ChileHistory: Chile was the first New World country to grow grapes successfully, when the Spanish brought their vines in the 1500s. Since then, Chilean wines have won over oenophiles' palates all over the world.
Celebrated varietals: Producing large quantities of mostly red varieties, Chile is known for its versatile, yet complex, cabernet sauvignon. With a nice body and flavors of currant, oak and hints of fruit, the typical Chilean cabernet sauvignon pairs well with cheeses, grilled salmon, steak and buttery dishes. Cabernet sauvignon is perhaps the world's most heralded wine, and some recent vintages can run about as much as a car payment. However, many wine lovers say they don't taste much difference between a $6.95 Chilean cabernet sauvignon and a $29.95 bottle from another country. "Chilean winemakers have low cost of goods because land costs there have not shot through the roof," Hughes says.
Best buys: Chile also makes a very nice and affordable sauvignon blanc, a white wine that's a bright yellow color with herbaceous, tropical and mineral tastes. These wines, like the Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc 2007 and Carmen Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, typically cost $10 to $15. They pair extremely well with sushi and white fish. Chilean sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon can compete with like wines from all over the world, says Charles Puglia, sommelier at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York. "More premium wines are coming out of Chile, and that's creating an emergence of consistent quality across the board," Puglia says.
FranceHistory: It should come as no surprise that France is home to some of the world's best wine regions. The most-celebrated region is Bordeaux, which produces more than 700 million bottles a year.
Celebrated varietal: Red Bordeaux wines have the reputation of being very pricey, but 90 percent of all Bordeaux wines cost less than $25, Zraly says. Bordeaux whites are blends from these white grapes: sauvignon blanc, sémillon and muscadelle; small portions of colombard and Ugni Blanc (used to make cognac) occasionally are added.
Best buys: The younger wines and smaller productions, especially, can be purchased right now for $15 or less and still give that intense aroma and boldness Bordeauxs are known for. For example, Chateau Lagarosse 2007 retails at $15 but delivers the same rush of strong fruit and a soft finish as bottles twice or three times its price. Puglia says instead of shopping for 2005 Pauillac, you should look on the label for Cotes de Bourg or Premier Cote de Bordeaux. "These lesser-known, small chateaus and satellite designations on the outskirts of the big ones are really good. And you can pick up a great bottle of wine for $10 to $15," Puglia says. A good white Bordeaux for about $8.99 is the Augey White Bordeaux -- a combination of sauvignon, semillion and muscadelle grapes.
Noteworthy: While it's the best-known, Bordeaux is not the only French wine delivering strong value right now. Wine consultant Brad Haskel says Rhone red wines are selling for $8 to $10, while the white wines from Alsace are going for $10 to $12.
"These producers from Southwest France are using plows and horses, just like in the old school, when everything was organic," Haskel says. "(This method) certainly couldn't happen in a place that needs to sell a million cases."
The Alsace white wines, like the Hugel Gentil 2006, sell in liquor stores for $10.99 and go excellently with fish. The Rhone red blends, like Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche 2006, run about $11 and typically receive good ratings in the wine journals as well-structured with red-fruit aromas. However, many of the best wines from these regions come from boutique producers. To keep from making wine-buying a crapshoot, Haskel recommends looking at the importer. "Wine importers are often listed on the back labels of wine bottles, so seeking out the ones you trust is one simple trick that even the professionals use to make smart selections," Haskel says.
ItalyHistory: Like France, Italy's culture is connected to the vine. And today, Italy remains among the foremost wine producers, turning out about 20 percent of the world's production.
Celebrated varietals: It all starts with Tuscany, the country's premium wine region that has such appellations as Montalcino, Bolgheri, Chianti and Montepulciano. Many Tuscan wines cost $12 or less, including the Remole 2006. This exceptional wine is a tad spicy with black pepper and aromatic herbs. It pairs with almost any pasta dish.
Best buys: A well-priced Italian red wine region is the Barbera, which has nice upfront acidity and sweet oak flavors. It goes well with pasta and spareribs. The Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti 2006 costs about $15.
Alessandro Lunardi, of Italian winemaker Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, says Italian wines are emotions in a bottle and should provide pleasure no matter what the price is. "Today, with a minimum amount of homework, everybody can find exceptional wines at every price level and have a great experience savoring them," Lunardi says.