It's nearly summer. What's in your fridge? High time you stocked up on affordable white wine, a stash of bottles that you can open when a friend stops by (with another friend) or someone at your party doesn't want to drink punch. You need bottles that can make your delivery Thai food dinner a little more special—without breaking the bank.
Over the past several months, we've tasted dozens of bottles under $15 in the hopes of finding a collection of wines we can proudly recommend to you. We looked for excellent values in both the crisp/light and fuller/richer categories. These are the wines we'd tell our friends to buy instead of that Yellowtail they keep picking up at the corner store—wines we'd actually buy instead of something more expensive. So without further ado, here are the May 2012 inductees into the Serious Eats Budget White Wine Hall of Fame.
Refreshing white wines are a category you can totally cover on a budget—especially if you're willing to explore lesser-known grapes and unfamiliar regions.
There have been summers in my not-so-distant past when there wasn't much in the fridge but cheap-as-can-be Gazela. It sells for around $5, and though it's not at all complex, it's a crowd-pleaser, with bright lime and green apple flavors and a touch of effervescence.
We slightly prefer Casal Garcia Vinho Verde, which is about a dollar more. It's simple, chuggable stuff, like Sprite with a little alcohol (not too much)—the perfect party wine, especially if it's warm out. There's some green apple flavor, a little lemon-lime, and a little spritz—but it's not meant for analyzing, the bottle will be gone before you know it. If you're ready to trade up, try Condes de Albarei Albarino (2011) which is a little richer but totally refreshing, with tons of grapefruity limey tartness plus an herbal side (think lemongrass and mint). If you like your tonic with lime, this is a wine you should try. It sells for around $12.
It's often a good idea to explore lesser-known grapes when searching for the best budget wine. We scored with Domaine L'Enclos Vin de Pays (2010) from Gascony, France, which sells for around $7. This crazy value is a blend of Colombard and Ugni Blanc, and one sip will make you think of the beach: salty winds, seashells, lobster rolls. It's slightly peachy with a blast of tartness—serve it with shellfish or any fried food (or better yet, fried shellfish, like soft shell crabs.)
While we're talking shellfish, one of my favorite matches is a wine I've been buying for years, Pierre Boniface Apremont Vin de Savoie. The 2010 vintage has tons of apricot-like fruit, a punch of limey acidity (margarita-style), and amazing purity that lets you taste the minerals front and forward. It's not a profound wine, but deeply refreshing, perfect for the beach, raw or grilled seafood, chips and salsa. The price goes up and down, but it's well worth $15.
Cono Sur Sauvignon Blanc (2011) far outperforms its $9 pricetag, offering zingy, lemon-limey refreshment with an oyster-shell backdrop that's quite pleasant. If you like New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, this one from Valle Central in Chile should be on your must-buy list—look for the Bicycle on the label. Cono Sur also has a zippy Chardonnay in the bicycle lineup. Another Sauvignon Blanc winner: Touraine 'Le Grand St-Vincent' Sauvignon (2010) from the Loire region of France, which sells for about $12. It has an exotic, tropical fragrance that might make you expect sweetness, but this refreshing wine balances peachy fruit and a little richness with tart grapefruit flavors. Gulp it with tacos—fish or carnitas.
Graffigna Pinot Grigio from Argentina (2011) is a fun, remarkably full flavored, and tangy, like a lime-filled pitcher of sangria with lots of ripe peaches in it. For around $11, it's a wine we'd stock up on. Drink with scallops, grilled chicken, or an avocado-and-shrimp salad (though it's perfectly refreshing on its own.)
Falesco Vitiano Verdicchio Vermentino (2010) from Umbria in Italy is another bright, light option for around $10, crisp and fresh, with a little salinity and a delicate floral side that calls out for seafood—oysters or grilled lobster, anyone? This kind of wine makes us wish it were summer right now. Italy's always a great place to explore grapes you're not familiar with—we were recently captivated by a Bianchello from the Marches region, Claudio Morelli Bianchello del Metauro La Vigna delle Terrazze (2010). This wine, made from a type of grape that has been grown in the Marches for centuries, smells like honey, but it's brightened by a searing, citrusy acidity. It's practically screaming for sushi or rich crab cakes. Keep exploring Italy with Botromagno Gravina (2010) a minerally blend of malvasia and greco that has a refreshing herbal (bay leaf and thyme) character and a hint of honeydew melon. It's much more interesting than most of what you find for $10, and the lemon-lime tartness will keep you refreshed on a hot day. Serve with linguine and clams.
Say you're looking for something a little bit richer? We were knocked out by the deliciousness of the bottle of 2010 Domaine San Guilhem Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne we tried, especially given that it sells for less than $10. This white blend is full and slightly creamy, with a ton of bright tartness and a delicate herbal/vegetal side to balance a bit of peach flavor. It has enough body to stand up to food—try a vegetable-laden omelet or a big tray of sushi. This wine from Gascony is worth stocking up on, even if you've never heard of the grapes it contains (it's made from Colombard, Gros Manseng, and Ugni Blanc, which is also known as Trebbiano.) Terrific value.
My weakness for riesling is well documented, but I've often had trouble finding good examples under $18 or $20. But recently I've found a few more affordable options that offer incredible value. Take Dr. L Riesling (2010) from Loosen Bros., a mouthwatering wine that sells for around $10. It's only 8.5% alcohol, which means there's some residual sugar, but it balances its gentle sweetness with buzzy acidity (This may be especially prominent in the 2010, when many wines were so acidic that winemakers had to reduce the acidity in their wines.) Dr. L has a little fresh mandarin and watermelon flavor, and it's absolutely perfect with Thai food, especially those dishes with a little sweetness, like pad thai. Another strong contender for best budget riesling: Selbach Riesling Incline (2010), which sells for $10 to $13. It has a zingy Meyer lemon brightness, swirls of oyster-shell minerality, and a bit of fennel flavor. Tart (this is NOT a sweet wine), tangy, lipsmacking, and only 10.5% ABV, so you can drink a few glasses. Try with grilled bratwurst or with crab or sushi. Bring to a pool party, convert all your friends into riesling lovers.
Kellerei Santa Magdalena Weissburgunder (2010) from Alto Adige in Italy has both the German (Weissburgunder) and the Italian (Pinot Bianco) grape name on the bottle. The wine leans toward herbal and lettucelike with a silky, creamy texture, and a bright, tart side that cleanses your mouth. It's both full and refreshing—it's ready to pair with vegetables or fish, or even egg salad sandwiches. Quite elegant for the $15 price tag.
Looking for domestic options? I can't say enough good things about Montinore Estate's Borealis ($13), and everyone I've poured it for has loved it. It's refreshing but rich and incredibly food friendly. This white blend from Oregon features riesling, müller-thurgau, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer. With a remarkable clarity and purity of flavor, this wine seems crystalline and infused with aromatic jasmine and grapefruit, with palate-cleansing tartness to balance a whisper of residual sugar. Drink with roast chicken or turkey.
Disclosure: with the exception of the Domaine L'Enclos and Pierre Boniface, all wines were provided as samples for review consideration. Only top-reviewed wines were included here.