March 4, 2014 at 11:16 AM ET
When searching for interesting, memorable red wines under $20, California is not the first region that comes to mind. Finding unusual and complex wines in this price range is challenging, largely because of the high cost of production in California. France, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay – these are among the sweet spots when it comes to value and complexity in the under-$20 range.
And yet there are exceptions, including two excellent, inexpensive reds I’ve discovered in recent weeks. One is from Cameron Hughes, a California-based "negociant" whose company sources wines from around the world and bottles them under its own label. I have sampled a number of the wines in the last couple of years and among current releases Cameron Hughes's 2010 Lot 339 California Field Blend is an outstanding $16 value.
The "California" appellation is the state's broadest, meaning that the grapes can be from a number of regions. The wines are often inexpensive and generic but this one is distinctive, with most of the fruit from the Madder Lake Vineyard that lies in volcanic soils in northern Lake County. It's a fruity, Rhone-style blend, three-quarters syrah, with mourvedre, grenache and petite sirah rounding out the mix.
The wine is marked by vibrant, concentrated fruit, including blackberry, blueberry, cherry and spice notes. But what really sets it apart from most California wines at this price is an excellent tannic structure that frames the fruit and keeps it from falling into the soft, nondescript quality that defines so many budget California wines. It's a great choice for pan-seared steak and, if there's any left after dinner, a piece of dark chocolate.
The other notable wine is William Hill's 2012 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, which is part of the Napa winery's budget Coastal Collection. This one also has a good tannic structure that supports a core of blackberry fruit with hints of black licorice and caramel.
This delicious wine belies its suggested price of $17 and sets an example for the kind of attractive and balanced California cabernet that is possible to find at a very reasonable price. It's not over-oaked and is ready to drink now. Production, a whopping 130,000 cases, means it should be available just about everywhere. Enjoy it with all kinds of meats and other robust dishes.