Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Pinot Grigio
Cheap Chardonnay. Chardonnay is the most popular wine in the U.S.
While Chardonnay is traditionally aged in oak barrels, the new trend is unoaked, with aging in stainless drums or tanks, a process that sometimes earns the tag "naked." This is a boon to frugal wine drinkers, who don't have to help producers pay for expensive barrels. Chardonnay is a nice accompaniment for fish, poultry, cheese, and Asian and spicy foods.
It's a safe bet that for less than $10 you can enjoy a rounded, full-flavored Chardonnay. Our pick for best cheap Chardonnay, and one of our favorites overall, is J. Lohr Estates Riverstone Chardonnay 2012 (starting at $8). This was a top year in California for whites and the wine is made almost completely from Chardonnay grapes. Our tasters found it delightful -- fruity and oaky -- and reviewers at Cellar Tracker agree. Several also note that it's a little buttery. In a video review, the professionals at Thumbs Up Wine say this Chardonnay has as much complexity as a $40 bottle and extol the notes of guava, peach, and apple.
Bulgarian producer Veni Vidi Vici has been producing some impressive wines, and the 2013 Veni Vidi Vici Chardonnay (starting at $7) is no exception. Wine Enthusiast gives it 88 points, and consumers posting on wine review sites add their votes of support. This clean, light-bodied wine presents a light straw color and lots of citrus flavor.
Budget Chardonnay can be less than exemplary, however. Non-vintage Tisdale Chardonnay (starting at $3.50) is a case in point. Naysayers deem this California wine barely drinkable, with an acidic finish, unpleasant aftertaste, and off-putting smell. Save your money, caution most reviewers at Snooth. Others, however, argue that if the wine is cold enough, it's quite refreshing.
Cheap Chenin Blanc.An ancient grape that's been grown for thousands of years in the Loire Valley of France, Chenin blanc now thrives in many "new world" wine-growing regions, particularly California. It's a very versatile grape that lends itself to styles across the spectrum, from dry to sweet to sparkling.
Because of its neutral qualities, the Chenin blanc grape is often blended with other varieties. On its own as a varietal, Chenin blanc is typically light and fruity, with some apple and citrus undertones. This is a wine that pairs well with salads, fish, and chicken. The (slightly) sweeter styles can balance the spiciness of Asian and Latin American cuisines.
We found two flavorful entry-level Chenin blanc wines. The first, Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc 2012 (starting at $8), is one of our overall top picks. Wine Enthusiast gives this wine from Washington state's Columbia Valley a hearty endorsement, with 88 points, and several wine stores we visited point to it as a best buy. Quaffers at Vivino say it's dry yet floral, with flavors such as apricot, cardamom, and lemon. Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc 2012 (starting at $9) from California is medium-bodied, crisp, and refreshing with aromas of white peach and melon. Robert Parker's Wine Advocate hails it as a "friendly, delicious style."
Cheap Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris.The character of Pinot gris (the French name) or Pinot grigio (the Italian name) depends heavily on where the grapes were grown and the vinification technique. The color of the grape varies by region and ranges from deep bluish gray to nearly red to almost white, and the hue of the finished product varies accordingly. Regardless, it pairs well with seafood, light pastas, and cheese, and some of the wines can serve as stand-alone sippers.
The Italian winemaking style, explains Professional Friends of Wine, yields Pinot grigio that's mildly floral, lean, and tart while the French approach results in a Pinot gris that's comparatively rich and fruity. Expert wine tasters consider Pinot gris/Pinot grigio an "approachable" wine although somewhat boring. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal denounces cheap Pinot grigio as tasting watery.
Reviews point to some worthy bargain specimens, however, all of which hail from Italy. A low-cost favorite of many Pinot grigio drinkers is Cavit Pinot Grigio 2013 (starting at $6). Consumer reviewers at Wine Access say this top seller is a perfect wine to bring to parties. Our tasters thoroughly enjoyed Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio delle Venezie IGT 2013 (starting at $8), a dry wine with underlying citrus flavors that could easily complement seafood or, perhaps, a salad.
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