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Happy New Year

I hope you have all had enjoyable (if muted) seasonal celebrations and that 2021 will be a good year for you – notwithstanding the major anxieties with which it opens. 

Here, our main goal is unchanged – guiding you through the [physical or virtual] wine aisles towards something tasty but not expensive”.  

To that end, I start with a handful of everyday wines that are reliable, straightforward but inexpensive options that will suit most pockets. 

One slightly dearer wine rounds off the post in case there is a little more left in the money box this year.   

The regular Top Tips posts that specialise in this type of content resume on Monday. 

Starting with Chardonnay 

Even though the snooty love to disparage chardonnay, inexpensive and undemanding versions still gain many friends – as will this guy from Chile’s Colchagua Valley (where newer coastal areas now produce excellent cool climate whites). 

While never winning prizes for complexity or sophistication, 2019 Esteven Chardonnay (£5.49 at Aldi and 13% abv) still delivers appealing soft, creamy apple, peach and toffee flavours with gentle grapefruit acidity and a certain pithy depth. 

Meanwhile in South Africa 

I was impressed by the value represented by the £5 “This Is” budget “brand” M&S introduced last year but worried that consistent quality can be tricky at this price point. 

I need not have fretted; the new vintage Western Cape chenin maintains the high standard its predecessor set.

Behind the mild yet textured apple and pear flavours in 2020 This Is Fresh & Fruity Chenin Blanc (£5 at M&S and 13%) lies a combination of vibrant lime acidity and attractive hints of honey and sherbet. 

Sticking in South Africa but switching to reds 

Once South Africa's hot, dry Swartland region was merely a producer of unspectacular commercial wines but, nowadays, its young, enthusiastic winemakers are improving things dramatically – even (as here) with the “hard to tame” pinotage. 

Judge the progress being made by 2018 The Best South African Pinotage (£6.75 at Morrisons and 14%) where bright, savoury-edged cherry and raspberry flavours adorn basic pinotage and are supplemented by a smoky, allspice background, good acidity and modest tannin, 

 Back to Europe next 

Reserva is the second highest level of Rioja’s wine aging rankings – involving three or more years maturation with at least a third of that time spent in oak, so it is something of an understatement to say that “Reservas below £6 are decidedly rare”!  

Nevertheless, and despite its modest price, 2015 Cepa Lebral Rioja Reserva (£5.49 at Lidl and 13.5%) is a terrific choice offering well defined plum and cherry fruit, lively acidity herbal depth, firm tannin and minty chocolate background.  

Staying in Spain 

That Rioja Reserva is an exception, more often great value can best be found by straying into Spain’s less fashionable wine regions and choosing something other than the nation’s signature tempranillo grape. 

In this case, we go to Campo de Borja for red wine from the garnacha (grenache) grape – which is a hugely successful variety in Spain even without the magnetism of tempranillo.  

Medium bodied with mild tannin, 2018 Campaneo Old Vines Garnacha (£5 at Tesco and 14%) has floral, plum, cherry and raspberry flavours supported by good acidity and suggestions of juniper, menthol and clove.  

And Our Bonus Item 

Despite its harvest coinciding with the arrival of Covid, New Zealand did well in its 2020 vintage with some great wines often benefitting from cooler temperatures late on that provided an extra burst of flavour. 

See what I mean from the sharp lime and pithy grapefruit bedrock that underpins 2020 Yealands Sauvignon Blanc (£7 – instead of £8 until 19 January – at Sainsbury’s) and neatly enlivens its white peach and gooseberry flavours, herbal texture and hint of minerality. 

And a potential fireside bonus too

Fellow wine writer Colin Harkness tells me that he has just published a novel. It contains number of wine references (although that is not the main theme) so do take a look at the details to see whether this is “lockdown reading” for you

So, enjoy those tasty wines and join us again on Monday for the regular Top Tips feature – but if you are simply a (very welcome) visitor to this site, use the side panel “sign up” form to get Tips like these every week ABSOLUTELY FREE 

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David Cronin

Hi Brian,
Happy New year, nice to have your recommendations back, been drinking a lot of Chardonnay lately , seems to be gaining in momentum again. I’ve tasted Esteven wines before, not the Chardonnay but I was impressed for the price so may well be worth a try.
The Cepa Rioja always delivers for the price and is normally pretty reliable. I can vouch for Garnacha (love it) don’t be fooled by its floral character though it still packs a punch but in a good way, for £5 whats not to like.
Got a couple of bottles of the Yealands Sovee just before Christmas, enjoyed particularly by my wife.

Brian Elliott

Many thanks for those thoughts Dave – much appreciated and, as ever, good to hear from you.

Mel Crann

Is it the snooty who disparage Chardonnay? I would have thought it was the semi-informed. A wine buff will know that in any list of the world’s greatest white wines the biggest subgroup will consist of oaked Chardonnays. I blame the widespread aversion to oak on wine writers, who often praise wines for not being spoiled by oak. The universal denigration of the old, big-busted oaked Australians led to a flood of miserable, unoaked Chardonnays made in the misguided belief that cool climate styles could be produced by using unripe grapes or bunging in tartaric acid. Yes, there are delicious unoaked Chardonnays, if you pay enough for them.

Brian Elliott

Good to hear from you Mel. My original comment was aimed at the residue of the “Anything but Chardonnay” brigade that one still encounters. You go a good deal deeper and indeed make some important points. I think it was Brian Croser who said that oak should be a condiment and I often feel that he sums things up well there. I sense that the pendulum has swung back now from avoiding oak at all costs and many more producers provide versions where proportionate barrel time has smoothed and added a few extra influences but never dominates.

Chris Scott

Good to have my morning cornflakes read back up and running Brian.
Doing dry January this year and thoroughly enjoying it I have to say………..
I’ve enjoyed some nice dry gin, dry red and dry whites. Not so keen on the dry martini though.
Best to you and yours for 2021

Brian Elliott

Nice one Chris!


HNY Brian. I picked up a few bottles of Rioja from Lidl today; let a couple breath for c5 hours and then tried a ‘fresh’ bottle. You really can’t complain at the price point but I would recommend popping the cork sooner than later.

Yealands doesn’t disappoint as a mid week

Brian Elliott

Glad they both seem to have worked for you Nigel. Getting air to the Rioja, as you say, is almost certainly a sound strategy …. Best ….. Brian

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