Sub-$16 Red Throwdown: Old vs. New World

11 01 2017

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Have you EVER seen a red wine bottle shaped like the one on the left?

The $15 bottle of wine is a vanishing category nowadays, and what you can actually get for that price may often make you wish you couldn’t.  A combination of the struggling Canadian dollar, increased liquor taxes and the inexorable power of inflation is slowly pushing up that minimum purchase threshold where you can expect to find decent quality…if you look hard enough amongst the oceans of double entendre-named or critter-adorned labels at that price point.  However, there are still a select few value crusaders scattered here and there in this cost category, from under-appreciated regions where production costs remain low and climatic abundance makes ripening easy.  I happened to have two such examples lying around, one from the Old World and one from the New, so what better way to make use of them than to have them battle to the death for my weeknight enjoyment?  Since the estimated retail price on each creeps barely over $15.00, we’ll play it safe and call to order the first ever Pop & Pour Sub-$16 Wine Challenge.

In this corner, from the Old World, comes a representative from arguably the most overlooked source of good, solid, inexpensive table wine:  Portugal.

2013 Romariz Douro (approx. $15.33 retail)

Yes, it’s not just about Port anymore in the world’s fortified wine haven.  Table wines from Port’s headquarters in northern Portugal’s Douro Valley, usually made from the same set of indigenous grapes as the famous red sweet wine, can be stunningly good and even more stunningly cheap at the entry-level end of the production scale.  This bottle is fairly new to Alberta, from a producer with whom I was simultaneously unfamiliar and very familiar. I had never heard of Romariz before, a family-founded Port house with a 165-year history, but I had heard of its current owners:  Guimaraens & Co., the group behind the considerably larger Port producer Fonseca, who purchased the winery from the Romariz family when they retired from the business in 1966.  Fonseca has since joined forces with Taylor Fladgate, and their mutual winemaker David Guimaraens (who was born a year before his family bought the winery) now makes Romariz’s wines.

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First impressions:  this is a freakishly tall bottle of red.  Its tall, skinny shape and slender shoulders almost make it look like a Riesling flute at a glance, or like a Bordeaux bottle that has been tortured on the rack.  It’s a good two inches taller than its competitor wine in this showdown and barely fit in my fridge.  I have never seen a red wine bottle that looks like this before and would be dying to know its story.  Receptacle observations aside, the Romariz Douro, a Touriga Nacional-dominant blend filled out with other local varietals, is the characteristic electric purple colour of the Douro’s reds despite being over three years old, an eye-catching hue often suggestive of a massive wine.  Appearances can be deceiving, however, as this clocks in at a svelte 12.5% abv, almost surely the lowest alcohol Portuguese red I’ve tried.  Rich blueberry and currant fruit aromas meld with saddle leather, talcum powder, rosemary and something tangy like Manchego cheese, impressive complexity for the newly invented sub-$16 price point.

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Cork Rating: 6.5/10 (Nice crest and solid coverage for an entry-level wine.)

This is a lighter and more agile version of the Douro on the tongue (largely thanks to its sprightly alcohol level), but it is still absolutely saturated with flavour, from cocoa powder to blackberries to black licorice and espresso.  This is not a flavour set often associated with a 12.5% abv red, but it is crammed into every drop, with dusty yet incisive tannin extinguishing any stray thought of hedonism before it starts.  The water-weight mouthfeel will make you wonder where it all fits.  Fun and surprising all around – never doubt Portugal.

88 points

And in this corner, from the New World, comes a bottle from one of the easiest places in the world to grow perfectly ripe grapes without chemical assistance:  Chile.

2015 Las Mulas Merlot Reserva (approx. $15.90 retail)

I have written about Las Mulas a number of times previously:  see here and here for two examples.  Without knowing anything about them, they would be the easiest brand for the wine-conscious to overlook in the supermarket.  I mentioned critter labels:  there’s a mule, front and centre.  In fact, the whole brand is NAMED after the mule.  But then you notice the organic certification stamp in the bottom corner, and quality value wine master Miguel Torres’ name below that, and you realize there is more than meets the eye here.  Las Mulas is a fully organic winery growing and hand-harvesting its own grapes without the use of machines (but with the use of mules, natch) and yet somehow, thanks to the vinous heaven that is Chile’s Central Valley, doing so at simply remarkable price points.  They take their environmental sustainability seriously:  even the label sticker is made from recycled materials.

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Looking at this wine in the glass, I now regret using up the “electric purple” descriptor earlier.  This is that squared, and in this case the appearance matches the personality.  Las Mulas’ Merlot mixes explosive New World red fruit and beams of blackcurrant with some of the zestier aromatic elements of your template New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (yes, really):  orange peel, gooseberry, Wine Gums, grassy herbs.  It is an unexpected, but not altogether unpleasant, combo.  Softer and more plush on the palate, its underlying sweetness (4.5 g/L of residual sugar) pushes slightly against papery bitter tinges, especially on the finish.  Interestingly, it features an amazingly similar flavour profile as the Romariz, particularly the licorice and the chocolate, but presents them in a much bigger and more flouncy, carefree way, also carrying on the currant and citrus flair of the nose with gusto.

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Cork Rating: 7/10 (A bit stubby, but THAT is cork coverage. Sweet.)

I’m not wholly sure what to think of this wine, but I expect it’s one that’s more enjoyable to just drink than to dissect.  It’s perfectly serviceable for the price, but on this day it loses out to its traditional companion, giving Romariz the inaugural Sub-$16 crown.  As I said:  never doubt Portugal.

86- points

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