Epicure sent three wine aficionados on a mission to spend $200. Their brief was to visit at least two sources, buy to drink now - and get the biggest bang for their buck.
TWO hundred dollars to spend on wine. What would most of us aim to get out of our 200 smackers? Weird and wonderful wines, perhaps made from semi-dried strogolone grapes grown at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, aged in old horse troughs by a one-eyed Neapolitan astrologer? Not likely. Wines to show off to our tossy friends? Why bother? Wines that tell a story about a hot young winemaking star? Hardly. What most people want are bargains, and plenty of 'em.
Even people who buy Penfolds Grange or French burgundy are allergic to paying top dollar for their plonk. So I set out to spend my $200 on bargains. I scouted various retailers to put a dozen wines together that I reckon over-deliver in quality without crippling the budget.
At the full recommended retail price, these wines are great value; most were on special at the time of writing, making them a steal.
Buying by the dozen or half dozen can sometimes knock a few more dollars off, so it's worth asking. My budget allows me to buy four each of these bottles:
Mike Press Adelaide Hills Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2011
Single-vineyard cool-climate chardonnay never came so inexpensive. This is an elegant, subtle, unoaked wine with refined melony varietal personality, good texture and a long, fine finish. Lovely unfussed drinking. $11 at City Wine Shop, city.
McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2011
This Hunter Valley wine has it all: historic pedigree, classical regional style, drinkability in youth, amazing ageworthiness - and all at a bargain price. Lemony and bracing now with the promise of toasty complexity in the years ahead. $12.99 (usually $18) at Dan Murphy's.
Tahbilk Marsanne 2011
Forgive the repetition, but this Nagambie Lakes white wine has it all too: pedigree, classical style, drinkability, ageworthiness, low price. Floral, honeyed, citrusy, light yet intense. Spring-like and pure, it will be rich and complex with time. $12.99 (usually $18.65) at Boccaccio Cellars, Balwyn.
Dopff au Moulin Riesling 2010
Right at the exotic end of the riesling spectrum, Dopff from France's Alsace region is an exclusive import of Dan Murphy's. Expect to pay $25-plus for similar wines from other producers. Lush, rich, slightly fruit-sweet, dry finishing, with a luxurious feel far beyond its price tag. $13.60 at Dan Murphy's.
De Bortoli Windy Peak Pinot Noir 2011
A remarkable transformation has taken place in Australian pinot noir in the past decade or so. Once, any pinot worth the name cost plenty, and cheaper versions were a waste of space. Not any more. Windy Peak delivers some of the lyrical magic that makes this mysterious red grape so addictive. $11.99, or $9.99 by the dozen (usually $14), at Nillumbik Cellars, Diamond Creek.
HOW much wine can you buy for $200? Clearly, a lot; more than a dozen - and possibly two dozen - bottles. But are you after quantity or quality? These kinds of wines aren't necessarily bargains, just cheap. A bargain is a wine that you have some experience of at a price that's less than what you usually pay. You have to know what you are buying first, so taste the wine or buy a bottle and taste it and only then go back for the dozen. That's buying wisely.
Get to know your wine source. Wine clubs support their members with not only good prices but aged releases and one-offs. Supermarkets slash prices because of the quantities they buy, but they are increasingly bringing in their own brands with little or no wine-drinking history. Be aware. Some, such as Dan Murphy's, buy and age well-known brands in excellent storage conditions.
Keep in mind, provenance can be vitally important.
Independent retailers pride themselves on wines from smaller producers, but bargains can still be found. Don't make assumptions.
Finally, seeking out a good price should not come at the cost of loyalty. I am still buying and enjoying wines from the same producers I was buying from 10 or 20 years ago. I have been watching their prices, the change of vintages, etc. My appreciation of those wines remains because I can see the continuation of quality at a fair price.
I don't tend to chop and change, constantly chasing down bargain prices. Is it a fair price for the quality or not? A wine drinker builds an in-built bargain-meter of their own over time. Here's how I would spend it wisely on wines to drink right now:
Penfolds Reserve Bin 2005 Aged Release Riesling
Penfolds once considered Eden Valley riesling as a possible ''White Grange'' (chardonnay eventually got the gig) and it's easy to see why in this fabulous aged release available under Dan Murphy's excellent cellar-release program. $32.99 at Dan Murphy's.
All Saints Estate Family Reserve Marsanne 2010
All Saints is kicking big goals with its sophisticated interpretation of this underrated Rhone Valley grape. Pretty jasmine scent, spring flowers with signature honeysuckle to the fore, balanced acidity. $30 from allsaintswine.com.au. Also at Prince Wine Store, Burwood Cellars and Barrique Wine Store, Healesville.
Le Sorelle di Suavia Soave
A little charmer, Le Sorelle brings a touch of summer to a cold winter's day with its bright fruit intensity. Italian soave is never loud and this wine, with crisp apple, stone-fruit and a touch of almond, is terrific.
$14.99 at Vintage Cellars and 1st Choice Liquor, which import it direct.
Pleno Tempranillo 2010
Here's your tapas - or pizza - wine. Strong, solid fruit, rounded easy approachability all for less than $20 a bottle. A no-fuss style with plenty of black-cherry spice, this tempranillo hails from Navarra, Spain. Love the generous middle palate. $16.50 at Blackhearts & Sparrows, Armadale Cellars and the importer, Randall's, Geelong.
Campbells 2010: The Sixties Block
The list of ingredients is long and mixed - shiraz, tempranillo, graciano, tinta cao, souzao, carignan - but together they rock. Made in small quantities, distribution is mainly limited to cellar door or wine club customers. $28 at Cellarbrations, Elwood and Majestic Cellars, Mount Eliza.
Dowie Doole G&T Garnacha/Tempranillo 2011
Super-friendly red from McLaren Vale with a Spanish kick; the grapes are the star here: generous, juicy black and red fruits, discreet tannins, oak not for the sake of it. $25 from the Dowie Doole website (dowiedoole.com); a discount can apply.
Clarence Plains JV Pinot Noir 2011
You want a wine ''bargain'' to shed the dollars, right? Online retailer The Pinot Shop does just that with the Clarence Plains 2011 Tassie pinot, dropping the price from $25.50 to $23 a bottle. Off young vines, it's boisterous in redcurrant, cherry fruit. Tasty and pleasing. $23 (usually $25.50) at www.pinotshop.com
Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2011, 375ml
Got to have a sweetie in your $200 wine basket and this consistent performer from the Clare Valley is always top value. Recently took out the trophy for top Aussie sweet riesling at the 2012 International Wine Challenge, no doubt aided by a little botrytis - a first for the style - to add complexity. $30 from the online cellar door at mounthorrocks.com
NOT everyone has a sexy independent bottle shop at the end of the street. In regional Victoria, the local pub or supermarket selection may be as good as it gets.
For me, getting to a big booze barn with a wider range means a 30-kilometre round trip. Because I come from a winemaking family, it also means feeling like a Presbyterian aunt on an illicit visit to the pokies: it's fun and cheap, but I know some of those discounts come from putting the pinch on producers.
Still, the deals are hard to go past.
On the upside, I live in a winegrowing area. The best wines from top-rated wineries often come at special-occasion prices. But many such wineries, in my region and others, offer "second labels".
These are like cheaper rooms at luxury hotels: no personal butler, but there's the aesthetic and attention to detail you'd expect at higher prices. Plus, cellar doors let you try before you buy.
Here's how I spent $200 locally on a weekday afternoon.
McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2011
A perennial class act from the Hunter, widely available and known for cellaring beautifully. Opened now, it smells of fresh straw and has a racy, lemony finish. $16.99 at Ritchies IGA, Dromana.
Taylors Estate Chardonnay 2010
From South Australia's Clare region, another wine you can find almost anywhere: nicely balanced mainstream chardonnay if you're after a traditional Aussie style with peachy flavours and simple oak. $15.99 (special) at Ritchies IGA, Dromana.
Pewsey Vale Riesling 2011
Pristine, floral, citrusy - I'd pay $20 or more for this lovely wine from South Australia's Eden region. At $15, I grab two. $15 (special), 1st Choice, Mornington.
Houghton White Classic 2011
The label is vague about varieties and region, simply saying "Western Australia", but I'm reassured by a silver medal from a decent wine show. Aromatic with a whiff of passionfruit; some sweetness on the finish makes it best drunk pretty cold. Google suggests the blend might include chenin blanc, chardonnay, verdelho, riesling and semillon. $9 at 1st Choice.
Dal Zotto Pucino Prosecco
Junior sibling to this King Valley winery's flagship prosecco, the Pucino is crisp and zesty with a hint of apple; a lively, inviting aperitif. $22, 1st Choice.
Cattier Brut Premier Cru
Fine-beaded and smelling of vanilla french toast, this champagne has been known to beat bigger names in blind tastings. Sold through retailers owned by the Coles group. $40 at 1st Choice.
Yabby Lake Red Claw Pinot Noir 2010
Pinot noir is the Mornington Peninsula's star variety, notoriously fiddly to grow. Plus, it likes time maturing in expensive French oak barrels. Yabby Lake's entry-level version is plummy and mouth-filling. For the same price Red Claw chardonnay 2010 is clean, elegant and complex, with discreet oak. $22.50 at Yabby Lake, Tuerong.
Quealy Balnarring Vineyard Chardonnay 2010
Chardonnay is another variety this region does well: this is unoaked, in a fresh, modern style, creamy and textured, but with a clean finish. $20 at Quealy Wines, Balnarring.
Montalto - Pennon Hill Melange Blanc 2010
Single-variety wines are in vogue and single-vineyard wines often priced at a premium, so blends of different grapes from different locations sometimes come cheaper. This "melange" of peninsula-grown pinot gris, riesling and muscat tastes minerally and floral, almost Italian - a reminder that clever blending can make good drinking. $23 at Montalto, Red Hill South.
■ Join a winery mailing list or wine club. Some offer a rewards scheme (eg, All Saints Estate), or maybe great bin ends or experimental, small-batch wines not commercially available.
■ If you are buying wines online, check delivery costs; they do vary. Many offer free delivery with a dozen bottles or more ordered.
■ Attend winemaker dinners or tastings in-store. Often wine bought on the day or night will come with a discount.
■ Don't buy on impulse. If you can, try before you buy, especially when buying by the half dozen or more.
■ The more expensive wines don't necessarily offer the better value. Don't get seduced by hype. Are you buying to impress or to enjoy?
■ If you have a Costco membership, don't forget to check out the wine section, where some of Melbourne's better wine discounts can be found, especially champagne.
■ Look to wines imported direct by retailers, thus avoiding the middleman. Savings can be between 25 per cent and 40 per cent.
■ The big supermarket chains buy some bigger production wines in quantities that bring extra value to the $25 and less price point.
■ Check out companies that offer wine en primeur - buy now, pick up on release.
■ Follow Epicure's wine coverage to keep in touch with retailers taking a slasher to their prices.
Cathy Gowdie is co-owner of a Mornington Peninsula vineyard.
Price guides listed here were correct at time of writing but might vary.