Because of the pandemic protocols and the reduction in our income (pandemic-related), we rarely go out to eat any more, and we don’t buy anything that’s not absolutely necessary.
And when I say “we” buy wine, I mean me. My partner Aarón doesn’t drink. So out of guilt for indulging in luxury during this time, I keep my purchases as far under $200 pesos as possible, never open a bottle before 4pm, and never keep more wine on hand than I can see at a glance, for fear of downing a whole bottle in one day and having none left for the weekend when ley seca sets in.
I prefer white wines because I’m on Zoom every day, and the reds darken my teeth and tongue (not a good look on- or off-screen).
When I got the phone call from La Comer before a recent delivery to let me know they had no Estefanya chardonnay in stock, I said I would accept the Sendero sauvignon blanc/chardonnay blend instead ($129, Chile), and that’s what they brought me. Which is fine if you’re a sauv blanc fan, but I prefer a butter-forward beverage.
For several months, I was ordering Estefanya chardonnay from La Comer—until they didn’t have it any more. I ordered this Chilean import not because I liked it (my rating would be, “meh”) but because it was cheap—$109 pesos a bottle, or $22-$27 a glass. Wine at this price point will appear on restaurant menus for $60-$80 a glass, which I mention because of the aforementioned feelings of guilt: I’d be spending two to three times as much to wet my whistle if we were going out. I’m actually saving us money by drinking as much cheap wine as possible!
Last week, instead of ordering groceries online, I went to La Comer in person and picked out three chardonnays at a similar price point to my usual, none of which I had tried (presented in alphabetical order):
- Frontera by Concha y Toro ($176 pesos, Chile)
- Gato Negro ($135 pesos, Chile)
- Santa Julia ($195 pesos, Argentina)
While they’re a bit higher priced than Estefanya chardonnay, they’re in the same general $100-$200 category (around $5-$10 USD). I had already tried Don Simon ($107/1,000ml box), Santa Helena ($125, Chile), Tocornal by Cono Sur ($135, Chile), Gallo ($145, USA), Undurraga ($155, Chile), and Barefoot ($175, USA), and found them all lacking. I wanted to explore the bins a bit. Note that several wines between $200 and $300 are pretty good, so if you’re lucky enough to have pandemic-proof income and want chardonnay from La Comer, try Adobe ($233, Chile), 19 Crimes ($339 Australia), or Phebus (currently not in stock). My favorite bargain around $300 pesos is Casa Madero, which is Mexican (yay!) but you’ll have to go to La Europea for that.
Wine tasting winners and the loser
My taste-test may have been solo, but it didn’t lack ceremony. In between sips, I munched on crackers, drank water, and, yes, even spit the wine into a bucket (not shown). I chilled the wines for a couple of hours, then lined them up in no particular order and poured a 1-oz. portion of each.
I must say I was surprised at which of the three cheap chardonnay selections I liked best.
Each wine received three rounds of tasting: fresh from the bottle, after 15 minutes at ambient temperature (outdoors, around 78ºF), and with a cheese plate.
Here are my findings.
Gato Negro At first pour the aroma was of buttered toast, but…diet butter on diet toast. The wine tasted acidic at first and of minerals bordering on salty in the middle, then grassy on the finish (what there was of a finish, anyway). Swirling the wine in the glass produced no legs at all, and the mouth feel had only slight viscosity, similar to oyster liquor. I didn’t like it.
Santa Julia Compared to Gato Negro, the Santa Julia chardonnay was positively chewy. Its aroma on first pour was earthy, almost barnyard, but with hints of bubblegum, and definitely clover and loam on the finish. That sounds gross, I know, but the aroma and the taste conjured memories of my childhood summers in Minnesota, running barefoot to the local five-and-dime called Richard’s Market to buy cellophane sleeves of Rain-Blo bubblegum. Ever-so-slightly sweet and spicy, it left me warm and smiling. I thought this would be my favorite.
Frontera by Concha y Toro Swirling the wine in the glass didn’t produce the long legs of the Santa Julia, nor the “Wait…what? I’m supposed to stick to the glass?” blandness of the Gato Negro, but I did see a pleasant little series of arcs halfway up the glass that said, “I think I can…I think I can!” The first taste was of grass, grapefruit and pumice with a bite of wheat bread in the middle, then coal ash on the finish. While it didn’t display quite the complexity of the Santa Julia (if you can ever call a cheap wine “complex”), the Frontera delivered a firm handshake of consistency and grit. There was grapefruit at the first taste, and there’d be grapefruit at the last. (Dance with the one who brought you, right?) There was a graininess that stood up to the cheese plate, and the ash to say, “Keep calm and keep on sipping.” We had a winner!
My cheese plate was a true test of mettle for these cheapies, by the way. Cheeses included a smoked Provolone, a Monterey Jack with roasted garlic and basil, and a manchego with chipotle, garnished with fermented kim chee, radishes, a variety of chiles and nopal cactus, along with raw almonds, green olives, and a dollop of hummus on arugula.
Which wine stood up to all that? Just the Frontera, really. I had put the Gato Negro back into the fridge after the first two rounds because it was like drinking vinegar. I’ll use that for cooking. The Santa Julia was fine on its own but faded quickly when confronted with strong flavors. I like wines that I can pour while making dinner, that will go with anything, even a meat dish or a burger. In other words, day-to-day, I drink wine the way most people drink beer.
Saved by the citrus
The Frontera chardonnay surprised me. I did not expect to like a wine from Concha y Toro, a production house whose wines are distributed in 140 countries, rivalling Mouton Cadet, E&J Gallo, Carlo Rossi. In fact, Frontera was #8 on the list of top 10 wine brands in the world, according to trade publication The Drinks Business. (Gato Negro made the list at #6 with its 9 Lives Cabernet, available at La Comer for $219.)
The most acidic of the three cheap chardonnays I tried was Gato Negro. The sweetest (although not at all a “sweet wine”) was Santa Julia. And the best on its own or with food was Frontera. The citrusy notes stand up to robust flavors such as kim chee and other fermentos, yet complement a mild manchego.
So now I have an everyday pick for when my super-duper-cheapie Estefanya’s out of stock at La Comer.
If you have wines to recommend that are available in San Miguel at under $200 pesos, please let me know in the comments. Salud!