Atypical Pours

Many inexpensive wines have lost their distinctive characteristics, but some stand apart from the crowd

Atypical PoursSo many industries owe much to advances in technology and the changes they have brought in the last two decades. Whether it’s our cell phones, television sets, computers, cars, or heating-and-cooling systems — all are much better than in the past.

The same holds true for wine, and technology is also responsible for that. It’s almost impossible to buy a bottle of bad wine today. Wild or volatile acids that make the wine smell and taste odd are less common. Fungal spoilages are down. When did you last taste an oxidized wine? The consistency and quality of winemaking are markedly better than ever.

But are the wines more interesting? I don’t think many are.

It seems that, particularly among less expensive wines (those under $15), there’s a sameness that crosses the borders of many of the most prolific winemaking countries. Inexpensive California reds are hard to tell apart from inexpensive Australian reds. Today, many inexpensive Italian reds that had a character and structure unique to that country are being made more in the so-called American style of riper, bigger, and sweeter. It’s even happening in some Spanish reds. The same goes for a lot of whites.

So how do small, inexpensive, and unique wines survive this trend? I was surprised last week to see that a Loire Valley (France) red wine from Bourgueil, a little town that has always made limited numbers of excellent, distinct, and interesting cabernet franc-based reds, had changed. My little favorite, which used to sell for $13, was now $28. It also had a new label identifying it as a boutique, family-operated facility with husband-and-wife owners who maintain organically fertilized vineyards.

I bought a bottle anyway and found that the wine hadn’t changed a bit. What had changed was the need for this winery to go upscale in image to survive, turning a perfectly good, simple wine into something artisan to avoid becoming one of those wines that surveys say American consumers want. They remade themselves into a niche wine. Clever, but sad, when it comes to price and value.

So it was a pleasant surprise that same week to discover another wine with a good price and a character that reflected where it was made. Almost oddly, it comes from a big Spanish conglomerate, Bodegas Aragonesas, and it sells for $6.50. Specifically, it’s a 2005 Castillo de Fuendejalon Crianza from the Campo de Borja region. Its traditional Old World label — a paper wrapper covering the entire bottle and a wine-colored paper neck collar — first attracted me.

The wine itself is a blend of 75-percent old vine grenache with 25-percent tempranillo, the national grape of Spain. What’s in the bottle is distinctively Old World, as well. It’s sinewy and lean and, at first, had a slightly bitter taste when opened that disappeared within an hour of being uncorked. With air, the wine smoothed out and opened greatly. My advice is to uncork it a few hours (or decant it in a carafe) to aerate the wine a few hours before drinking. It’s well worth the price.