Real Wine, Real Value

How to find Grand Cru taste on a vin-de-table budget.



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Conspicuous consumption is out. Cost-consciousness is in. Spending is, well, different.

After all, should your cost of living make you overhaul your way of living? Do you stop eating meat just because you’re cutting back on filet mignon? And you don’t need head-to-toe designer labels to be fashionably dressed, right?

Acclimating to the current economy is proving to be an exercise in priorities. Fortunately with wine, the top priority—finding those you like—is still paramount. Adjusting how you shop can be fun, because the current market is brimming with discoveries. The trick is to apply your budget to your taste (or vice versa).

What’s the surest way from Point A to Point Z on the road to wine value? Take an open mind to a good store, where the in-house pros know the wines and can give advice based on what you already know you like. Value is never just about price. The key is getting a style of wine you like. If you don’t like Chianti, a good score or a great price isn’t going to change that. But if you already enjoy, say, Zinfandel, a good retailer can turn you on to a Petite Sirah.

The value-hunting tips below come from many years of shopping for wine, as well as some recent real-shelf research at The Grape Exchange in New Rochelle and Mount Kisco Wines & Spirits. The emphasis is on wines to enjoy now, not later. Hey, if you had money to tuck away, wouldn’t you put it in the stock market?

Uncork the unsung.

Some types of wine, for varying reasons, are poised to overdeliver at modest (think $15 and under) price points.

• Southwest France has never had the pedigree of Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, but producers there work with the same palette of grapes and get reliable ripening, resulting in simpler wines that show both good fruit and a touch of terroir. Walden from Côtes du Roussillon is a good example.
• Is Portugal the new Spain? Back when Rioja was ten bucks, Spain was the place for cheap, rustic, food-friendly reds. Today, Spain’s prices have drifted upward while lesser-known but hearty Portuguese wines wear the Iberian table-wine value badge now. Try José Maria da Fonseca Periquita (around $10).
• Chile has developed a luxury tier lately (the $70-ish Clos Apalta was Wine Spectator’s 2008 Wine of the Year), but it remains anchored by straightforward varietal wines priced less than comparable Californians. Montes, Santa Carolina, Veramonte, and Anakena are some reliable labels.
• Argentina, where the economy was foundering long before ours, is sending practically all of its “good stuff” to the U.S., led by crowd-pleasing $10-range Malbecs such as Pascual Toso, Alamos, Yellow+Blue, and Altos Las Hormigas.
• California’s North Coast regions get the glory, but the real values are found in the Central Coast, where many of the Napa/Sonoma-based big boys have, not coincidentally, been gobbling up vineyard land. Of special note: Paso Robles for Cabernet and blends, Monterey for Chardonnay.

Follow the smart guys.

In the process of tasting every wine that reaches The Grape Exchange shelves, proprietor Michael Grossberg particularly has been impressed by what he calls “side projects” of producers whose primary wines are luxury-priced. Examples include the Odfjell and El Felino lines, both Chilean consulting projects overseen by renowned consultant Paul Hobbs, and Joel Gott’s flashy “The Show” Cabernet ($15), sourced from diverse parts of California. Grossberg is also a fan of négociant wines—ones that have been blended by savvy shippers. Chamarré and Hob Nob are two French examples in the $10 range. And Mount Kisco-based import maven Doug Polaner, who also blends and markets domestic wines, has applied his sourcing know-how with great success in Ex Libris, a killer Columbia Valley Cab that tastes twice its $20 tag.