Earlier this year, Walmart introduced a new line of wines, “Winemakers Selection,” to more than 1,100 stores nationwide. The new label includes ten wines from Italy, France and California, with a very attractive price point, from $11 to $16.
While we love the idea and the convenience of adding a few affordable vinos to our cart alongside power tools, Flower Beauty and a large quantity of paper towels, we did have to wonder if this could be too good to be true, and all we’d be left with is an enthusiasm hangover. So we enlisted sommelier AJ Ojeda-Pons, Wine Director of The Lambs Club at The Chatwal in New York City to see if our excitement was warranted.
Ojeda-Pons tested all 10 varieties and gave these four his top marks; they stood out from the pack and would even make nice host gifts this holiday season (so throw a wine bag and some ribbon into your cart on the Walmart run as well). They’re also good options to serve at your own holiday party, so we included some pairing recommendations for each.
First place: Montagne Noire Francais Cabernet Franc 2017 (France); $10.96
“Cabernet Franc is really underrated. It’s such a beautiful grape variety,” Ojeda-Pons tells PEOPLE. “This one is a bright, clear ruby color. A little deeper … but not totally deep in color. I would say it’s medium intensity. It has a better representation of Cabernet Franc than I would expect. Which has that sort of exotic edge to it, too. I immediately smell the bell peppers in here, when I smell the wine. It’s red-fruited, it’s like cherries and currants, and also that sort of green bell pepper note, or jalapeño. It’s a greenness of the note, it’s very, very pretty.”
“Of the French Walmart wines that we tasted, this is my favorite just because it’s the more expressive of the place where it comes from. Even though they don’t tell you the exact area where the wine comes from. There’s that grit of tannin here, which it gives it that texture. New acidity that keeps it in point, and there’s good juiciness of the fruit. The earth and the black pepper, all of that is there.”
Pairing: “Pork chops, or steak, or even grilled shrimp would go well with this. But quite honestly, when it comes to wine pairings, you should just drink what you like,” he says. “You know, don’t think too much about the wine pairing unless you’re trying to impress someone.”
Second place: Giovanni Da Verrazzano Chianti Classico 2015 (Italy); $11.96
“On the nose, this one’s a little bit more serious [than the other Italian wines in the group]. Hey, there’s a lot more complexity here, immediately,” he says. “There’s fresh, ripe cherries, there’s toast, there’s vanilla, there’s pepper, there’s exotic spices, there’s cinnamon, cloves, or anise. So there’s fruit, but it’s also balanced between the fruit and the other components that come from the wine-making. The oak, and the aging.”
Chianti is always made from Sangiovese grapes, Ojeda-Pons explains, and Chianti Classico is from a specific region in Tuscany. “You have the Chianti region within Tuscany, right? And then there’s a smaller area called a Chianti Classico zone, which has different villages where the wine can come from, a higher tier of quality of wine. If it says Classico, the grapes have to come from that Classico zone.”
This one is “red-fruited, and bright, very bright, and fresh. There’s this beautiful cherry and currant note here. It’s good quality and well-structured, there’s good acidity, with tannin, good body with concentration of fruit. Textural, you know?”
Pairing: “I would say more red sauce pasta, anything that has tomato sauce. Not so much the creamy sauces, I wouldn’t put it with that,” he says. “But also with chicken, with duck — you can have it even with a hamburger!”
Third place: A tie! Syrah Languedoc 2016 (France); $10.96
“On the nose, the wine has a lot more dark fruit … it’s more blackberry, black currant, black cherry. And I see a little bit of spice note here – black pepper. Which is also very characteristic of the grape Syrah.”
“And it’s also a very simple wine, there’s not a lot of complexity to it, it’s very primary. So the fruit is what I smell, there’s not a lot of weird vanilla or toast or anything like that.” he says.
Normally with a Syrah, “you have more earth. … So this seems to me like a more modern French wine. Not like a traditional one,” he says. “It just reminds me of any modern wine. This could be Spanish, this could be California, this could be Chile. I mean, there’s so many things that this wine can be … it doesn’t necessarily speak of place to me. But also, it’s easy to drink.”
Pairing: “Roasted lamb. Steak, for sure. There seems to be a sweetness of the fruit here, which maybe with a duck dish would go well, with a roasted duck with spices, something a little bit more exotic.”
Also Third Place: Grenache Minervois Languedoc 2016 (France); $10.96
“The wine has a very beautiful color, it’s a beautiful, bright ruby that I can see here. And there’s no evidence of sediment, or anything like that. It’s very clear,” says Ojeda-Pons. “And on the nose, it’s a very simple nose. There’s aromas of strawberries, raspberries, cherries for sure, ripe and fresh. Not very complex, though.”
“On the palate … It’s a good wine. It’s easy to drink, it’s approachable. Has a little touch of good acidity there here, too. No tannins that I can detect. Just kind of a nice little red, as an aperitif or to start, something you have with your appetizers.”
Pairing: “This isn’t for meat dishes. In addition to appetizers, I would probably do this more with chicken or grilled salmon, or something like that.”