Jaws gaped last month when news leaked that the judges of the revered California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition named Charles Shaw’s 2005 Chardonnay the best in the state. Yes, you read that right — not the best value (although it earned that honor as well) but the best Chardonnay overall, beating out such esteemed producers as Cakebread Cellars and Grgich Hills, whose Chards retail in the $35 to $40 range.
Slightly louder than the grumbling of industry insiders about the competition’s loss of credibility were the cheers among the legions of Wineaux who made Two-Buck Chuck the bargain phenom it’s been since its arrival on the shelves of Trader Joe’s. The award meant validation, a defense against every wine snob who’s sniffed that they wouldn’t baste a chicken with the stuff.
So Chuck is now a rock star — but where does that leave those of us who like to be a little more stealthy in our thrift? Who don’t want to be the boob at the dinner party bearing a bottle everyone knows costs $2? This subset of Wineaux is not well served by Chuck’s fame, critically acclaimed and honored though the wine may be. We stumbled upon a solution when shopping for refreshing whites under $10 this week: Pick a wine — hell, pick a varietal — that no one you know has ever heard of. We’ve got three that are sure to impress.
I found the 2006 Zolo Torrontés ($8.99), from Argentina’s La Rioja region, to be slightly fizzy and light, with a seashore aroma and a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. The Torrontés grape thrives at high elevation, and it makes an aromatic, higher-alcohol wine frequently compared to Muscat. Our Token Winemaker called the Zolo sweet and juicy — he could even imagine it holding up to an ice cube or two, for those who go that route with their whites in the summer.
Sans ice cubes, he preferred the 2006 Domaine Duffour Ctes de Gascogne ($9.50), made mostly of Colombard, a grape that is something of a bastard stepchild in France due in part to its vulnerability to mildew. Colombard can be redeemed by its blending partners — as it is here by 15 percent each of Gros Manseng and Ugni Blanc, the latter being France’s most heavily planted white grape. Our Token Winemaker loved what he termed a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc aroma (to me it was heavily floral) with notes of white melon. Those aromas were all supported by strong flavors of grapefruit and lime.
My favorite of our three weirdo whites was the 2006 Craftsman Királyleányka ($9), from Hungary’s up-and-coming Ázszár-Neszmély wine region. Királyleányka (which translates as princess and is pronounced kee-rye-lay-ahn-kha) comes from Transylvania, but nothing spooky here; the Craftsman was pleasantly tart, light, and fruity. Our Token Winemaker praised its honeyed, spicy aroma reminiscent of Riesling and proclaimed it a good cocktail-hour option for fans of slightly sweet whites.