Inexpensive reds lack a major advantage of inexpensive whites -- they shouldn't be served cold. Unlike whites, they can't hide behind a palate-numbing chill. When they are flawed, it shows. If they are simple, it can't be disguised.
In short, reds rise and fall on their own merits. That makes finding good under-$8 examples devilishly difficult. But it also makes tasting a winner that much more rewarding.
Fortunately, with resolute shopping, putting together a list of high quality bargain reds is eminently possible. True, well known Bordeaux chateaux, most red Burgundies, and rare Piedmont reds won't make the list. On the other hand, with advancing winemaking technology, thoroughly enjoyable andaffordable wines from the south of France, Portugal, South America and Italy are easier to find today than they were just a few years ago. Such wines will ably fill the yawning bins in your wine cellar (or bedroom closet).
The following under-$8 imported reds are listed in order of consumer interest based on quality and value (prices are approximate). Your retailer can order from the distributor listed in brackets (Maryland and Virginia distribution may vary).
Salice Salentino Rosso 1985 "Riserva" ($6-$6.50; Italy): With bright and lively fruit set against an effusive, spicy bouquet, this spectacular new release tops even the fine 1982 and 1983 vintages of this quality-conscious producer from the Apulia region that forms the "heel" of Italy's "boot." Made from the little-known Negroamaro grape, this strong, fruity red becomes velvety with age. Enjoy most of what you buy now, but save a bottle or two to savor in a couple of years. (Wine Source/Winebow)
Chateau de Gourgazaud 1988 Minervois ($5-$6; France): First planted by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, the Minervois region is one of France's newest appellation controlle'es. This example is made from carignane and syrah grapes, emphasizes fresh grapy fruit, and is medium bodied with light tannins. Aging in retired Me'doc barrels adds a welcome touch of oak seasoning. (Vineyard Brands/Forman)
Caves Ve'lhas Dao 1985 ($6; Portugal): Ripe, somewhat port-like bouquet; smooth silky fruit and a refined, faintly caramel aftertaste. Because of its understated complexity, it can work well with more ambitious dinner menus, including those featuring complex seasonings. (World Shippers)
Mas des Bressades 1988 Cabernet-Syrah ($8; France): Surprisingly serious red of southern France has plenty of smoky oak and fruity stuffing. Resembles a robust country cousin of a well-oaked St. Emilion or Pomerol, such as Figeac or Vieux Cha~teau Certan. (Kacher Selections)
Monte Antico 1987 ($7-$8; Italy): Margaux-like Tuscan red features an outstanding floral bouquet -- so rare in an inexpensive red -- and vivacious, crisp, berry-like fruit. (Kronheim)
San Pedro 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon ($5; Chile): Styled like a Graves Rouge, aged in oak, with smooth deep fruit; light earthy notes add complexity. Don't confuse with San Pedro's lighter "Gato Negro" cabernet, which costs a dollar less but which is not as interesting. (Kronheim)
Chateau Roc Mignon d'Adrien 1989; Chateau Fauchey 1989 (Both are $6; France): Much in the style of the 1982 petit chateaux, dense, chewy and unusually rich, the Roc Mignon d'Adrien recalls the great values offered by that earlier vintage. The Fauchey is a more classic and subtle Bordeaux, with bright, cherry-like fruit and is a refined alternative to the denser styled '89 petits. (Both are from Hand Picked Selections)
Travaglini 1989 Spanna de Piemonte ($6; Italy): Though the Piedmont region is better known for its sturdy Barolos and Barbarescos, this nebbiolo-based wine is light, fresh and offers the essence of strawberry nebbiolo fruit with none of the tarry notes of its sturdier cousins. (Forman)
Goyenchea Syrah 1987 ($5; Argentina): Succulent, smooth fruit on the palate; fresh, clean raspberry bouquet. Fine value. (Argen Wine Imports)
Le Sable 1987 Pinot Noir ($4; Yugoslavia): Now from Yugoslavia, the Le Sable ("the sands") label once graced a good value red from Algeria. Warm, ripe, almost raisiny fruit; quite rich. Curiously, resembles a ripe Algerian red more than a French Burgundy made from pinot noir. (Constantine)
Cha~teau Pontet Cailloux 1986 Graves Rouge; Cha~teau Tayac 1986 Rubis de Prince Noir (Both are $8; Bordeaux): While awaiting the much heralded 1989 vintage, don't overlook the many equally fine wines from the 1986 vintage, which have the advantage of being ready to drink today without further cellaring. The Pontet Cailloux is a classic Graves rouge made in an elegant style with a softly earthy texture of flavors on the palate. The suave Tayac emphasizes berry and red fruit nuances, and is also drinking beautifully now. (Pontet Cailloux is from Laurent Selections; Tayac is from Hand Picked Selections)
Chateau Aiguilloux 1987 Corbie`res; Clos de Villemajou 1988 Corbie`res: ($5-$6; France): Both are French country reds at their best, with healthy deep colors, robust red fruit flavors, hints of spice and chocolate on the finish. (Aiguilloux is from Laurent Selections; Villemajou is from Alain Junguenet Selections)
Chateau de Pech Redon "La Clape" 1988; Chateau Roquette sur Mer "La Clape" 1988 (Both are $6-$7; France): From the same hilly area of Languedoc known as La Clape, both taste like 75/25-percent blends of sturdy Co~tes du Rho~ne and Bordeaux. The Pech Redon is the bigger wine, with two to three years of aging potential. More open-knit and fruity, the Roquette sur Mer is ready now. (Pech Redon is from Pearson's Importing; Roquette sur Mer is from Kacher Selections)
Fossi Chianti 1988 ($7; Italy); Cantina Gattavecchi 1988 Chianti Colli Senesi; ($6; Italy): Big mouthful of fleshy sangiovese fruit makes for a perfect pizza or pasta wash. All that's missing is the straw basket. (Fossi is from Franklin Selections; Gattavecchi is from Neil Empson Selections)
Undurraga 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon ($5; Chile): Soft, velvety fruit, jammy middle, and good weight on the palate add up to a good everyday cabernet. (Forman)
Balgownie Shiraz/Cabernet 1988; Penfolds Koonunga Hill 1987 Shiraz/Cabernet; Krondorf 1987 Shiraz/Cabernet (All are $7-$8; Australia): Like Australia's chardonnay/se'millon blends, blends of shiraz/cabernet demonstrate the Australians' knack for finding hitherto untried combinations of grapes that really work. The Balgownie is a big, impressive, oaky wine with lots of stuffing; the Penfolds is similar, but slightly lighter. The Krondorf is less oaked, but still shows lots of character for the price. (Balgownie and Krondorf are from Franklin Selections; Penfolds is from Forman)
Ben Giliberti is Washington-based freelancer who writes regularly about wine.