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Where the Values Are
By Paul Lukacs
Dec 29, 2015
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Value in wine is a two-headed coin.  One is economic, the other aesthetic.  Each depicts something different, and each sometimes seems to be at odds with the other.  Economic value is set by the marketplace.  A wine is worth whatever people will pay for it, as the example of first growth Bordeaux amply illustrates these days.  By contrast, aesthetic value is determined by taste--individual taste to be sure, but more to the point, collective taste, what wine drinkers as a whole understand defines quality.

Though they often disagree about whether one wine is better than another, most reputable critics agree about the qualities any wine should exhibit in order to be considered first-rate.  I think of these as the magic five:  Balance, complexity, depth, length, and typicity.  Balance means that no single element (for example, acidity or tannin) overwhelms the others.  Complexity refers to a wine’s multiplicity of aromas and flavors, depth to a sense of substance and presence when the wine is in your mouth, and length to the sensory impression left on your palate after you have swallowed it.  Finally, typicity means that the wine tastes as it should taste, and hence is true to its origins--geographical, but also varietal, historical, even visionary origins.  A wine that exhibits these five qualities is aesthetically valuable, no matter its price tag.

There are always some economically valuable wines that lack much aesthetic value.  Wineries sometimes rest on laurels earned years ago, and some reputations prove slow to change.  These, however, are relatively rare and, to be honest, not particularly interesting.  By contrast, wines with aesthetic value but not all that much economic value can be extremely exciting.  Buying them won’t bust your budget, but drinking them will bring you a great deal of pleasure.

Good wine shops and restaurant lists certainly can feature individual bottles with great aesthetic value.  But for savvy consumers, even more exiting is discovering regions, or grape varieties within regions, that provide it.  These may be places with wines that have fallen out of fashion, or that are just debuting on the international stage, but regardless of the reason, they are where some the world’s best wine values can be found.  To illustrate the point, here are four grapes and regions that have me especially excited these days.  The wines made from and in them do not have the most economic value, but they are overflowing with what ultimately is more important--value that brings true pleasure and satisfaction.

Sylvaner from Alsace

Sylvaner once was considered one of the great Alsatian grape varieties, capable of yielding white wines with both substance and lift, or weight and lightness all at once.  But legislation in 1962 designated only four varieties as sufficiently “noble” to qualify for grand cru status (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Riesling).  As a result, a good deal of Sylvaner was ripped out, the vineyard sites planted to these more profitable grapes. 

Some stubborn producers held onto their plots of Sylvaner, while others started new vineyards in promising but less prestigious sites.  The result today, over fifty years later, is a bevy of old vine vineyards filled with vines that produce small yields but richly concentrated fruit.

When made dry, these wines tend to taste apple-crisp, with smoky undertones, and an aromatic hint of earth.  They almost always exhibit especially impressive length.  A few producers make late harvest versions, which taste wondrously complex but are hard to find outside the region.

Producers of note include Albert Boxler, Leon Beyer, Muré, Ostertag, and Domaine Weinbach.  Two that merit special mention are Dirler-Cadé, who makes a Sylvaner from old vines in the Kessler grand cru, and Albert Seltz, who specializes in the variety, and owns a plot of vines in the Zoltzenberg grand cru.

Verdicchio from Italy

The most flavorful white grape from Italy’s Marche region, Verdicchio also is cultivated farther north--near Verona and on the southern shores of Lake Garda in Lombardy.  In typical Italian fashion, it goes by another name there, Trebbiano, though it has nothing in common with the more ubiquitous and almost always innocuous central Italian variety of that name.  Instead, Trebbiano di Soave and Trebbiano di Lugana can yield beautifully nuanced wines, just as Verdicchio does in the Marche.

These wines taste of citrus and nuts, and are marked by subtlety rather than flamboyance.  In the Veneto, it usually (and I think sadly) is used as a blending grape, with only a few producers making a 100% varietal version.  One that stands out is Suavia, whose “Massifitti” can be stunning.  In Lombardy, Cà Maiol makes a quite well respected rendition.  The producer that most impresses me, however, is Perla del Garda, whose wines I discovered when in Italy this past summer.  Perla del Garda makes interesting sparkling wine, but even more compelling still wines.  Three are made with Trebbiano di Lugana (or Verdicchio), with the Madre Perla being the most exciting.

In the Marche, where the nomenclature proves much simpler, there are many more wines to choose from.  The best are in two zones--CastellI dei Jesi, near the Adriatic Sea, and di Matelica, on the hillsides farther inland.  Wines from the later tend to be a bit weightier and richer, but both regions produce wines with the same basic varietal profile.  Producers whose wines I have enjoyed over the years include Bucci, Andrea Felici and Umani Ronchi (from Jesi), and Bellisario and Colle Stefano (from Matelica).

Cabernet Franc from the Loire

Franc is the other Cabernet, overshadowed by Sauvignon, nowhere near as adaptable to different growing conditions and locales.  On Bordeaux’s right bank, particularly in St. Emilion and Pomerol, it frequently is blended with Merlot, and produces wines of sultry sophistication married to unabashed power.  These wines certainly taste distinguished (as do Tuscan reds made in a Bordeaux style), but they do not express the complete varietal character of the grape.  For that, you need to look farther north, to the cool, Atlantic-influenced vineyards of the Loire Valley, specifically Bourgueil, Chinon, and Samur-Champigny.

These appellations produce lighter, fresher-tasting reds.  At their best, they display a seductive perfume reminiscent of red fruits, spring flowers, and an echo of warm stone after a summer rain.  They have notable acidity, so taste lively rather than ponderous.  They do carry leady, green undertones that people accustomed to heavy, jammy reds may find off-putting, but to my palate that characteristic constitutes one of their great charms as it contributes nuance and complexity to the whole.

Wines from Chinon tend to be a bit richer than the others, but stylistic differences between vintners is probably more notable than those between appellations.  Top producers include Bernard Baudry, Couly-Dutheil, Charles Joguet, Domaine de las Noblaie and Château de Villeneuve--though, especially when in France, I have enjoyed many bottles from excellent producers whose labels I have not seen here in America.

Syrah from St.-Joseph

Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are the unquestioned stars of the northern Rhône, producing 100% Syrah reds that are known the world over.  By contrast, the appellation of St.-Joseph has never been recognized as a source of high quality wines.  They instead have long been workhorses, getting the job done but rarely standing out from the crowd.

All that is changing, and changing fast.  No less an authority than Phillipe Guigal of the famed house of E. Guigal says that St-Joseph is “the rising appellation” of the region.  One has to be careful, though.  St-Joseph is a relatively large region, both in length heading down the river and in width, heading away from it.  The best sites are on steep granite hillsides rising up from the Rhône, jagged granite terraces filled with crags and rocky outcroppings.  Farming vineyards on these steep slopes can be quite a challenge, and the best vineyards are terraced, with stone walls preventing the dirt (and vines) from sliding down into the river.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know from a label whether the wine in any particular bottle comes from one of these sites or far farther inland, where the soil is less rocky, the land flatter, and the wines more generic.  Many of the finest St-Josephs do carry vineyard names, but the best strategy is to search out producers with strong reputations for quality.  These include Chapoutier, Jean-Louis Chave, Delas, La Ferme des Sept Lunes and of course Guigal.