10 Wines Under $20 for Your Spring Menu

by Francoise Villeneuve
April 2010

5 Tips for Value Wine Picks

  1. Blind comparisons
  2. “The best way to find high-quality value wines is to taste them side by side against other similar wines. I like to have sales reps drop off sample bottles, sometimes dozens, and taste them as a group blind. That’s how I find the hidden gems,” says Wine Director Andrew Green of Spruce – San Francisco, CA.
  3. Taste, taste, taste
  4. “I spend a lot of time tasting these wines, almost as much as the wines at higher price points in order to uncover a bargain,” says Sommelier Alan Murray of Masa’s – San Francisco, CA.
  5. Keep an open mind
  6. “No matter how many wines you taste, there will still be another thousand out there and new wines every year. We learn something new every day. Follow your passion for finding new wine—this is the funnest part of our experience!” says Sommelier Mark Bright of Saison – San Francisco, CA.
  7. Think small
  8. “I usually trust the “little” cuvées of the winemakers I work with. I trust their integrity. Most of the time they pay exactly the same attention to all their wines,” says Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate – New York, NY.
  9. Think outside the store
  10. “You don’t want your guest seeing the wine they drank the night before in a store, only a specialty store. A lot of our German Rieslings you wouldn’t find at a larger wine distributor,” says Master Sommelier Richard Dean of Campton Place – San Francisco, CA.

Value wines at a low price-point are an essential part of every functioning wine list in this economic climate. As much care needs to be devoted to selecting these wines as those at a higher price-point. Matthew Lehman of Fig at the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica, CA puts it well: “Too often lower-priced wines are presented solely for that reason. There are gems to be found but it takes time to find them.”

Marrying wines with spring’s delicate flavors increases this common challenge. Many inexpensive reds and whites exhibit harsh high alcohol or heavy oakiness that can eclipse the clean, crisp qualities of spring’s fresh ramps, morels and asparagus, and tender lamb. So sommeliers have to choose carefully from the ranks of the lower price point wines for just the right mix of body, acidity, and flavor to pair with spring dishes. At Fig, Lehman looks for floral wines with crisp acidity to pair with the bright flavors of spring peas in 2010 LA Rising Star Chef Ray Garcia’s Halibut Cheeks, Abalone Mushrooms, Pea Tendrils, and Salsa Verde, complementing “the buttery character of the mushrooms without overwhelming the halibut.”

Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier does value-seeking leg work at Rouge Tomate in New York, where she uses her pairings to complement Chef Jeremy Bearman’s spring dishes. “Most of our dishes are very fresh, ingredient-forward, especially in the spring with all the vegetables coming out,” she says. “I am looking for wines that embody this quality, wines with a complex and pure acidity, to give this impression of freshness.” Lepeltier also looks for a little carbon dioxide, as the light carbonation increases the sensation of clean, clear flavors. But when shopping for value sparkling wines, it’s important to taste extensively, as many budget sparklers are characterized by erratic, oversized bubbles. There are enough value specimens—with just the right amount of delicate perlage—to make the search worthwhile.

At Campton Place in San Francisco, Richard Dean knows that a commercially common, affordable wine can still make for an inspired pairing. With a pairing style that goes “directly to the main focus of the dish,” Dean matches Chef Srijith Gopinathan of Campton Place’s delicate Spring Vegetable Salad with a light-bodied Albariño. This particular grape is crisp yet minerally, ideal to pair with the crunchy textures and bright flavors of the salad. And Albarino is the most widely used commercial varietal in Spain. By taking advantage of the competitive Albariño market in Galicia, Dean can offer the best pairing value for the diner and avoid the pitfalls of cheap, poorly-made blends.

Take a look at the list and tips from the sommeliers for more ideas.

Wines are not ranked in any particular order. Prices are based on the mean retail price per bottle.

1. Coalescence, Shinn Estate, North Fork, Long Island 2009 $13
Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate – New York, NY
Pairs well with: Rouge Tomate’s Spring Pea Salad “à la Française,” Tendrils, Spring Onion, Carrot, Guanciale, and Banyuls Vinaigrette
“I like the freshness of the peas and their subtle notes of sweetness. In this dish, my chef is playing with different varieties of peas. The intense floral aromas of the wine (freesia, lilac, lemongrass) go with the “greenness” of the peas, their notes of fresh mint and the impression of sugar. And the softness of the wine, due to the ripeness of the grapes, will be perfect to pair with the Banyuls vinaigrette and the guanciale. It is a pairing both in texture and aromas.”

2. Domaine de la Grange Tiphaine, Riage Tournant, Touraine, France 2009 $12
Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate – New York, NY
Pairs well with: barbecue, most spring dishes
“You have an incredible delicacy and freshness, but with flesh.”

3. Château L’Aulée Crémant de Loire, Chenin Blanc, Loire Valley, France NV $18
Sommelier Mark Bright of Saison – San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: cheese, sandwiches, picnic food

4. Martin Codax Albariño, Rias Baixas, Galicia, Spain 2008 $13
Sommelier Mark Bright of Saison – San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: shellfish
“A really affordable Albariño with lots of high-tone fruits and mineral tones.”

5. Bailly-Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne, Burgundy, France NV $15
Sommelier Mark Bright of Saison – —San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: oysters, lemon
“This is pretty basic—sometimes the simplest pairings are just the best.”

6. Domaine Champalou Vouvray Sec, Loire Valley, France 2008 $17
Wine Director Andrew Green of Spruce – San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: Spruce’s English Pea Ravioli with Lemon-Herb Nage
“Wines that work are light bodied, higher in acid, have little to no oak and are aromatic.”

7. Leiwener Klostergarten Riesling Kabinett, Josef Rosch, Mosel, Germany 2007 $19
Wine Director Andrew Green of Spruce – San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: salads, light appetizers

8. Côte de Brouilly, Château Thivin, Beaujolais, France 2008 $19
Wine Director Andrew Green of Spruce – San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: poultry, salads

9. Domane Wachau Grüner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria 2008 $14
Sommelier Alan Murray of Masa’s – San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: Masa’s White, Green, and Purple Asparagus with Easter Egg Radishes, Pea Sprouts, Périgord Truffles, and Asparagus Jus
“Inexpensive, delicious, and a perfect pairing.”

10. Botani Moscatel Seco, Malaga, Spain 2008 $13
Sommelier Alan Murray of Masa’s – San Francisco, CA
Pairs well with: lamb