THERE ARE SOME WINERIES that just keep cropping up with good-value wines. The evergreens Jacob's Creek, Westend Estate, Kingston Estate, McWilliam's Hanwood. And De Bortoli.
Ah, De Bortoli. I recall visiting its cellar door at Bilbul near Griffith for the first time back in my neophyte days as a wine buff.
The year must have been either 1975 or '76. I can still see the plastic flagons of port, sherry and sundry other stuff. The vintage port made from uva de troia (remember that?). The fish-shape bottles of verdicchio, too.
De Bortoli always gave good value. I vaguely remember an exceptional 1970 cabernet. I kid myself that my love of wine began in the right place: the Riverina was and still is a source of decent, if seldom challenging, table wines that young vinous adventurers can afford.
Glen McWilliam was doing cutting-edge things at McWilliam's in those days: his colourful Hanwood Barrel labels delivered the district's most fragrant riesling and traminer, and one of the country's first chardonnays - probably unwooded, and tasting nothing like chardonnay would later, after winemakers started trying to copy burgundy.
De Bortoli still gives great value, and the family must be doing a lot right, as they have one of the country's most profitable wine companies, by all reports. It was started in 1928 by Vittorio De Bortoli, developed by his son, Deen, with his wife, Emeri, during the mid-20th century, and now grandson Darren runs the business.
The result is extraordinary considering the paltry price.
Deen is commemorated on the label of the Vat Series wines, which are also titled Deen De Bortoli. It is highly appropriate because these are outstanding value for money.
The winemaking team reserves the right to blend from near and far if the local material isn't up to par. Senior winemaker Julie Mortlock says this is often the case with cabernet sauvignon: Riverina cabernet is not usually up to scratch, hence the 2010 Vat 9 Cabernet Sauvignon is largely Limestone Coast grapes. The Vat 8 Shiraz 2009 (see Cellartalk) is composed from no fewer than nine regions: Mudgee, Heathcote, Coonawarra, Sunbury, Limestone Coast, King Valley (the company's own vineyard), Mount Benson, Wrattonbully and the Riverina. The result is extraordinary, considering the paltry price. It's a tribute to the art of the blender.
Also excellent in this range are the 2010 Vat 1 Durif (a Riverina wine), Vat 4 Petit Verdot 2009 (also Riverina) and 2008 Vat 5 Botrytis Semillon (Riverina, of course). I've also enjoyed the 2011 Vat 6 Verdelho. These wines all carry a recommended retail price of $12.90, but can be found cheaper. The sticky is dearer: $17 a half-bottle. When you consider it isn't far behind the flagship Noble One (the 2009 is $64 a half-litre) and occasionally beats it in competitions, this is great value.
De Bortoli's cheapie Sacred Hill range (all $8, full retail price) is also great value. Perversely, I've been at least as impressed by the dry whites in this range as those under the Deen label: the semillon sauvignon blanc being an astonishing wine for the money.
The Riverina is a happy hunting ground for value table wines.
Consider the McWilliam's Hanwood series, of which there is none better than the sparkling non-vintage brut. This contains fruit from various regions, including Tumbarumba, and in recent times is especially fine. The range is line-priced at $13 full retail, but is often discounted. The shiraz and cabernet sauvignon have both won gold medals at major shows on occasions, and not always by sheer dumb luck. They're young, fresh and fruity, if not exactly complex or structured.
The Riverina is not only fertile ground for affordable table wine, it's held its prices while other regions have risen.
The most impressive newcomer to the scene is Berton Vineyards. Co-founder Bob Berton worked for De Bortoli for many years, so he knows how to put together a good wine at the right price. His winemakers are James Ceccato (formerly of Westend) and Sam Trimboli (ex-Riverina Wines). Both have plenty of runs on the board. Their Foundstone and Boab Tree labels are also good buys.
But the wines that have rocked me during the past year have been under the Berton Vineyards label. All $12 wines, they are The Black Shiraz 2011, The White Viognier 2012 and Vermentino 2012. The latter won a place in the 2012 NSW Top 40, judged at the NSW Wine Awards, which is no mean feat. It was certainly the cheapest wine in the 40, as well as the most exotic.
Wines like this throw down the gauntlet to winemakers in other regions.
Value wine brands
Which are the best-value brand names to look for under $20?
■ Angullong (white wines)
■ Berton Vineyards
■ De Bortoli Sacred Hill, Deen De Bortoli and Windy Peak
■ Echelon - Under & Over, Armchair Critic, Zeppelin
■ Jacob's Creek (and Reserve)
■ Jim Barry (rieslings)
■ Kingston Estate
■ McWilliam's Hanwood
■ O'Leary Walker
■ Oxford Landing
■ Peter Lehmann Portrait range
■ Thorn Clarke Sandpiper
■ Trentham Estate
■ Westend Estate and Richland