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The Boston Globe

Food & dining

9th annual Plonkapalooza

Value wines offer some surprises

Top: A flight for the four tasters is poured from a bottle of white wine. Above: Josh Cole, beverage director at Puritan & Co., the restaurant in Cambridge, tests a white wine. The bottles are wrapped to disguise their labels, and numbered, and tasters’ notes refer to those ID numbers.

jonathan wiggs/globe staff

A flight for the four tasters is poured from a bottle of white wine.

Around the table, a beverage director, a wine bar owner, and a chef were sniffing five reds. They swirled, buried their noses in each glass, tasted, and spit. The wine bar owner smelled a glass and pushed it away. “This one is corked,” she announced, which refers to a contaminated cork, which results in unpleasant aromas and flavors in the wine. Fellow tasters agreed that it smelled like a wet basement. A backup bottle (a completely different wine) was opened and this beguiling, light-bodied red turned out to be a hands-down favorite of the day.

Every fall, we find some surprises at our annual Plonkapalooza tasting of 50 wines $15 and under. Now in its ninth year, the tasting includes three experts (usually sommeliers, and this year, a chef) who tell us what bottles they would be happy to serve with a weeknight meal or a Sunday supper. Joining me this year were Josh Cole, beverage director at Puritan & Co. in Cambridge; Felisha “Flea” Foster, owner of Spoke Wine Bar in Somerville; and Jason Bond, chef-owner of Bondir in Cambridge (and soon another Bondir in Concord).

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Our process starts months in advance, when we ask five local wine shops to nominate wines they think represent terrific values. We compile the retailers’ nominations, settle on a final list, and purchase five whites and five reds from each shop, along with backup bottles in case a nominated wine turned out to be off. (Any number of things can happen to a bottle such as cork contamination or exposure to heat in transit — before a bottle makes it to a retailer’s shelf.) Each bottle is slipped into a paper wine sleeve and assigned a number. In the course of the afternoon, tasters keep track of what they particularly like — or dislike. Each taster votes for his or her favorites (the highest number of votes a wine can receive is four), and then comes the big reveal.

This year, an appetizing red from Croatia won the hearts of all four tasters. Descriptors such as “quirky,” “cherry cola,” and “fermented plum” were offered to describe this food-friendly quaff, made from the plavac mali grape, whose parents are believed to be zinfandel and an ancient variety called dobricic. Also garnering four votes each were a German riesling and a Northern Italian schiava-lagrein blend (this was the impressive backup to the corked bottle). A sprightly verdicchio from central Italy’s east coast, a gewurztraminer from Pfalz, Germany, and a carignan-cinsault blend from Languedoc, France, each garnered three votes. This year, all favorites were Old World.

Among the 50 wines, nominations included bottles from South America, Australia, and the United States but European offerings edged out the New World competition with these tasters. “I wasn’t surprised that my favorites were Old World,” said Foster after the event. “I find Old World wines, in general, to work better at the table.” One Washington State red, which made it onto Foster’s favorites list, was an exception. Tasters deemed wines like this an easy choice for an ordinary weeknight, commenting that many bottles in this price range aim for a pleasing, pull-no-punches profile.

“My tastes go towards Old World, the same as my cooking,” said Bond. “I think they make more sense with food, they mesh more easily. As with cuisines or recipes, the wine characteristics that have been developed over hundreds of years are going to be solidly good, even when you are not talking about the high end.” Cole reflected on why so many Old World wines offer good value. Many centuries-old wineries, he observed, are handed down from generation to generation, and need less overhead and up-front investment than say, a start-up winery on the West Coast.

Absent from this year’s nominations were wines from Greece, New Zealand, and California. Gruner veltliner from Austria and reds from Spain garnered praise, as did two South African white wines. While enthusiasts debate whether South Africa should be considered Old World or New, the bottles we tried were fresh and well-crafted, proof that many value-oriented offerings from this part of the world have improved considerably over the years.

Cole said he looks for wines “that make you sit back, think for a minute, and then smile.” That certainly happened when our replacement bottle was poured.

All the more reason not to fear a damaged bottle. You never know what delightful pour is waiting in the wings.

To see where to purchase the 50 contenders, click here.

From left, Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Santa Maddalena, Vinarija Dingac “Peljesac,” and Karl Pfaffmann Riesling Trocken.

jonathan wiggs/globe staff

From left, Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Santa Maddalena, Vinarija Dingac “Peljesac,” and Karl Pfaffmann Riesling Trocken.

Top scoring wines

(4 votes each)

WHITE

2011 Karl Pfaffmann Riesling Trocken, Walsheim, Germany

RED

2010 Vinarija Dingac “Peljesac,” Peljesac Peninsula, Croatia

2010 Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Santa Maddalena, Alto Adige, Italy

(3 votes each)

WHITE

2012 Fontezoppa Verdicchio di Matelica, Marche, Italy

2011 Villa Wolf Gewurztraminer, Pfalz, Germany

RED

2011 Domaine Rimbert “Les Travers de Marceau,” Saint Chinian, France

Cole is the beverage director of Puritan & Co. in Inman Square, Cambridge.

jonathan wiggs/globe staff

Cole is the beverage director of Puritan & Co. in Inman Square, Cambridge.

Jason Bond’s favorites

WHITES

2011 Karl Pfaffmann Riesling Trocken, Walsheim, Germany

2012 Fontezoppa Verdicchio di Matelica, Marche, Italy

2011 Villa Wolf Gewurztraminer, Pfalz, Germany

2011 Dourthe “La Grande Cuvee” Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, France

2010 Celler Pinol “Ludovicus” Garnacha Blanca, Terra Alta, Spain

REDS

2010 Vinarija Dingac “Peljesac,” Peljesac Peninsula, Croatia

2010 Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Santa Maddalena, Alto Adige, Italy

2011 Domaine Rimbert “Les Travers de Marceau,” Saint Chinian, France

2012 Estenas Bobal, Utiel-Requena, Spain

2011 Rio Madre Graciano, Rioja, Spain

Foster is the owner of Spoke Wine Bar in Davis Square, Somerville.

jonathan wiggs/globe staff

Foster is the owner of Spoke Wine Bar in Davis Square, Somerville.

Felisha ‘Flea’ Foster’s favorites

WHITES

2011 Karl Pfaffmann Riesling Trocken, Walsheim, Germany

2012 Fontezoppa Verdicchio di Matelica, Marche, Italy

2011 Villa Wolf Gewurztraminer, Pfalz, Germany

2011 Dourthe “La Grande Cuvee” Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, France

2012 Selbach “Incline” Riesling, Mosel, Germany

REDS

2010 Vinarija Dingac “Peljesac,” Peljesac Peninsula, Croatia

2010 Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Santa Maddalena, Alto Adige, Italy

2011 Domaine Rimbert “Les Travers de Marceau,” Saint Chinian, France

2010 Cascina Ballarin “Cino” Rosso, Langhe, Italy

2011 Charles & Charles Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington State

Bond is chef-owner of Bondir in Cambridge and a soon-to-open location in Concord.

jonathan wiggs/globe staff

Bond is chef-owner of Bondir in Cambridge and a soon-to-open location in Concord.

Josh Cole’s favorites

WHITES

2011 Karl Pfaffmann Riesling Trocken, Walsheim, Germany

2012 Fontezoppa Verdicchio di Matelica, Marche, Italy

2011 Villa Wolf Gewurztraminer, Pfalz, Germany

2012 Paul D Gruner Veltliner, Wagram, Austria

2011 Evolucio Furmint, Tokaj, Hungary

REDS

2010 Vinarija Dingac “Peljesac,” Peljesac Peninsula, Croatia

2010 Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Santa Maddalena, Alto Adige, Italy

2011 Domaine Rimbert “Les Travers de Marceau,” Saint Chinian, France

2012 Chateau Fontanes “Les Traverses de Fontanes” Cabernet Sauvignon, Vin de Pays d’Oc, France

2011 Torreguaceto “Pietraluna” Negramaro, Salento, Italy

Ellen Bhang’s favorites

WHITES

2011 Karl Pfaffmann Riesling Trocken, Walsheim, Germany

2012 Durnberg “L & T” Gruner Veltliner, Falkenstein, Austria

2012 Danie de Wet de Wetshof “Limestone Hill” Chardonnay, Robertson, South Africa

2012 Selbach “Incline” Riesling, Mosel, Germany

2013 Stonehaven Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, South Africa

REDS

2010 Vinarija Dingac “Peljesac,” Peljesac Peninsula, Croatia

2010 Cantina Convento Muri-Gries Santa Maddalena, Alto Adige, Italy

2011 Roberto Perez “Bielsa” Vinas Viejas Garnacha, Campo de Borja, Spain

2012 Estenas Bobal, Utiel-Requena, Spain

2011 Torreguaceto “Pietraluna” Negramaro, Salento, Italy

Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.
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