy): With a light fizz and vibrant fruit, this wine isn't for the ultra- serious enthusiast, but its refreshing crispness will win it many admirers. (Kronheim)
Ben Giliberti is Washington-based freelancer who writes regularly about wines.