VinePair wine enthusiasts, we hear you! Readers have told us how hard it has been to discover new wines during the pandemic. Somms are in short supply, as many restaurants are still closed. Online wine platforms have algorithms that prioritize the same big brands, and many customers are still picking up their wine shop orders curbside. So we reached out to wine professionals we admire to ask for their help. With the challenge to build a 12-bottle case for under $250, these wine pros sifted through hundreds of bottles to find the best case possible — so you don’t have to. (And for wine pros who work with a brand, we also let them choose one of their own wines to highlight.) Then, we choose a retailer that ships nationally, and the pros only learn which retailer they’ll be choosing from after they accept the challenge. Their only guidance? Find wines that will wow wine enthusiasts.

Bruno Almeida is a Court of Master Sommelier-certified wine professional by day and rock drummer by night. The sommelier was born and raised in Lisbon, Portugal, and spent the last 19 years working in legendary New York City restaurants such as Gusto Ristorante, Pão, Inoteca, Corsino, Balaboosta, Locanda Verde, and Dirty French. Until the onset of Covid-19, he was working as the wine director and sommelier at Tocqueville in Union Square. In this $250 Case Challenge, Almedia is choosing a 12-bottle case from New Jersey-based wine superstore Wine Library.

Almeida is passionate about sharing bottles from around the globe — advocating especially for Portuguese wine. When he’s not recommending bottles from his native country, he believes there’s also much to learn from Italian, Spanish, and Georgian wines.

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Bruno Almeida is a Court of Master Sommelier-certified wine professional by day and rock drummer by night

Before and even during Covid, the somm has been extremely active in both NYC’s and Portugal’s wine communities, lecturing in seminars, leading masterclasses, and acting as a wine judge at various competitions. Since the early stages of the pandemic, Almeida has taken his expertise online, hosting several Instagram virtual wine tastings, taking part in live wine talks, and conducting interviews with a diverse roster of winemakers and wine professionals from around the world.

Almeida says he “strongly believes a long table with yummy food and delicious wine helps to express diversity and that should be shared for all.” His wine choices for this $250 case reflect this sentiment, with picks including bottles from Lebanon, Austria, and, yes, Portugal.

1: Anselmo Mendes Magma, 2018 ($26.99)

Anselmo Mendes Magma is one of the best cheap wines at Wine Library

Magma is the result of the work of Portuguese winemakers Anselmo Mendes and Diogo Lopes, along with Nuno Costa at the Adega Cooperativa de Biscoitos. Located on the Terceira Island in the Azores Archipelago — where the rare Curraletas, basaltic stone walled vineyards, are built to protect the vines from the harsh influence of the Atlantic — the roots of these plantings dig through the cracks of hard volcanic rock.

The resulting wines are energetic and unique bottlings based on the Verdelho, Arinto dos Açores, and Terrantez do Pico grape varieties indigenous to the island. The island makes remarkable efforts to maintain its tradition — supporting local winegrowers and their micro plots of stellar Verdelho.

Undergoing fermentation in stainless steel, this very authentic 2018 Magma brims with personality — with citrus and vegetal aromas, vibrant zest, sharp acidity, lingering stony minerality, and a saline powerhouse combined with fresh tropical nuances. Limpets, oysters, and razor clams will be a perfect match.

2: Henri Clerc Bourgogne Aligoté, 2016 ($19.99)

Henri Clerc Bourgogne Aligote is one of the best cheap wines at Wine Library

The Clerc estate dates back to the 16th century. The domaine’s vineyards are centered around Puligny-Montrachet and include three grands crus. After Chardonnay, Aligoté is the second most planted white wine variety in Burgundy. This bottling is sourced from hand-harvested fruit from 70-year-old vines in clay-based soils located in Meursault.

A Bourgogne Aligoté aged for 10 months in used French oak casks, this bottling first catches the eye due to its straw- yellow color with hints of gold. With delicious aromas of white blossom, lemon, and green apple, this wine is remarkably fresh and light — citrusy and peachy, with hints of salinity. Its bright acidity will be wonderfully enhanced by oysters, aged cheeses, shellfish, and light poultry dishes. It is also ideal as an aperitif with friends to kickstart a barbecue.

3: Quinta de Soalheiro Alvarinho, 2019 ($17.99)

Quinta de Soalheiro Alvarinhon is one of the best cheap wines at Wine Library

Quinta de Soalheiro, inspired by the shiny verdant landscapes of the Minho River, is a benchmark of Alvarinho in the Monção e Melgaço subregion. The pioneering eye of João António Cerdeira, with the support of his father António Esteves Ferreira, led to the first Alvarinho plantings. The family-run estate is overseen by siblings António Luís and Maria João Cerdeira, as well as their mother Maria Palmira Cerdeira.

Located in Portugal’s northernmost region — bordered by Galicia, Spain — Alvarinho is king in Monção e Melgaço, with granitic soils and microclimates for ideal ripening. The region is surrounded by mountain ranges protecting vines from the Atlantic Coast influence and blessed with lower rainfall and higher temperatures than the rest of the Vinho Verde-producing region.

Soalheiro’s Alvarinho is intensely aromatic, with jasmine, orange blossom, and exotic fruit. Elegant and persistent, a chalky minerality is marked with a mouthwatering acidity, flavors of grapefruit, passion fruit, guava, lychee, and apricot. Quite rich, nicely structured, and complex, this is a classic expression to be drunk when young. However, this wine shows plenty of bottle longevity and is ideal for a wide range of food, such as ceviche, garlic shrimp, pork belly buns, or grilled chicken.

4: Maison Noir Other People’s Pinot Gris, 2019 ($16.99)

Maison Noir Other People’s Pinot Gris is one of the best cheap wines at Wine Library

From the great vision of legendary NYC sommelier André Hueston Mack, Maison Noir was founded by 2007 in the Willamette Valley, Ore., incorporating a trademark attitude and personal perspective on wine subculture. Unique and distinctive garage wines initially created for some of the New York’s best restaurants for whom Mack worked as a sommelier are now available nationwide.

Influenced by the Cascade Mountain ranges, vines in the Willamette Valley face unique microclimates and a wide variety of soils, ranging from sand to clay, loess to basalt, alluvial sediment to fossil deposit.

Lush, medium-bodied Pinot Gris. Round fruit with balanced acidity, packed with melon and pear aromas, reveals lingering energy, peachy stone fruit, and green apples. Enjoy with shrimp cocktail, fish tacos, sushi, fried calamari, and grilled herbed chicken.

5: Château Musar Jeune Rosé, 2017 ($19.99)

s one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

Young Gaston Hochar founded Chateau Musar in 1930, inspired by Lebanon’s 6,000-year winemaking tradition and returning from his travels in Bordeaux. Engineer Serge Hochar, Gaston’s eldest son, studied oenology in Bordeaux and famously declared to his father, “I want to make the wine my way, I want it to be known worldwide — and I want you to quit!”.

First produced in 2007, this rosé is sourced from vines planted at around 1,000 meters above sea level in the Bekaa Valley. Musar Jeune rosé is made from 85 percent Cinsault and 15 percent Mourvèdre, fermented in cement vats and released unoaked a year after the harvest.

This wine brims with vibrant red fruit. Salmon pink and dry, this is an easygoing but serious rosé that ideally complements seafood dishes like crab sliders, fish tacos, garlic shrimp, and tuna tartare.

6: Schlumberger Brut Sekt, NV ($21.99)

Schlumberger Brut Sekt, NV is one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

The history of Schlumberger began with Robert A. Schlumberger, a talented pioneer who revolutionized sparkling wine production in Austria during the 19th century. Robert spent many years as cellar master and production manager at Maison Ruinart, brought the methode Champenoise to Austria, and soon established the country’s first and most traditional sparkling wine cellar in 1842. In Vienna, Schlumberger became the royal wine of choice.

Produced in Austria, this Sekt is a dedicated selection of Welschriesling, Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc), and Chardonnay. It was matured in the bottle for at least 12 months and followed by manual riddling. Shines with scents of smoke, peach, and green apple. Dry and bright, with vivacious structured acidity and classic, delicate, yeasty notes, this wine is well balanced and full-bodied, finishing with a delicate, creamy brioche note. Handling savory and spicy cuisines, from sushi, to samosas, to falafel, this wine will also pair well with pastries and lightly sweet desserts.

7: Descendientes de Jose Palacios Pétalos, 2018 ($15.75)

Descendientes De Jose Palacios Pétalos, 2018 is one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

Founded in 1998 in northwestern corner of Spain, Descendientes de J. Palacios is a leading producer of Mencia-based wines in the Bierzo region. Sourced from biodynamically farmed 60-year-old vineyards, this wine matures in large barrels for around 10 months and is a pure composition of 95 percent Mencia blended with indigenous white and red varieties.

Pétalos is elegantly packed with violets and smoky aromas, lush with soft tannins, lingering acidity, wild plums. and dark cherries, finishing with a slight black peppery note. Enjoy with anything from grilled beef, to spiced baby lamb chops, to thinly sliced ham.

8: Caves Sao Joao Porta dos Cavaleiros Reserva, 2015 ($17.99)

Caves Sao Joao Porta dos Cavaleiros Reserva, 2015 is one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

Porta dos Cavaleiros is Caves S. João’s hallmark in the Dão region. Using time-honored techniques and indigenous varietals, the Costa family has been a mainstay in Portuguese winemaking for the better part of a century.

Located south of Douro and surrounded by three different mountain ranges, the Dão is blessed with some of the best microclimates in Portugal, with vineyards up to 2,000 feet in elevation producing wines with renowned acidity and minerality.

This is a classic Touriga Nacional expression with its complex violet, bergamot, and red fruit aromas. Beautifully structured and full-bodied, the tannins are silky and tamed, and bracing acidity brims with light balsamic, dried cherries, raspberries, and black currants — followed with elegant nuances of mocha, cinnamon, and warm spices from the oak. This bottle is a great accompaniment to soft cheeses and sausages, venison and lamb, truffles and mushrooms, meat in rich sauces, and baked oily fish.

9: Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino, 2015 ($34.99)

Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino, 2015 is one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

Caparzo dates back to the 1960s and was one of the first wineries to introduce barriques to Tuscany. Since then, it has been known for its high-quality wines and an excellent combination of innovation and tradition. The estate produced its first vintage in 1970 and is one of the very few to grow in various vineyards across Montalcino.

Made with grapes exposed to lots of sunshine, this wine was sourced from vines grown in galestro, a local mixture of rocky, schistous clay soils. This stellar Brunello is aged in oak for two years, followed by at least four months in the bottle before release. It showcases the expression of the terroir and its pure fruit, with a great age potential ahead. Harmoniously full-bodied, dense and rich, cedar and dried herbs on the nose, plumy with hints of chocolate, this is a supple classic Brunello interpretation that will marry well with aged cheeses, mushrooms, marinara sauces, grilled meats, braised game, and pot roasts.

10: Quanta Terra “Terra a Terra” Reserva, 2014 ($21.98)

Quanta Terra “Terra a Terra” Reserva, 2014 is one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

From the Douro power duo Jorge Alves and Celso Pereira, Quanta Terra is a remarkable result of two great minds thinking alike, with deep respect and understanding not only for the region, but for Portugal as a whole. Their resilience is highly regarded, and their work has been awarded with recognition.

The diversity of varietals, along with the terroir of the region, is beautifully showcased with a delicious blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, and Touriga Nacional. This wine was sourced from the very predominant schist soils of the Tua Valley, where different altitudes and exposures are allied with the Upper Corgo’s unique microclimate.

This 2014 Terra a Terra Reserva is aged 16 months in French barrels, a great expression of the Douro’s character and personality, presenting with stellar age potential. Produced in quite a difficult year, this wine is packed with cedar, sandalwood, and allspice aromas, and brims with a powerful fruit quality — from raspberries to black cherries. This is a wine with distinguished complexity and will pair well with everything from aged cheeses, to grilled spiced sausages, to decadent burgers.

11: Mas des Brousses Terrasses du Larzac Rouge, 2017 ($20.96)

Mas Des Brousses Terrasses Du Larzac Rouge, 2017 is one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

Xavier Peyraud and his wife Géraldine Combes together achieved the dream of starting their own estate. The couple soon took the helm of their family vineyards, situated in the hills close to the fertile Herault River valley, just south of Pic Saint-Loup, Languedoc. This pursuit gave birth to Mas des Brousses, where, since 1997, the couple has handled every aspect of viticulture and winemaking.

In addition to the existing vines, the duo planted Mourvèdre from Tempier cuttings, which has become not only a cherished component of this Terasses de Larzac blend, but also an important part of the culture and identity of the appellation.

A blend of 50 percent Mourvèdre, 25 percent Grenache, and 25 percent Syrah, this wine was sourced from 15- to 40-year- old vines on the Terrasses du Larzac above the Puéchabon and Aniane villages. Farmed organically, the fruit is hand- harvested, fermented in tank, and matured for 13 months in 400-liter barrels. This 2017 Terrasses du Larzac kicks off with scents of garrigue, resin, and pine. With its full-bodied, silky textures and flavors of cherries and raspberries, this is a bottle to be savored with Moroccan tagine or rack of lamb.

12: Paulo da Silva Casal da Azenha Tinto, 2015 ($14.98)

Paulo da Silva Casal da Azenha Tinto is one of the best cheap wines a Wine Library

Renowned worldwide for superior quality and remarkable age-worthy wines, this family-run boutique winery is currently overseen by Paulo da Silva and maintains the long-lived tradition of Colares, Portugal. This wine is produced in a tiny Lisbon subregion with resilient vines, surviving with some of the oldest pre-phylloxera plantings in Europe. Despite a great threat of extinction, efforts are paying off, and the region is coming back strong.

Aged for 36 months in used Brazilian oak barrels, this flavorsome blend of mostly Castelão and Tinta Miuda delivers the character of the region. It is accented with the aromas of cigar and wild berries. Easy-drinking and medium-bodied with a smooth, balanced structure, this bottle is a rarity with moderate acidity, yet it carries on the expected saline note from its landscapes. It beautifully welcomes tomato pastas, braised veal, and rotisserie duck.

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