Happily, while sampling 2,705 (yes, I checked that count) red, white, rosé, orange, and sparkling examples, I found more great vino at a reasonable price than ever. And that’s despite the pandemic, recent extreme weather that decimated crops and reduced quantity, and this year’s logistical problems including a glass bottle shortage and shipping delays!
So where to look for 2021’s best buys?
I was surprised by the number of good values coming from Italy, from bright whites to savory reds from lesser-known regions such as the Marche and Puglia. Newly popular Portugal has a wealth of hidden gems, especially from little known grapes like sousão and antão vaz. (I’d never heard of the latter until this year.) In France, look to the south in Roussillon, with a new wave of vignerons making wines from organic grapes and old vines.
Riesling from everywhere is still woefully undervalued, as are such regions as Alsace and Beaujolais. Inexpensive pinot noir from Chile is just getting better and better.
Among the fizz category’s top buys, some of my favorites are trendy pet nats, or petillant naturel-style wines; they’re made by the methode ancestrale, in which partially fermented wine is bottled and then finishes fermenting, trapping carbon dioxide in the bottle.
And don’t forget Bordeaux. In top vintages such as 2016, second wines from classic estates and cuvées from smaller châteaux can be super buys, as are many of the region’s whites.
Naturally, the producers I’ve recommended in previous 50 under $50 columns are still turning out go-to bottles, but here I’ve tried to highlight what’s new.
My last piece of advice, as always, is to shop around. The holiday season is prime time for sales and discounts, particularly for bubbly.
Fun fizz from around the world
There’s more of it than ever!
2019 Gerard Bertrand Heritage An 825 Cremant de Limoux Brut ($18)
Innovative winemaker Bertrand produces a wide range of inexpensive, reliable wines in the south of France, like this sparkling blend—a fine aperitif, especially with goat cheese.
NV Louis Pommery Brut California
The noted French Champagne house unveiled a California sparkling wine four years ago. The latest version is crisp, mineral, vivacious.
2018 Bisol Crede Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut ($21)
Yes, there are proseccos worth drinking straight. This one is fresh, fruity, mineral-like, and widely available.
NV Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups Montlouis Triple Zero ($30)
This lightly fizzy pet nat is made from very old chenin blanc vines by top Loire Valley winemaker Jacky Blot. It’s dry and herbal, with subtle pear notes.
2020 Bichi Petillant Naturel rose Pet Mex
Fresh and vibrant, this pet nat rosado with a fun label put Mexico’s Bichi winery on the world’s natural wine map.
2015 Recaredo Terrers Brut Nature Corpinnat ($38)
A splinter group of nine top growers in Spain’s cava region ditched the cava appellation to distinguish themselves from mass-market brands. Its labels carry their own private Corpinnat certification, which guarantees higher quality and terroir standards such as 100% organic farming. Recaredo’s super dry example brims with sumptuous depth and tangy acidity.
When only Champagne will do
Non-vintage (NV) blends from young grower-producers continue to offer the best value.
NV Etienne Calsac L’Echappee Belle Extra Brut ($45)
Vibrant, pure, and chalky, this is a deliciously supple, almost-all-chardonnay bubbly from an adventurous young producer.
NV Vincent Couche Elegance Extra Brut ($45)
This talented grower farms biodynamic vineyards in Champagne’s Aube region, a hotbed of experimentation. His very dry, pale gold fizz is peach-scented and crisp.
NV Drappier Carte d’Or ($38)
The first carbon-neutral estate in Champagne, Drappier makes more than a dozen cuvées. Its entry-level bottling is heavy on pinot noir, which gives it a mouth-filling spicy character.
NV Moet et Chandon Imperial ($47)
Jeff Bezos sprayed this fizz on the crowd to celebrate his return to Earth after 11 minutes in space. Forget the shower: Drink it for its balance, spice, and party-pleasing mellow texture.
NV Pierre Moncuit Champagne Delos Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut
Fresh, racy, and intense, with aromas of white flowers and subtle citrus-mint notes, this stunning all-chardonnay fizz comes from grand cru vineyards.
NV Laherte Freres Champagne Extra Brut Rosé de Meunier
Rising star Aurelien Laherte, the seventh generation at this family estate, created this vibrant, biodynamic pink fizz that sports a gorgeous label.
From light, bright aperitifs to lusciously rich wines for a grand dinner.
2021 Allan Scott Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
This mouth-watering, fruit- and herb-driven white is a top example of New Zealand’s entry level “savvies,” from the region that launched the style.
2017 Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier
If you love aromas of fresh apricots, ginger, and flowers, this Australian white is for you. It’s luscious but not cloying, as so many inexpensive viogniers are.
2019 Panizzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($18)
Vernaccias from this Tuscan hill town are classic Italian whites at bargain prices. Think of this as a terrific food wine, with round, complex pear and bitter almond aromas and flavors.
2021 Jules Taylor Marlborough Gruner Veltliner
One of New Zealand’s best winemakers is proving this Austrian grape can make intriguing wines in sauvignon blanc country. Hers is dry and layered with round, soft, white, peachy flavors.
2020 Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca Salento IGT Puglia ($20)
There’s plenty of flavor and verve for the price in this green-gold Italian white from Puglia. It’s part of the winery’s native varieties project.
2019 Weingut Sattlerhof Sauvignon Blanc Sudsteiermark ($25)
Bright and bone-dry, this Austrian white from organic grapes has aromas of lime trees and bitter lemon, with crunchy fresh flavors. Perfect with salads.
2018 Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay ($30)
This California chardonnay from Sonoma’s Russian River strikes a balance between rich and golden and fresh and citrusy, and has just enough oak for complexity.
2018 KB by Knights Bridge Unoaked Chardonnay ($30)
If you want a crisp, light, lemony chardonnay with floral aromas and elegance, this is it. KB is the newish second label of a winery known for very expensive cabernets.
2018 Lightwell Survey Hinterman Shenandoah Valley ($32)
Get to know Virginia wines! This surprisingly delicious blend of riesling and petit manseng grapes blends tropical richness and a lively lifted quality.
2017 Garofoli Podium Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore ($33)
Too many people don’t know verdicchio, one of Italy’s classic white grapes. This single vineyard example is both zesty and silky textured, with an almond and mineral richness.
2018 Château Grand Village Bordeaux Blanc ($36)
The family behind super expensive Château Lafleur in Pomerol makes this refreshing, complex, orange blossom-scented sauvignon blanc/semillon blend.
2019 Domaine William Fevre Chablis ($37)
Sadly, chablis is more expensive these days, but this intense, taut, chalky example is worth every penny. 2019 is a top vintage for all the domaine’s wines.
2017 Smith-Madrone Riesling ($40)
Please drink more riesling! For decades this Napa winery has been perfecting a balanced, wintergreen-scented style that ages brilliantly.
2018 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay ($50)
Layered, mineral, lemony, and floral, this is a lovely white from the Napa winery whose chardonnay won the Paris Tasting 45 years ago.
Rosé for all seasons
Dry pink wines for savoring anytime, with or without food.
2020 Pratsch Rosé ($15)
Delicate, with tart notes of strawberries and apple-and-spice aromas, this Austrian pink wine is made from organic zweigelt grapes.
2020 Feudo Montoni Rosé di Adele Nerello Mascalese ($15)
Mount Etna’s reds and whites have been buzzy for some time, but its pale pink rosés are distinctive, too. This one, from organic 40-year-old vines, is savory and salty, ideal with grilled fish.
2020 Chene Bleu Le Rosé ($35)
Serious, suave, impressive: This deep, mineral-accented pink wine from a biodynamically farmed estate (at which you can stay in luxury) is a consistent winner.
From light and lively to big and bold.
2019 Odfjell Armador Cabernet Sauvignon ($11)
This Chilean cabernet made from biodynamic grapes is astonishingly fresh, plush, and polished for the price.
2019 Vina Falernia Reserva Pinot Noir ($18)
Elqui Valley is one of the coolest wine regions in Chile, ideal for pinot noirs in the lacy, delicate style I love. This one has bright cherry fruit and a tender texture.
2018 Zuccardi Q Cabernet Franc Paraje Alta Mira and Sao Paolo Valley de Uco ($19)
What’s not to like? With this violet-scented, lushly fruited example, Zuccardi shows that Argentina’s cabernet franc is the new rival to malbec.
2018 Casanova di Neri Irrosso IGT ($20)
This satisfying, cherry-scented red shouts “drink me”—and it’s vegan-friendly, too. The latest addition to the Brunello winery’s lineup.
2019 Domaine du Clos du Fief (Michel et Sylvain Tete) Julienas Tradition ($23)
Sumptuous red-berry flavors and juicy charm are the hallmarks of the Tetes’ bargain-priced cru Beaujolais from a lesser-known appellation.
2017 La Valentina Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo Spelt Riserva ($24)
Savory and spicy, with a velvety texture, this full-bodied Italian red from Abruzzo is big enough to take on steak, grilled lamb, and even wild boar.
2018 Domaine Olivier Pithon Cuvée Lais Rouge ($28)
This biodynamic blend of grenache, carignane, and mourvedre from Roussillon has old-school authenticity.
2019 Prima Materia Vinum in Agris Negroamaro ($28)
Italian grape varieties are the mainstay of this California winery. Its earthy negroamaro is like a rustic dark gamay, with bright fruit, spicy olive notes, and vivid acidity.
2018 Tenuta Scersce Nettare Rosso di Valtellina Superiore ($28)
Light and flavory, with delicate berry aromas, this tart, crisp wine is a good introduction to lighter reds made in the alpine region bordering Switzerland.
2021 Altrosero Zinfandel ($30)
I’m not a fan of most zins, but this brand-new Sonoma label grabbed me with its first vintage: It’s bold, yet balanced, with intense plum and spice flavors. (A new website, www.altrosero.com, will go up in January.)
2018 Maçanita Vinhos Irmaos e Enologos Douro Tinto ($30)
Portugal is on a roll when it comes to well-priced wines. Easy to drink, this concentrated red blend has a wild, exotic note from the percentage of sousâo grapes.
2016 Château Lilian Ladouys ($35)
Yes, Bordeaux has value buys. An up-and-coming estate in Saint-Estèphe makes this opulent elegant red with silky tannins.
2018 Quartz Reef Single Vineyard Pinot Noir ($37)
New Zealand’s Central Otago is a top spot for intense, ripe pinot noirs. This one, from organic grapes, brims with deep, rich flavors of dark cherries.
2018 Echolands Syrah Les Collines Vineyard Washington State ($38)
Is syrah Washington state’s best grape? This smoky, peppery red—the first vintage from a new winery—makes the positive case.
2008 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserva ($45)
The latest release of this traditional rioja is a ready-to-drink classic. With its light texture and dark berry and tobacco flavors, it offers great complexity for the price.
Embrace the unusual, from orange to no sulfur to natural.
2019 Radikon Sivi Pinot Grigio Orange ($46)
On Italy’s border with Slovenia, Radikon pioneered orange wines before they got fashionable. This example is less intensely “orange” but still complex, with notes of roses and grapefruit.
2017 Paolo Bea Santa Chiara Bianco ($46)
Umbria’s famous Bea family makes fabulous skin-macerated whites with cult followings. This gold-colored blend is the lightest, with honey and apricot hints.
2019 Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz ($22)
This fragrant, new-style Australian shiraz is a natural, organic wine with no sulfur, which enhances the violet aromas and gives the wine a juicy vibrancy.
Sweet wines for sipping.
2020 Renardat Fache Cerdon du Bugey ($23)
Irresistible! Light and low in alcohol, with a touch of sweetness, this raspberry-colored sparkler from the tiny Bugey region is a secret worth discovering. Sip with fruit-based desserts.
NV Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port ($25)
This iconic blend echoes the deep, rich, luscious Graham style with smooth, plummy fruit, but unlike vintage port, it’s ready to drink now. Try it with dark chocolate mousse.
2020 Domaine Huet Vouvray Moelleux Le Haut Lieu ($44)
The sweet chenin blancs from this biodynamic Loire producer are huge values. This delicate cuvée is round and succulent, with tones of honey and sweet tropical fruit.