At the end of a four-hour tasting, three sommeliers have their eyes fixed on paper sleeves being removed from bottles. The experts have just swirled, sniffed, and spit (no, they do not swallow) 50 pours, without knowing any identities. When the cloak comes off an Italian red that all the tasters have selected as a favorite, it turns out to be a $10 bottle that was up against competition twice the price. A big surprise.
Faced with over four dozen bottles, speculating about the provenance and grape variety, and trying to recall characteristics of a bottle from an hour before (thank goodness for notes!) is no easy task. So when the group is unanimous about a wine, and it turns out to be a bargain, everyone is delighted.
Every autumn, the Globe conducts a tasting of 50 value wines $20 and under called Plonkapalooza (the name “plonk” comes from the British slang for cheap wine). We want to find delicious, reasonably priced quaffs to uncork on an ordinary weeknight, to serve with Sunday supper, or buy for upcoming holiday parties. Joining me for the 10th annual tasting were Steve Bowman, co-owner and sommelier at Fairsted Kitchen in Brookline; Ryan Millian, restaurant manager and wine director at Steel & Rye in Milton; and Kate Webber, wine director at The Bancroft in Burlington, Scarlet Oak Tavern in Hingham, and Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton.
Our process begins months in advance. We invite five retailers (different every year) to nominate favorite bottles with good availability in the region. After eliminating a duplicate or two, we purchase five whites and five reds from each shop, plus a couple of backups in case a bottle turns out corked. Wines are slipped into paper sleeves and assigned a number. The somms taste five wines at a time (whites first), make notes, discuss impressions, then vote for favorites.
Going into this year’s event, we wondered how the new price limit of $20 per bottle (up from previous years’ $15) would affect the outcome. Would tasters discern obvious differences between lower and higher priced pours and select only more expensive bottles?
There was no need to fret. That $10 Italian red, hailing from Tuscany, is a blend of sangiovese, merlot, and a native Italian grape called ciliegiolo. Webber loved its meat and black pepper aromas, bright acidity, and earthy notes. The other winning reds, each $13, also prove that some bargain bottles can drink like more expensive pours: an appetizing Cotes du Rhone (four votes) and a well-made Argentine malbec (three votes).
Among whites, five ranging from $13 to $20 each got three votes. Three are from France (a riesling from Alsace, a sauvignon blanc-based wine from the Loire Valley, and another sauvignon blanc-based bottle from Saint-Bris near Chablis); one from northern Italy (an elegant trebbiano di Lugana); and a lively pinot gris from Oregon.
As in previous tastings, retailers nominated a majority of Old World picks, but the number of New World selections has increased in the last three years. Nearly a quarter of this year’s nominations were from the West Coast. Increasing the bottle price to $20 allowed interesting pours from places like California, where high start-up and land costs frequently translate into higher prices. This year, selections from Greece, South Africa, and Chile were not nominated.
Even bottles that earned one or two votes elicited enthusiasm from tasters. Bowman and Millian, for example, both liked an appetizing Valpolicella Classico, while I cast one of my votes for a savory Portuguese red from Lisbon.
Quality lives across the price spectrum. We ferreted out some gems.
Top scoring Plonkapalooza wines:
(4 votes each)
2011 Erik Banti “Carato” Toscana
2013 Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone
(3 votes each)
2011 Trimbach Alsace Riesling
2012 Herve Azo Saint-Bris
2013 Elk Cove Vineyards Pinot Gris
2013 Henri Bourgeois “Petit Bourgeois” Sauvignon Blanc
2013 Ottella “Le Creete” Lugana
2011 Bodega Norton Reserva Malbec