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Recession wines 

Cheap, good stuff from overseas

It sucks to be American right now. My foreign friends are enjoying half-priced vacations, spending their cash in our half-priced cities and buying our (much) cheaper gas. I'm frickin' jealous -- and it's painful to watch the good life trickle into my gas tank and not down my gullet. Reports say we're eating and drinking out less, preferring to soak our sorrows on the sofa rather than on the bar stool. I imagine pay-per-view (and perhaps porn) has swelled in popularity, too. But despite the exchange rate and shipping costs, the super wine steals aren't from the U.S. -- they're nestled in the nether regions of France, Spain, Argentina and Australia.

In the Southwest of France, rural Côtes de Gasgogne and Armagnac (known mainly for its namesake spirit) produce a shit-ton of wine. Labeled mostly "vins de table," the kind the French lap up during breakfast, lunch and dinner -- this stuff is fantastic, but underappreciated. It's not designed to age or drink with pinkies in air. It's fresh, fruity and calming to your brain after a crappy day. And it's cheap -- under $10 cheap. But here's the caveat: You'll have to venture outside your comfort zone and sip stuff you're not intimate with -- think of it as extensively exploring your own nether regions.

Spain, badly branded after years of vacuous vino, has regretfully been deemed the redheaded stepchild of the wine world. About 10 years ago, I considered "inexpensive quality Spanish wine" to be an offensive misnomer. But then I grew some sense and studied up. The best deals in Spain aren't in royal Rioja or Ribera del Duero. It's humble regions like Jumilla [who-MEE-ya] in the southeast that gratify you and still leave some change on the nightstand. Seek out their vibrant, delicious reds and rosés, mostly made from the Monastrell grape (aka Mourvedre); there's plenty to satisfy.

Inflation-wrought Argentina suffered a huge economic blow in the late-'90s, leaving the prices for their exported wines accessible in these financially strapped times. Mendoza Valley, an Eden for grapes, consistently squeezes quality juice into their bottles. Malbec and cabernet sauvignon thrive in the warm climates, as do chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in the massive region's cooler climates.

We all know Australia has good values, and we owe thanks for the influx of inexpensive critter-labeled wines. Southeast Australia, a vast area hosting wine regions like McLaren Vale and Coonawarra, sports so many different climates, grapes of all shapes and flavors grow there. The production volume and lower cost of labor make the wines easier on the wallet.

So while the good life might be sucked away by your big-ass SUV, inexpensive imported wines will kiss you goodnight afterward.

Note: In honor of your wallet, each week this summer I'll reveal a $12 wine (or under) that will rock your world better than Jenna Jameson.

Recommended Wines

Chateau de Tariquet 2006 Ugni Blanc/Colombard Cotes de Gasgogne (France) Tart, toasty and chock full of bracing grapefruit, tangy tangerine, lush melon and tropical green mango. Light and refreshing, this white pairs perfectly with summer. Sw = 1. $10. **** 1/2

Juan Gil 2006 Wrongo Dongo Monastrell Jumilla (Spain) If drinking this is wrongo, I don't want to be right. Bright and fun, with raspberry jam and blackberry all up in your face. Lovely and light-bodied for quality quaffing. Sw = 2. $8. **** [NOT AVAILABLE IN NORTH CAROLINA]

Gouguenheim 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza (Argentina) Supple, smooth and slightly dirty, this cab oozes dark fruit flavors like cassis, black cherry and bittersweet chocolate. A helluva wine for the price. Sw = 1. $10. ****

Hugh Hamilton 2006 Jim Jim Shiraz McLaren Vale Australia Light-bodied, fruity and raspberry jammy. Like an in-your-face fruit salad. Soft, elegant finish, with refreshing acidity. Excellent chardonnay, too. Sw = 2. $12. ****

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. * (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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