So you’re blasting through the grocery store on an average post-work Wednesday, and you just want to grab a bottle of something decent to drink with dinner. The rotisserie chicken is in the cart and you don’t need a dissertation on grape varieties, vineyard conditions or exceptional vintages — you just need a clue. Got it.
The good news is there are dozens of highly drinkable, go-to wines at grocery stores — most priced at $15 or less. Are they “fine wines” to be cellared for years? Probably not, but that’s not what you want.
Half the battle is in choosing where to shop — and for sheer selection I’m giving shout-outs to Rouses Markets on the west side of Mobile Bay and Cain’s Piggly Wiggly stores on the east. Both chains stock a spectrum of New World (U.S., Australia, Chile, Argentina) and Old World (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) wines, so even if you want a Chardonnay you won’t be stuck with only one style. Each store has several wine aisles where you can meander and muse … or, rather, get in and get out with a winner. Let’s go:
In the Italian red category, reach for Ruffino — yes, even to accompany the aforementioned chicken, but naturally for pizza or pasta. Whether it’s their Chianti Classico or upscale Riserva Ducale Oro, these reds bring bright, tart cherry flavors, acidity and freshness to your dinner table. In 1890, Ruffino was appointed as official wine supplier to the royal court of Italy, and it hasn’t slacked off yet.
According to legend, U.S. pharmacies sold Ruffino during Prohibition as a stress-relief potion — and it can still calm nerves in the wine aisle. Chianti is made from Sangiovese grapes, which have naturally high acidity to mirror acidic (tomato-based) foods or cut through creamy, fatty foods (cheese and cream sauces, or fried meats). Ruffino is a large-scale producer whose wines are currently sold in more than 90 countries but, in this case, a mob really can be right.
If you’re craving something French, target anything with E. Guigal on the label. Founded in 1946, Guigal is one of the premier producers of Rhone Valley wines (think Syrah and Grenache grapes, or such place-names as Chateauneuf-du-Papes). Although E. Guigal owns only 150 acres of vines, it makes and sells huge volumes of wine from grapes grown at other vineyards and wine made by other vintners. Those sorts of wines can often be pretty “meh,” but Guigal sources grapes only from vineyards with which it has longstanding relationships and takes pride in tasting hundreds of new wines each year, buying only what it regards as the top 1 percent.
E. Guigal’s wines range from Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage (reds) and Contrieu (white — a.k.a. Viognier) from the northern Rhone, to the generic-sounding Cotes-du-Rhone, made from a blend of southern Rhone grapes (it’s the cheapest, frankly, but one I like best). Guigal’s main red grape is Syrah, characterized by loads of tannin with dark-fruit and black pepper flavors. Guigal’s winemakers channel centuries of experience in the Rhone Valley and use long-term aging to integrate fruit with tannins — producing complex wines with stacks of flavor. High-end Chateauneuf-du-Papes are aged for two to three years, but even the Cotes-du-Rhone is aged for six months before release, so you can enjoy Guigal’s wines now.
Not craving a particular country? Let Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve wines be your signpost. All you have to do is look for two key words — Vintner’s Reserve — on the label. This family-owned winery is part of the larger “Jackson Family” collection, which produces an array of wines — including the new Kendal-Jackson Avant, aimed at a younger demographic who’s new to wine. The first Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve was produced in 1982 — a wildly popular Chardonnay that, in 1983, won the first double Platinum Award ever given at the American Wine Competition. Since then, the Jackson Family has expanded to encompass more than 15,000 acres of vineyards along the California coast, centered on Sonoma Valley.
Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve wines comprise grapes grown on California’s coastal hillsides; they are complex and flavorful, but still accessible and fun. Varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel reds, plus Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Canelli and Riesling whites. (Two blends — one of red grapes, one of white — are sold under the Summation label.) The Chardonnay has a hint of oak — not a whole tree — while the Cabernet Sauvignon is firm and tannic, without being sour or puckery. The Muscat Canelli is sweet (Muscat always is), but not sticky.
Like Kendall-Jackson, Washington state’s Chateau Ste. Michelle makes a variety of wines at a range of prices, but this winery’s basic “Columbia Valley” bottlings are among my favorites. The winery has stood in its present configuration since 1976, although its founders began growing grapes in Washington a half-century earlier. It actually consists of two facilities — one dedicated to reds and one to whites — and several vineyards in both the eastern and western parts of the state.
The Chateau Ste. Michelle “Columbia Valley” line includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, three types of Riesling — dry, sweet and just plain “Riesling” (which tends to be a bit sweet) — and a spicy Gewurtztraminer. I’ve bought and enjoyed them all (except the Merlot, but that’s a personal issue). The fact that “Wine Enthusiast” gave a 90-point rating to the 2012 Sweet Riesling — priced at only $10 — speaks volumes about this winery’s standards.
Lastly, the rooster’s picture on Hahn Winery’s labels has changed over the years, but the quality of these well-priced wines hasn’t wavered. I first discovered Hahn as a Chinese restaurant’s house wine, so I was a bit dubious, but it sang with my food so I tracked down more bottles (at World Market) and have had no regrets. This discovery occurred in a previous century, so I think we’ve got a trust-worthy track record.
The Hahn Winery sits in California’s Central Coast and sources its grapes from five vineyards in Monterey County. Hahn’s winemakers take advantage of the foggy Monterey coastline — similar to Germany’s Rhein valley — which produces slower-ripening grapes with (according to the experts) greater flavor intensity than grapes grown in sunnier, faster-ripening regions. Hahn bottles Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Meritage reds, as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. There are pricier wines in the Hahn Family’s stable, but I can almost guarantee you’ll be pleased if you just seek the rooster.