- Wine Tips
Shopping for Value and How to Find It
As a sommelier, I’m often asked how to find delicious, budget friendly wines. This can often be a challenge because most people seek out commercially popular regions like Napa or Bordeaux. They’ve heard of it, are comfortable with it and, when faced with numerous choices, gravitate towards it. I’m here to tell you: this is your first mistake!
A lot of things go into the price tag of a wine and not all of them relate to quality. While, in my opinion, there is a huge difference between $10 and $25 wines, once you get to the higher price points, a lot of $50 wines taste just as great as some $300 wines. Why is this? A lot of different factors go into the cost of a wine. Land in commercial regions like Napa and Bordeaux comes with very high price tag. Vineyards in Napa range anywhere from $350,000 to $1 million per acre; naturally, producers need to charge more for their offerings to reap a profit. These regions are also infamous for using new oak barrels to give their wines that vanilla, baking spice quality popular with consumers. There’s nothing wrong with that style of wine, but when new oak barrels can only be used once and cost up to $2,000, be ready for a higher price tag. It’s not surprising that it’s difficult to find a Napa cabernet sauvignon for anything less than $50- $75! So, how do you shop for great wine at a budget friendly cost?
SEEK OUT LESSER-KNOWN REGIONS:
Ever heard of Chinon? Or Basilicata? Exactly. Regions such as these are where the bargains live. This is because producers can purchase land for a fraction of the price and often obtain second hand, used oak barrels, resulting in lower over-head cost while maintaining quality wine. Chinon, a region in the Loire Valley of France, is often overshadowed by Burgundy and Bordeaux. The wine is made from Cabernet franc and has all the raspberry, cedar, earthy qualities of a good French wine… at a fraction of the cost. Whole Foods, one of my favorite grocery stores for affordable, quality wines, carries Chinon for about $18. Likewise, regions like Bandol and Languedoc in southern France are labels to look for when you want a cost effective Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre instead of the more well-known region of Chateauneuf Du Pape.
Italy, in general, is a top pick of mine for delicious, affordable wines. Over 900 grape varieties are grown there, resulting in a lack of supply and demand that benefits the consumer. Many people have heard of Barolo, a premium wine region in northern Italy’s Piedmont, or Brunello di Montalcino, a celebrated wine region in central Italy’s Tuscany, but those often come with higher price tags. The previously mentioned Basilicata is a region in southern Italy, and home to quality bargain wines made from Aglianico, a deep, black fruited grape with powerful earth and structure. If you want something similar to Barolo, try seeking out the Langhe Hills region instead. It uses the same Nebbiolo grape variety from the Piedmont region but, without that commercial reputation, runs at a bargain. Barbera, a grape variety sometimes thought of as Nebbiolo’s little sister, is another option. I’ve found great Barbera by Cantine Povero for as little as $15. Which leads to my second tip:
SEEK OUT LESSER-KNOWN VARIETIES:
Still hankering for something from California? Try Sonoma’s Pax Vineyard. They grow lesser-known grapes like Valdiguie, which is a light, bright, fruity grape similar to Burgundy’s Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape. Or Napa Valley’s Heitz Cellar’s Grignolino, a berry, earthy gem originally from Piedmont in Italy. Both wines fall comfortably in the $25 dollar price range.
If you want a white Burgundy, try reaching for an Aligote, Burgundy’s lesser known white grape, instead of Chardonnay. Faiveley makes a delightful sipper for around $22. My point is, there are a lot of delicious wines out there that don’t get the credit they deserve. Like a lot of products, you are often paying for the name built by marketing. Just because you haven’t heard of a grape, doesn’t mean it isn’t great.
LOOK FOR SECOND LABELS
If you MUST have that well known region with that well known grape variety, this last tip is for you. The best way to find value is if a winery makes a second label, like most wineries in Bordeaux. For example, Chateau Palmer, a prestigious third growth estate, runs at about $400 a bottle. It’s second label, Alter Ego, can be found for about $65. Chateau Palmer owns great land and employs top farmers, so even though Alter Ego contains the grapes that didn’t make it into their top cuvee, it’s still an above average wine. Most chateaux do this. Mouton Rothschild makes Le Petit Rothschild. Lafite Rothschild makes Carruades de Lafite and so on.
The big hitters in Napa have a similar system. Harlan estate’s proprietary cabernet can run upwards of $900, but their second label, The Maiden, is closer to $350. They even have a third label, The Mascot, that can be purchased for a cool $150.
HAVE FUN TAKING RISKS!
But if it were me, I’d still prefer to grab a Chilean cab for a fraction of the price. You can get Max Errazuriz’s top wine, Don Maximiano Founder’s reserve for $85, much less than Harlan Estate’s cheapest offering. This is because I find it fun and exciting to try wines and grapes from new regions. Sure, there might be some flops, but there are also hidden gems! You’ll also get to brag to all your friend about the new find you discovered.
I understand that it can be intimidating buying something new, but I would encourage you to, nonetheless. The best way to learn is through experience and trial-and-error. And don’t be afraid to ask for help! No one expects you to memorize every grape from every region. That’s the sole reason people like me have a job. When that store clerk asks if you need anything, let him or her guide you.
But most of all have fun! Wine isn’t as serious as it likes to seem. I hope by using these tips you’ll widen your usual repertoire and save some money doing it. Happy hunting!
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