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Tasting Two-Dollar Wines
updated: Dec 18, 2010, 8:45 AM

By Marc Liberts

In my last report, one of my tasting panels tried eight value wines that were obtained from Costco. Those wines were all around $10.00, and were rated around 90 points by a major wine critic.

In my current report, I assembled a tasting panel consisting of wine novices and wine experts to do a taste testing of $2.00 wines. We tried four different and popular wine varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and red Rhone Blends (usually Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre). Of course the ubiquitous Charles Shaw ('Two Buck Chuck') wines from Trader Joe's made an appearance, as well as two different $2 wines that I found at Whole Foods in Santa Barbara. The $2 wines were tasted blind. In addition, to help the novices, I also supplied one benchmark wine from each of the four groups to provide guidance to everyone regarding what each wine is supposed to taste like. The benchmark wines were not tasted blind.

In the Chardonnay group, we started out with our benchmark wine - 2007 Suacci Carciere Chardonnay - Heintz Vineyard - Russian River Valley - Sonoma County (about $50.00 at fine wine shops if you can find it). This wine starts with a sublime and beautiful nose featuring sweet spring flowers, apple pie, and very faint green herbs. This wine has a pretty golden hue in the glass. On the palate, the Suacci is plush and substantial, with a very nice balance between the acid and the fruit. A moderate amount of oak and buttery viscosity is present, but not overwhelming. Overall - a very nice wine which we rated 92 points (non-blind).

After the Suacci, we tried a 2009 Oak Vineyards Chardonnay - California. This wine was purchased at Whole Foods for $1.99. This wine was very pale in color with some nice melon scents on the nose. On the palate, there is more faint melon and banana flavors. The wine had almost no finish, and was more reminiscent of a Viognier than a Chardonnay. However, the panel enjoyed it and rated it 81 points.

After that, the panel tasted a 2009 Three Wishes Chardonnay - California. This wine was also purchased at Whole Foods for $1.99. The wine is very pale in color, and has a stemmy and banana nose. On the palate, the wine is very flabby and fruity, with virtually no acid. This wine has virtually no finish, and didn't have much in common with our benchmark Chardonnay, and again was reminiscent of a Viognier. It wasn't bad, but it didn't seem like Chardonnay, and the panel rated it 77 points.

Finally, the panel tasted the 2009 Charles Shaw California Chardonnay. This wine has a faint but pleasant nose of flowers and perfume. On the palate, this 'Two Buck Chuck' is somewhat flabby, but it does have some acid to balance the fruit. Overall, the panel agreed that this wine was the best of the $1.99 group, and rated it 82 points. It isn't a classic Chardonnay by any means, but it is not unpleasant to drink, and is easy to enjoy.

From Chardonnay, we switched to red Rhone Blends. Rhone blends are very popular in Paso Robles, as Syrah and Grenache grapes tend to grow well in that climate and soil. Rhone blends have been made for hundreds of years in the Rhone Valley in France, with the most famous appellation being called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. So, we started our tasting with our benchmark wine from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation of the Rhone valley - a 2008 Mas De Boislauzon Châteauneuf-du-Pape (about $45.00 from Lazy Acres). This wine is medium in color, with a nose of mint, sage, crushed rocks, and a slight hint of oak. On the palate, this wine is overtly dry and tannic. It does have pleasant minerality, and is a bit chalky as well. The fruit and acid are in balance, but wine is so young that the powerful and heavy tannins overwhelm everything else. The novices were not pleased by this wine. I explained that the wine was far too young to be consumed, and probably should be cellared for 5-15 years before consumption. But, it did provide a good example of a good wine consumed far too young. The panel couldn't really enjoy it and rated it 87 points. It was a difficult choice as a benchmark wine, but all the other great Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines available locally start at $100.00 per bottle.

Our next Rhone blend wine to compare against the Mas De Boislauzon Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a 2008 Valreas "Cuvee prestige" Cotes du Rhone Villages (about $10.00 at Trader Joe's). This wine was light in color like a Grenache, with a pleasant and fruity nose. On the palate, the wine is fruity, has some faint black pepper notes, has nice minerality, and tastes a bit loamy. The wine is pleasant on the palate and has a thin finish. Overall, the fruit is big and the acid is faint, and the wine is very easy to drink and enjoy. It would also pair well with food and cheese. The panel appreciated this wine very much and rated it 88 points.

The next wine took us back to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation to try a 2009 "Val De La Pierre" Châteauneuf-du-Pape (about $10.00 at Trader Joe's). Unlike the Mas De Boislauzon, this wine starts with a pleasant and fruity nose with nice floral notes. On the palate, the wine is plush and not very tannic, and drinks nicely for such a young wine. It has a very thin finish, but is pleasant overall and could easily pair successfully with food. The panel enjoyed it and rated it 85 points.

The last Rhone blend we tried was a 2009 Reserve Perrin Cotes du Rhone (about $9.99 at Trader Joe's). This wine is very light in color, and has a nice simple fruity nose. On the palate, there is decent fruit and pepper, and the wine has enough acid to make it pleasant and somewhat balanced. It has a light finish, and the panel enjoyed it and rated it 86 points. Overall, the Rhone blends from Trader Joe's in the $10.00 range easily defeated the benchmark $46.00 Mas De Boislauzon Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

After the Rhone blends, we ventured into more familiar territory and tried some Merlots. I picked as our benchmark Merlot a 2006 Pepper Bridge Merlot from the Walla Walla Valley in Washington State. Walla Walla is becoming famous for the quality and quantity of the Merlot and other Bordeaux varietals that are being produced there. Pepper Bridge is one of the leaders in Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and I personally purchased this bottle at the winery last year for about $50.00. This wine is very dark and severe in color. On the nose, there were notes of dried fruits, oak, and vanilla. The vanilla and oak flavors continued onto the palate, with additional fruit, acid, nice minerality, and heavy tannins. Again, the panel was greatly distracted by the big and dry tannins, but overall this wine has enough length, weight, and size to convince the panel that this was a good example of what Merlot is supposed to taste like. We rated it 90 points.

The next three $1.99 wines were so similar that we all wondered out loud whether they were made by the same producer, only with different labels. We tried a 2009 Oak Vineyards Merlot - California ($1.99 at Whole Foods), a 2009 Three Wishes Merlot - California ($1.99 at Whole Foods), and a 2009 Charles Shaw Merlot - California ($1.99 at Trader Joe's). The three were light in color, had very little on the nose other than fruit, and were generally fruity, thin, and plain on the palate. None of these wines had much of a finish to speak of. All three were fruity, alcoholic, and red. Other than that, they had little in common with what one would normally think of, or expect, when drinking Merlot. The 3 value wines had an average rating of 72 points as scored by the panel. If you want to make Sangria or spiced red wine, these wines would all be fine starters - they have no real vices. They just don't really taste like Merlot.

After the Merlot mess, we moved to our final group: Cabernet Sauvignon. I had recently obtained a bottle of 2008 Double Diamond - Napa Valley - Bomber X - Cabernet Sauvignon, and selected it as our benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon. I was worried about it being too young, but all the reviews of it I had read indicated that it was meant to be enjoyed now, or cellared. Luckily, the wine is enjoyable now. It starts with a big nose of leather, cedar, oak, dark fruit and prunes. On the palate, this wine has a big attack, but isn't overtly tannic. It has vanilla, coffee, mocha, dark chocolate, fruit, and earthy flavor components, with a substantial finish. It isn't a perfect Cabernet Sauvignon, but it has most of the characteristics that are expected. The panel liked it, and rated it 89 points.

The next three $1.99 Cabernet Sauvignon wines were, again, so similar that, again, we all wondered out loud whether they were made by the same producer with different labels. We tried a 2009 Oak Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon- California ($1.99 at Whole Foods), a 2009 Three Wishes Cabernet Sauvignon - California ($1.99 at Whole Foods), and a 2009 Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon- California ($1.99 at Trader Joe's). These wines were all light in color, thin on the palate, had virtually no finish, and had almost none of the characteristics that one would expect in Cabernet Sauvignon. The panel gave these three wines an average score of 71 points. Again, these wines would be good starters for Sangria, and are perfectly pleasant to drink. They are fruity, red, have alcohol, and are not unpleasant in any way. They just don't really taste like Cabernet Sauvignon.

One thing I learned from this tasting and the previous Costco tasting was that $10.00 Rhone Blend wines from Spain, France, and Paso Robles tend taste good, please most people, and would pair well with meats and dark or sauced poultry. I also realized that expensive wines that are heavily tannic and dry are too overwhelming for the average palate. Finally, after trying most of the $1.99 wines around town, I can safely report that they all have alcohol, and they are all drinkable. Just don't go bragging about these $1.99 wines for any reason other than about their great prices. If you are thinking about bringing a bottle to a Christmas or holiday party, I recommend any of the Trader Joe's Rhone wines we tried.

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