Good juice can break the bank, we know. As the demand for major players like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne and Napa Cabernet rise, the prices become all the more untouchable. Add to this issues like frost (2017 in France was hit hard)- the small crop only adds to the issue of supply and demand. So does this mean that we are committed to half-ass’ed Pinot Noirs? To a life of two-buck Chuck? God, no! You can in fact be fabulous and deeply enjoy every glass of wine on any budget. There are still great values to be had, if you know where to look. I’ve put together a list of some great alternatives to the Big Names that demand Big Bucks. As always, producer and vintage can make a difference. I suggest speaking to your local wine specialist at a boutique retail shop, rather than digging through the shelves at your local grocery store, which tend to carry bigger brands with inflated prices.
BURGUNDY -> BEAUJOLAIS
Burgundy is one of the most important regions in the world- one that influences many winemakers even in more modern regions, such as Casablanca in Chile or Sonoma Coast in California. They manage to create alluring, elegant and aromatic wines with only two grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Most people turn to the Côte d’Or for Burgundy, but there are some seriously delicious wines being made further south in Beaujolais. Most turn a blind eye here, associating Beaujolais to the simple, fruity Nouveau enjoyed with Thanksgiving dinner. However, Beaujolais wine, made from the Gamay grape, takes on a more serious tone when labeled with one of the 10 crus: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié and Côte de Brouilly. These, along with some select producers who bottle under “Beaujolais-Villages,” produce red-fruited and forest-floor scented reds that can often compete with the headiness of a red Burgundy.
Savings: Appx $40-150, depending on the status of the Red Burgundy
Clos de la Roilette Beaujolais 2015 from Fleurie. Cru Beaujolais can be more reliable, but great values are to be had with Beaujolais-Villages, as well!
CONDRIEU->CÔTES DE RHÔNES BLANC
Once to the point of extinction but facing a fashionable resurrection, Condrieu is a tiny region in the Rhône Valley that makes lush, sexy whites with the hard-to-grow Viognier grape. Due to its limited area and granite soils, Condrieu can fetch prices upwards of $100 retail. Unfortunately, this means so many consumers miss out on the allure of the Viognier grape. While there are some great California Viognier producers, I find the most comparable wines are whites from other are parts of the Rhône Valley, preferably when made with the same grape. Without the pricy Condrieu tag, these wines are usually labeled “Côtes du Rhône” or perhaps with a larger village, such as St. Joseph. You may also find a blend of Marsanne/Roussanne, which are less aromatically intense than Viognier, but still carry an oily, luxurious texture.
Savings: Appx. $70!
My favorite Condrieu alternative! Pierre Gaillard ‘Les Gendrines’ Côtes du Rhône blanc 2014. This bottling is made with grapes sources from vineyards that touch Condrieu, but are not technically within the appellation. Drinks expensive but you’d never guess from the price tag!
Let me preface this next bit by saying that nothing replaces Champagne when it is well made. Champagne comes from the Champagne region in France, with its special chalk soils and cool climate. However, I’d rather have a higher end bottle of sparkling wine for $25 than a mediocre Champagne for $35 (FYI Delamotte and Gaston Chiquet are both fabulous for $35). One thing that makes Champagne special is the “traditional method.” This is the process that forms the fine bubbles naturally through a second fermentation in the bottle. Many quality producers from around the world use this, including some caring California producers (please do not replace Champagne with André), as well as Franciacorta from Italy and Cava in Spain. A great Cava can have much of the dry, brioche-y character that we love from Champagne. The grapes are usually different- Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada-but some also use Chardonnay, which is one of the most important grapes in Champagne. Go for quality here- the difference of $5 can go a long way whilst avoiding over-produced, watered down convince store cava.
Savings: Appx $30
Bad bubbles can kill the vibe, but you have no reason to fear that with this Naveran Cava. Made with 100% Chardonnay, this more delicate, yeasty style overdelivers well beyond the $25 price point.
Bordeaux has been one of the most sought-after wines in the world. It is bold, yet elegant and distinctly earthy. Like Champagne, skip the mass-produced basic AOC Cabernet-water (there are, as always, exceptions to this rule) and look instead for Tempranillo-based reds from Rioja. It still amazes me that prices have not yet caught up with Spain’s premiere red wine region- one of the few regions left that continues to practice aging their wine extensively before release. What does this mean for you? You can buy an expressive, 15-year-old red wine for around $30! Rioja barrows much of its practices from Bordeaux, an exchange that started when many of France’s vines were being massacred by the root louse, phylloxera. Bordeaux producers took a hop, skip and a jump over to North-Eastern Spain, carrying their knowledge of oak-aging and blending with them. Eventually phylloxera hit Rioja as well, but the practices and style remain consistent to this day. Tempranillo here is often blended with mostly-Spanish varietals and aged in American Oak. These wines are earthy, like Bordeaux, but with more oxidative notes-leather, tobacco, soy sauce and muted black fruits. Top marks for value here!
Savings: Appx $45
Bodega Lopez Heredia, one of the founding fathers of Rioja in the late 1800s still makes wine today. These wines are incredibly earthy and herbal, with aromas sun-scorched soil, plum and tobacco. This single vineyard 2008 is only $27!
NAPA -> PASO ROBLES
It is no secret that Northern California rent prices can give you a run for your money. Wineries pay mortgage too. New French oak is also pretty damn pricey. This, along with the demand for Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignon leads to increasingly high prices. Napa’s intensity is rarely matched, but most of us aren’t looking for that intensity and concentration for everyday drinking. Lucky for us, California is indeed the Golden state, which means there is no shortage of bright, ripe fruit throughout the state. For everyday Cabernet, sacrifice a little less oak and power for pretty, bright Cabs from Western Paso Robles. The dry climate still allows for purity of flavor. The area is still growing, transitioning past the reputation of mass-produced, overly alcoholic juice. You will be very happy with the right winery for around $20. I suggest Brea!
Savings: Appx $35
What will you do with your new savings? Please, share this and continue to be curious about the Underdogs of the Wine World! There are caring and passionate winemakers everywhere that are determined to make the best of what their region can offer. Life is too short to drink bad wine! -AT