Many of the world’s great wines are too expensive for most of us. Truly great wines are so expensive that they’re traded on their own stock exchange, called Liv-Ex. How about $5,400 for a bottle of the 2006 Château Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux in France?
Even if you’re forking over “only” $50 or $100, you’re likely paying a premium for publicity. Everyone knows about cabernet sauvignon from California’s Napa Valley or bubbly from the Champagne region of France. It’s the law of supply and demand. These regions produce a limited amount of wine, and so many people know about them that prices gravitate higher even before things such as quality and production costs come into play.
Great news: For those of us with more modest budgets, there’s a way to buy cheap wines that share many delicious qualities with the great stuff—look for wines made in the same style but from less expensive parts of the world.
These cheaper wines—usually $15 or less—won’t taste exactly like their $100 counterparts. But they’re not supposed to. Rather, they’re well-made in their own right, reflecting the part of the world they’re from, a quality that wine geeks call terroir. And they are true to the essential characteristics of that particular grape, called varietal correctness. To my way of thinking, terroir and varietal correctness make the difference between grocery store plonk and quality cheap wine.
Tip: If a wine comes from a region of the world you’ve never heard of, you’re on the right track. Of course, not all wines from obscure regions are good. You’ll need to discover a few regions—and specific wines—that reliably deliver affordable quality for the kinds of wines that you like best.
So instead of expensive wines from overpriced regions, try these six lesser known wines to get you started. They all are inexpensive, and each reflects its terroir and its grape varietal beautifully.
Typical expensive wine: Bouchard Pere & Fils Gevrey-Chambertin, $60.
Our choice: Natura Pinot Noir, $10.
It’s almost impossible to find quality red Burgundy—which has to come from the Burgundy region of France and be made with the pinot noir grape—for less than $50 a bottle.
Hence the Natura from Chile. Many Chilean wines offer tremendous value, and Natura goes one step further. It has the classic berry aromas of pinot noir plus a little spice, and more dark berry flavors become apparent as you drink it. This is a soft but not a simple wine. Yes, it’s not as layered or as sophisticated as the Bouchard, and it doesn’t have the latter’s earthy, almost mushroomy flavor. But it’s well-made and tastes like pinot noir, something uncommon at this price.
Typical expensive wine: Château Prieuré-Lichine, $60.
Our choice: Armas de Guerra Tinto Mencia, $10.
The Château Prieuré-Lichine is a legendary red blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot from France’s Bordeaux region with a history dating back to the mid-19th century. In other words, an expensive wine for a long time!
The Armas de Guerra Tinto, on the other hand, is made with the obscure mencia grape in Spain’s even more obscure Bierzo area. The result, though, is a surprisingly similar wine—sort of savory and fresh with black fruit, and it smells of green herbs and a little black pepper. In this, it almost tastes more French than it does Spanish, which is as much appreciated as it is unusual.
Typical expensive wine: Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Chablis Grand Cru, $100.
Our choice: Louis Latour Mâcon-Villages Chameroy, $13.
White Burgundy is chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France, and although it’s not quite as expensive as red Burgundy or red Bordeaux, it’s pricey enough. The $100 Moreau is a stunning wine, full of the minerality (a stony taste) and lemony citrus fruit that is typical of Chablis, a subregion of Burgundy.
The $13 Chameroy, oddly enough, also comes from Burgundy, but from a much less famous subregion, the Mâcon. Mâcon white wines usually are outstanding values—and the Latour Chameroy is one of the best. It has floral and honey aromas, ripe pear fruit and minerality on the finish. In this, it’s softer and not as structured as the Moreau, but that it comes anywhere close is something every wine drinker should appreciate.
Typical expensive wine: Bruno Paillard Brut Première Cuvée, $50.
Our choice: Bodegas Pinord Dibón Brut Reserve, $11.
Champagne is sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, and nothing else in the world can legally use that name. That translates into some of the highest wine prices in the world, and the Paillard—made in the classic style, with crisp citrus and green apple fruit and a hint of caramel in the back—is practically an entry-level product for $50.
Fortunately, we have cava, the sparkling wine made in Spain that uses the same production techniques as Champagne. So why the difference in price? Again, less respect for the region but also different and less known grapes—but as the Dibón demonstrates, this top-quality wine has layers of flavor and is made more in the style of Champagne than typical cava—creamy and caramel-like with candied pineapple in back and just a little tart apple. Plus, it has lots of the wonderfully tight bubbles that are the hallmark of well-made sparkling wine.
Typical expensive wine: Marchesi Antinori Solaia, $300.
Our choice: Monte Antico, $10.
Despite the name, a “super Tuscan” isn’t necessarily a super wine—it’s just the Italian wine industry’s term for a red blend typically made with sangiovese grapes in Tuscany that doesn’t follow Italy’s traditional rules for grapes allowed in making red wine in Tuscany.
Antinori made the first super Tuscan in 1971 and even today may do it better than anyone. The Solaia is a super wine and everything a super Tuscan is supposed to be—velvety, fresh and with full, already developed red fruit.
Then again, hardly anyone can afford it. That’s where the Monte Antico comes in. It’s also a super Tuscan. The difference is the grape quality, and the good news is that lesser quality doesn’t mean poor quality. The Antico has rich and ripe cherry fruit and more traditional Italian earthiness. The latter gives the wine heft that too many Italian wines, desperate to please a focus group, don’t have. And the fruit, which isn’t overdone, is a counterpoint for the earthiness. It’s a terrific value.
NAPA VALLEY CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Typical expensive wine: Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, $80.
Our choice: Silver Totem Cabernet Sauvignon, $15.
The Wagner family has built an empire out of their Caymus wines and its flagship cabernet. It’s the very definition of the current Napa style—soft and luxurious, almost too-ripe black fruit and so much oak aging that the wine tastes almost chocolatey.
The Silver Totem, from Washington State, shares the Caymus style. Everything is where it is supposed to be—some heft and tannins (acids that provide that characteristic astringent taste in the back of your mouth)…rich, dark fruit…enough acidity so that the wine is more than just smooth. I was surprised, at this price, that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Similarly priced American cabernets can taste sweet and syrupy and sometimes not even much like cabernet. This one is a standout.