Yes, there are great wines at beer prices -- and some even have corks.
Forget for a moment that the world of wine is like an exclusive club with a steep cover charge. Think back to the wines memorable for their drinking pleasure, not so much their price tags.
It's easy to find a good white wine over $20, but finding a great one under $10 offers a real payoff. Here are five that hit the mark.
The winners include two Rieslings, one Chardonnay, a Folle Blanche and a Gruner Veltliner. Not all these grape varieties are household names, but who's afraid of a little discovery?
These wines cover a range of styles from diverse locales, from the semisweet Oregon Riesling to the crisp Folle Blanche hailing from the south of France.
Let's open with a big splash that typifies the pleasure of good, inexpensive whites.
2004 Hofer Gruner Veltliner
Gruner Veltliner is the top winemaking grape in Austria. But that's a tricky distinction, since Thompson Seedless once held the same status in California. This dry-style Gruner tastes a bit like a restrained Chardonnay. To their credit, the vintners at H&M Hofer don't try to bulk up the flavors of the wine with special treatments. It's pleasantly subtle, with a balance of pear-like fruit and tart tastes.
This wine, in a 1-liter bottle with abeer-cap top, strikes an unmistakably casual note. Just lay out your best plastic forks and paper plates and crack open the fun. The Gruner paired beautifully with grilled teriyaki chicken and jasmine rice.
2004 Rosemount Chardonnay
Now, from a restrained Austrian to a bold Aussie.
It seems every generation has its luscious Chardonnay. The original was Montrachet, then its more affordable Burgundian cousin Pouilly Fuisse. Later, imitation ran amok, as California rolled out dozens of Chardonnays, like Ferrari-Carano, that were so tricked out with oak aging and lactic acid that they earned the dubious description of "buttery." The Australians eventually put out their own absurd version that may have capped the trend.
So it was refreshing to find that this Rosemount had very little of the overly rich characteristics that helped scare people away from big Chardonnays in recent years.
A good, versatile Chardonnay under a sawbuck is rare, especially one like Rosemount, which can capably serve double duty as a cocktail and a meal accompaniment. The wine had an inviting pineapple smell and a dense fruity flavor that lingered pleasurably on the tongue. It was a superb complement to fish prepared with lemon and garlic.
2004 Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet, Coteaux du Languedoc
This puckery plum probably wouldn't pair well with a porterhouse. There's no question -- some wines match best with certain foods. In this case, the Picpoul de Pinet grape, which is grown seaside in southern France, produces a clean, snappy flavor that makes it a fine fit with seafood.
The wine is sharp and almost lemony. It has the familiar underlying mineral taste that you could mistake for more famous French whites from the Loire Valley, such as Sancerre and Muscadet.
It's silly to be rigid about what wines won't work with particular foods, but there are times when the typecasting is dead on. In this instance, the Picpoul shined with tilapia and capers.
2004 Erbacher Honigberg Riesling
German wines, while hugely respected, still lack mass appeal.
Maybe that's why some German winemakers are becoming more generous with their bounty. If you can't win consumers' hearts with quality alone, give people quantity. Most wines come in 750 ml bottles, but Honigberg's 1 liter of Riesling tosses in 25% more bang for the buck.
You'll appreciate the extra supply of this tasty Riesling. The wine has a faint citrusy smell and a light, sweet tartness. And with lower alcohol content (10% vs. most wines at 12% or above), you'll be able to drink with a bit more abandon.
The Honigberg Riesling was sublime with crab legs. It also proved to be a refreshing match with a simmered pork and clam dish.
2004 Willamette Valley Vineyards Riesling
Maybe it's the suggestive power of a Northwest wine, but there seemed to be a slight scent of pine in this bottle. Unlike the Honingberg's sweetness answered with sourness, this Oregon Riesling is undeniably sweet. Not syrupy, but more like a sugary apple.
WVV's Riesling is simple and pleasant to drink, with no discernable flaws. Unlike some wines in this category, there's no added weight from chalk or sulfur to exhaust your palate.
The wine was astoundingly good with spicy food -- it more than stood up to pinto beans smothered in a pork green chili.
And one more reason to try these wines? All of the selections are easy to find in your local liquor store.