Bargain Red Alternatives
By Alexis Beltrami

Tired of the usual choices in inexpensive red wine? Like the Republicans and Democrats, Cabernet and Merlot are more alike than different, and frankly I'm bored! Where to turn for a fresh perspective-at $10 or less? Decent Pinot Noirs at this price are almost nonexistent. The familiar alternative candidates-Zinfandel, Aussie Shiraz, Chianti, Côtes du Rhone-are still out there, but most of these wines are creeping up in price as they work their way into the mainstream. The unusually shaky quality of the 1998 Zinfandel, the current vintage, doesn't help its cause. It's time to look outside the system, to the progressives out in the provinces.


Speaking of Zinfandel, its long-neglected Italian brother, Primitivo, is on the rise. Grown in Puglia (Apulia), the province that forms the heel of the Italian boot, Primitivo has recently been determined to be genetically identical to California's Zinfandel (the origins of Primitivo/Zinfandel are a bit mysterious). The best Primitivos now available in the U.S. deliver the load of ripe berry fruit and pepper you expect in a Zin, with full body but moderate tannins. Two very good and widely available examples are from A Mano (look for the 1998 or 1999, about $10) and Terrale (the producer is actually Calatrasi, but look for Terrale on the label; the 1998 is a steal at $7 or less).




Another contender is Argentine Malbec. Used as a blending grape in small percentages in red Bordeaux, Malbec is the dominant grape of Cahors, in southwest France, but it really thrives on the slopes of the Andes in Argentina. There it is typically made as a varietal (single-variety, as opposed to blended) wine, and it is often delicious: full-bodied, fat and chewy, with ripe plummy flavors, notes of licorice, leather, or smoke, and solid tannins. Nicolas Catena, who makes a beautiful example under the Catena Alta label (at about $50), also makes a terrific one for $10: the Alamos Ridge Malbec Mendoza 1998. Another good buy to look for, similar in style, is the 1999 Malbec Mendoza from Altos Las Hormigas ($10).

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