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926homespunweb1.jpgBy Eric Asimov, The New York Times

RISMEDIA, Sept. 26, 2007-( much do you want to spend on a bottle of wine? The intuitive answer, of course, is as little as possible. That stands to reason, except that the way people buy wine is anything but reasonable.

For most consumers, wine-buying is an emotional issue. The restaurant industry has a longstanding belief that the lowest-priced wine on the list will never sell. Nobody wants to be seen as cheap. But the second-lowest-priced wine, that’s the one people will gobble up.

Buying retail is a slightly different experience. Most people don’t feel as if their retail purchases are windows into their ignorant, miserly souls, the way they do in restaurants, and so are less inhibited.

Still, rationality doesn’t often enter into buying decisions. For some, money is meaningless, whether that’s true because of huge credit lines, daddy’s millions or success in business. These people will buy whatever is most expensive. Others, in a vinous form of anti-intellectualism, insist that no wine can be worth more than – pick your figure – and that only dupes will spend more.

Whichever the case, the issue of value – the ratio of quality to price – rarely enters into it.

Leave it to the [New York Time’s] Dining section’s wine panel to try to fill this vacuum. In a tasting of 25 red wines all $10 or under, we tried to pick out not only the best bottles but also the best regions to explore for good values.

Let’s face it, you can find hundreds if not thousands of bottles in this price range, down to the lowest of the low. We cannot try them all and say, “Here are the 10 best.” But we can give you some suggestions as to where to look, while offering up some good examples.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Jill Roberts, a portfolio manager for Valckenberg, an importer of German wines, and Chris Goodhart, the wine director of Balthazar in SoHo, New York.

Frankly, the $10-and-under price range may represent the cheapest wines, but I feel the best values are in the $10-to-$20 range, where you can find sensational wines made by small producers using traditional techniques. These sorts of wines are much harder to find at $10 and under.

But this is September, that time of the year when the reality of summer vacation bills dims the hope of Christmas splurges, so right now every dollar helps. Here’s what we know:

In today’s winemaking world, there’s no excuse for bad wines. Technology and knowledge have reached the point where any wine ought to be purchased without fear of a spoiled or tainted bottle. Even Two-Buck Chuck is palatable, though I wouldn’t insult you by telling you it’s good. The exception is corked wines. Regardless of cost, bad corks can elude even the most meticulous examination.

While consumers can expect all wines to be palatable, finding interesting ones is another matter. Mass-producing inexpensive wine is a lot easier than creating wines with personality. In this price range, the great divide is between wines you can drink and wines you want to drink.

The wines we recommend are gulpable and satisfying with a modest level of intrigue. You cannot expect much complexity at this level, or subtlety. But you can hope for something more than the most basic, and you can strive to avoid wines that are obviously confected or manipulated to achieve a predetermined set of characteristics.

Our No. 1 wine, the 2002 Padre Pedro from Casa Cadaval in the Ribatejo region of Portugal, is a case in point. This wine indeed had personality, with cherry fruit, spice and smoke flavors and enough tannin to give it structure. Alas, the Padre Pedro may be hard to find now, because Casa Cadaval has changed importers since this vintage. But in general Portugal is an excellent source for good, inexpensive wines, especially those from the Douro and those, like the Padre Pedro, from the Ribatejo region.

This wine is labeled Ribatejano, which is a wine that comes from Ribatejo but doesn’t follow the appellation’s rules. It’s made from an unlikely mixture of grapes, including cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, alicante bouschet and castelão, a Portuguese grape known in other parts of the country as periquita.

Likewise, our No. 2 wine, the 2005 Domaine de l’Ameillaud, doesn’t fit into established categories. It is labeled a Vin de Pays de Vaucluse because the grapes come from vineyards just outside the Côtes-du-Rhône zone. Nonetheless it is fresh and attractive with typical Rhone flavors buttressed by just enough tannin to keep the wine lively. For great values in French wines, it pays to look outside the more popular appellations.

In Spain, too, the best deals generally come from little-known areas like Montsant or Toro. Our No. 3 wine, the 2005 Viña Gormaz tempranillo, is an exception. It comes from a backwater in an established region, the Ribera del Duero in Spain, and is made by a little-known producer, Gormaz, that until 2004 was the growers’ cooperative. It all adds up to an unpretentious, juicy wine for $9.

Surprisingly, the ’06 Beaujolais-Villages from Georges Duboeuf, the best-known wine in the tasting, did well. I say surprisingly because Duboeuf’s less expensive Beaujolais can often taste candied or artificially sweet, but this one was delightful.

You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned any American wines. We did taste six American wines, along with five from Italy, four from France, three from Spain, two from Portugal, and one each from Australia, South Africa, Uruguay, Argentina and Greece.

I don’t usually think of American wines as great values. Too often the producers try to imitate expensive wines using artifice – mediocre cabernet sauvignon flavored with oak chips, for example – rather than making more honest wines from lesser grapes.

Nonetheless, two American wines made our list, the 2005 Wyatt cabernet sauvignon and the 2004 Ravenswood merlot, a pretty good showing.

Probably the biggest surprise in our tasting was the 2006 Domaine Monte de Luz from Uruguay, which is sort of the Toledo Mud Hens of the major winemaking leagues. But hold on. Uruguay may have a lot in common with Argentina, although its winemaking is not yet at Argentina’s level. But Uruguay has not been at it as long. Nonetheless, just as Argentina has focused on malbec, an obscure grape from southwestern France, Uruguay grows a lot of tannat, an obscure grape also grown in Madiran in southwestern France as well as in the Basque region. This wine was a little rough and rugged, yet distinctive and interesting. Try it with a steak, preferably grass-fed.

Tasting Report: Structure and Personality, With a Small Price Tag

Casa Cadaval Portugal Ribatejano , $8.99, ***
Padre Pedro 2002
Smoke, earth, cherry and spice flavors in a well-structured Old World wine (Importer: HGC Imports, San Jose, Calif.).

Domaine de l’Ameillaud France , $9, ** ½
Vin de Pays de Vaucluse 2005
Mild tannins with attractive, lingering flavors of berry, cassis and olive (David Bowler Wine, New York).

Viña Gormaz Spain Ribera del Duero , $9, **
Tempranillo 2005
Fresh and juicy with a lively spiciness (Classical Wines, Seattle).

Georges Duboeuf France , $9, **
Beaujolais-Villages 2006
Juicy, fruity and floral. Decent Beaujolais best served chilled (W. J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison, N.Y.).

Altas Cumbres Argentina Mendoza , $9, **
Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Lingering, jammy flavors of cherry and licorice (RV Distributors, Hoboken, N.J.).

Wyatt California Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 , $10, **
Big and almost over the top with dark fruit, oak and spice flavors.

J. Vidal-Fleury France , $10, **
Côtes-du-Ventoux 2005
Aroma of burnt rubber gives way to flavors of bitter cherry and spices (W. J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison, N.Y.).

Domaine Monte de Luz , $7, **
Uruguay Tannat 2006
Rich and plummy with smoky, spicy cherry flavors (Baron Francois, New York).

Ravenswood California Vintner’s Blend , $10, **
Merlot 2004
Fruit, floral and spice flavors; straightforward and pleasant.

Paringa , $9, * ½
South Australia Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
David Hickinbotham Individual Vineyard
Big and powerful with berry, oak and fruit flavors (Grateful Palate Imports, Oxnard, Calif.).