The wine industry insists that the more expensive the wine, the higher the quality. Would that this were true. There are plenty of expensive wines that just aren’t worth the money.
All of which make the consequences of a poor decision that much worse. Pouring an $8 wine down the sink is one thing—dumping a $60 bottle is another.
I’m called the “Wine Curmudgeon” because I hate overpaying, I call it like I see it, and I mostly recommend delicious low-priced wines around $15 or less. But even I will sometimes splurge on a pricey bottle costing three to five times as much…because there are expensive wines that are so good that they are worth the cost. They are wonderful for special occasions, and they make great gifts—and in fact, they are so good that they offer value along with their high price tags.
Here are eight “splurge wines” that I’ve chosen for Bottom Line Personal readers that are well worth their cost, ranging from $40 to $80…
CHARDONNAY AND CHAMPAGNE
With the exception of chardonnay, there is very little white wine worth the money. Here are two of my favorites, plus a toast-worthy champagne…
Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, about $70. This is a white wine from the Burgundy region of France made with chardonnay grapes and called white Burgundy. It is specifically from the area called Puligny-Montrachet. Look for a mix of green apple fruit, spiciness, just the right amount of oak nestled in the background and the region’s trademark minerality. And like all great wines, it will age well for at least 10 or 15 years—perfect for an anniversary or a special birthday.
Chateau Montelena chardonnay, about $50. This California white, made in the Napa Valley, comes from the winery that produced the best chardonnay at the historic 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” when California wines shocked the wine world by beating France’s best (featured in the movie Bottle Shock about the early days of California winemaking). The current version is a worthy successor—impeccable balance between the crisp green apple and pear fruit and the vanilla-tinged oak, as well as richness that belies all the crispness. In addition, the wine has a stony minerality on the finish. This is chardonnay for anyone who wants to taste something that is truly representative of the best of California.
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, about $80. Champagne, the sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, is probably the most overpriced wine in the world. It’s almost impossible to find Champagne worth drinking for less than $40, and even at that price there is no guarantee of quality or value. So when you want Champagne, pay for the Ruinart and enjoy its remarkable crisp and bright pear and lemon fruit, its suggestion of caramel and all those amazing tight and tiny bubbles. This is a wine that you drink and then wonder what happened to the full bottle, since it’s empty before you realize it. It is perfect for toasting any memorable occasion.
Unlike whites, great reds worth a splurge come from many kinds of grapes and even zinfandel…
Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines pinot noir, about $80. The late David Lett, who brought the pinot grape to Oregon, planted this vineyard more than 40 years ago. The red wine it produces, made today by his son Jason, shows why Oregon has become one of the world’s great regions for pinot. It has Oregon’s telltale brambly cherry fruit but also much more—layers and layers of complexity, black pepper interspersed with the fruit, the correct soft pinot noir tannins (the astringent feeling you get in the back of your mouth) and a sense of oak aging—that is, the amount the wine needs so that the oak is part of it but doesn’t take over. This is the kind of wine to buy for someone who loves wine and will appreciate the effort and history that went into it.
Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant, about $45. This red blend from California is made with grapes originally from the Rhône region of France and demonstrates the great skill of winemaker Randall Grahm, who is known for using lesser known grapes such as this to produce high-quality wine. It’s both earthy and refined with a wonderful foresty aroma and dark but not forbidding black fruit. It will age for at least another decade and will get even more intriguing as it does. This is a wine for someone who wants to venture out of the California cabernet sauvignon comfort zone.
Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs, about $40. Dollar for dollar, Ridge may be the best winery in the US. This is doubly impressive given that it makes almost no white wine and most of its reds, such as this one, are made mostly from zinfandel, hardly the wine connoisseur’s grape. But quality will out, and the Lytton Springs shows why—lots of jammy black fruit and sweet oak but with black pepper, more acidity than most flat, flabby zinfandels have and some herbal notes toward the finish. Better yet, there are subtle tannins, something most zinfandels, even at this price, abandoned years ago. Serve this to wine geeks, and watch the wonder in their eyes as they taste it.
John Duval Plexus, about $40. John Duval is a legend in the Australian wine business, someone who made some of the greatest wines in the country’s history when he worked for Penfolds, including the $700 Penfolds Grange. The Plexus, a red blend that includes shiraz, shows his talent and sensibility—it’s powerful yet sophisticated, a rarity for wines from Down Under. Look for lots of berry aromas followed by ripe but not quite jammy blackberry and cherry fruit and then some spice and black pepper. This wine is a steal at this price and is perfect for a special dinner featuring lamb or beef.
Pio Cesare Barbaresco, about $65. This Italian red wine, made with the nebbiolo grape from the Barbaresco region of Italy’s Piedmont, is greater than the sum of its parts—the hallmark of a great wine. Yes, it will age well for as long as 30 years, and yes, the same family has owned the winery since 1882. And yes, all of the things that a great Barbaresco requires are there—the almost-sweet cherry fruit…the black pepper spice and Italian acidity…and the mineral finish that you still can taste a few swallows later.