Value Vino – Great wines for under $15

Many wine drinkers, this one included, secretly yearn to be involved in winemaking. We are encouraged, if only subliminally, by the French garagistes who have parked the Peugeot outside in order to concentrate on Pomerol, by young couples who have moved from Texas to California on a shoestring and are now making cult-class pinots (Siduri, to be specific), and by restaurateurs such as Boudros’s Randy Mathews who has taken purchased juice from the High Plains and New Mexico and turned it into some truly exceptional wine, complete with classy, designer-assisted labels.

Some folks, of course, have a head start. The great winemaking families of the world can trace lineage and descent back centuries in some cases; they own many of the best vineyards; and, conspiracy theorists take note, they pretty much all know one another. In fact, there’s a kind of club of 11, called the Primum Familiae Vini, composed of wine royalty such as Spain’s Torres family, the Antinoris of Italy, the Symingtons of Graham’s, Warre’s and other Port fame … Neophytes, naturally, need not apply — but they do have much to learn from the current crowned heads of chardonnay and other noble grapes. The Drouhin dynasty of Burgundy (and now Oregon), PFV to the core, is a good place to start.

Maison Joseph Drouhin was founded in 1880 by its namesake, and his great-grandchildren, all of them, comprise current management. Four generations of contact with the land and its vineyards has produced such vaunted vinous offspring as the Beaune Clos de Mouches and numerous well-regarded Santenays, Volnays, and Meursaults, all priced above our cutoff point. But Drouhin, not being of the let-them-drink-Champagne ilk (they don’t produce one anyway), is equally proud of its wines meant for everyday quaffing.

La Foret Bourgogne Chardonnay was tasted in its 2004 incarnation, and as it’s meant to be consumed young, snap up the 2005 as soon as it’s out. It’s sourced from several locations around Burgundy — Macon and Chablis among them — and so takes characteristics from each: We found lemon, juicy apple, and discreet hints of minerality, all tied together on a reasonably long finish that also hinted at almond. This is a great wine for simply sipping in the company of commoners and courtiers alike, but would also work as a companion to seafood and tangy goat cheeses.

Cool on its heels was the ’04 Saint-Veran, another un-oaked, chardonnay-based wine that’s from a specific appellation and is consequently a little more profound, suggesting white flowers, more minerals, and better crystal. Cold, marinated shrimp, clams, even sushi (though without the wasabi) would work with this classy quaffer. The first ’05 we found on local shelves was the Macon-Villages. An early bloomer, it already had honeyed, nutty notes, a whiff of ripe pear, and respectable acid to back it all up.

Though the label looks more casual, don’t be deceived: Vero is the personal product of Veronique Drouhin, the winemaker among the four siblings (she’s in charge of the Oregon operation). Entrusted with keeping the institutional memory of the Drouhin label alive, she has produced this chardonnay (we tasted the 2003) from Village and Premier Cru appellations, and the pedigree shows in its honey aromas backed by notes of green almond. We found it to be honeyed on the palate as well — though adroitly balanced with adequate acid and just enough minerality to give it backbone. The tasting notes suggest hazelnut, and that’s true, but also lotus flower, not an aroma most of us have had the pleasure of sniffing. We nevertheless loved this with a comté cheese, and believe the assertion that it would also be fine with both seafood and veal, grilled or in lightly creamy sauces.

Drouhin’s whites are usually good enough to divert me from my focus on red wines (another thinly veiled secret out of the bag). But Burgundy and big reds still go together in my mind, and even the peasants huddled ’round the palace can be great drinking. The 2004 La Foret Bourgogne Pinot Noir, the grape of Burgundy, is aged partially in oak, partially in stainless, and the result is brilliant wine with pomegranate and tart cherry tones bolstered by bass notes of smoke, leather, and olive — a very appealing package. Drouhin’s crus of Beaujolais, on the other hand, turn to the gamay grape for a different — though not altogether distinct — expression. Drouhin’s Moulin-a-Vent offered up a “before the rain” smell to one taster; to others there was a smoky, bacon quality. Ripe, red currants and elegant tannins were also appreciated, and though the wine was another ’05, it was already very approachable. In contrast, the ’05 Brouilly, brilliant ruby in color, seemed less evolved; the violet experienced on the palate was not yet present in the aromas, which tended toward more smoky-meaty qualities (decanting might help here), and the spice of the Moulin had yet to put in an appearance. Consider this a wine of potential.

And consider attending some of the events at the New World Wine & Food Festival, where the elegant and very approachable Laurent Drouhin, the family’s foreign minister for North America and the Caribbean, will present wines from the family’s portfolio. For information on rubbing shoulders with French royalty and other events, including an equally elite Torres seminar and dinner, go to the festival website at

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