With wine as with real estate, value is determined in large measure by location. Much as when buying a house, what you end up paying for a bottle has an awful lot to do with where the grapes were grown.
Some of this is simple economics. Land prices in the world’s most famous wine regions--Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, for example, or the Napa Valley--are very high. To pay the mortgage, vintners have to charge top dollar for their wares.
Of course, not everyone in the Côte d’Or or Napa has a mortgage. But if your neighbor who has one charges (and gets) $100 a bottle, you’d be a fool to ask $10 for your wine, especially if it tastes just as good. As a result, top wines from the most renowned regions are invariably quite expensive.
But not all high quality grape-growing regions are all that famous. Just as every city or town has a neighborhood or two in which the houses cost less but are intrinsically just as attractive as those in fancier districts, the world of fine wine has regions that produce extremely high quality wines for more affordable prices.
Sometimes high quality without a high price tag comes as the result of history, as in instances in which vineyards in a certain area were neglected in the past. In other cases, it’s a matter of fashion, when grapes that grow in one location are simply not as trendy as those cultivated in another. But since fashions shift and history unfolds, some locales may be teetering on the brink of fame. The trick is to find out about them before everyone else does.
Savvy wine drinkers try to do just that. They care about location as much as the shrewdest real estate agent, but they don’t restrict themselves to shopping in only the most coveted neighborhoods.
Here are profiles of four spots that produce superior wines (two specializing in whites, two in reds) but that are not all that well-known, with recommendations of specific wines to try. Each is undervalued for its own reason, and each is well worth exploring.
RUEDA IN NORTHERN SPAIN
Rueda, in the high, landlocked Duero Valley, lies between two more famous wine zones, Ribera del Duero to the east and the newly fashionable Toro to the west. Both of those denominaciónes are home to hearty reds, but Rueda’s most exciting wines come colored white. Best of all, they also come quite cheap.
The main white grapes in Rueda are Viura, Sauvignon Blanc, and Verdejo, with the latter playing the star role in the region’s most exciting wines. Usually light-bodied with little or no wood flavors, these are vibrant, refreshing wines, full of citrus, floral, and mineral flavors. Perfect for spring and summer sipping, they were almost entirely unknown in the United States as recently as ten years ago, but are gaining more and more fans all the time.
As in many emerging wine locales, the improvements in quality here go hand in hand with increased consumer demand. Which came first is a moot point. All that matters is that truly compelling wines hail from Rueda these days. Three that have impressed me recently are: Egeo Verdejo 2011 ($12), Penalosa Verdejo 2011 ($13), and the especially riveting Shaya “Old Vines” Verdejo 2011 ($16).
SAVENNIERES IN FRANCE’S LOIRE VALLEY
If the 19 producers in the tiny appellation of Savennieres grew Chardonnay, their wines would be priced in the stratosphere. As it is, their top wines are as complete and complex as the finest white Burgundies but cost far less. The explanation is that they’re made with Chenin Blanc, a grape nowhere near as fashionable.
Many Chenin Blanc wines are sweet. Unless identified otherwise on the label, these are not. Marked by apple and pear flavors, an almost nutty bouquet, and all sorts of intriguing mineral-tinged undertones, they are fantastic dinner wines--dry, balanced, and wonderfully nuanced.
Chateau D’Epire Cuvée Speciale 2011 ($22) tastes simultaneously rich and refined--a delectable combination. And if you are looking for a real treat, try Domaine des Baumard “Trie Speciale” 2007 ($37). It ages effortlessly and tastes astonishingly subtle, with a wealth of layered aromas and flavors. A bottle of white Burgundy this complex would cost two to three times as much.
THE CRUS OF BEAUJOLAIS
Beaujolais continues to suffer from misconceptions and so tends to come at relatively low prices. At least for many American consumers, it often brings to mind images of cheap, faintly sweet red wine--quaffable surely, but also woefully uninteresting. But this region of rolling hills and granite soils sandwiched between Burgundy to the north and the top of the Rhône Valley to the south is home to many distinctive tasting reds, wines with true individuality and character. The best come from ten villages or crus, which are identified as such on their labels. These are: St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Régnié, Morgon, Côte de Brouilly, and Brouilly.
More important than the specific locales is the bouquet and flavor of these wines. Made with Gamay grapes, the best are light to medium-bodied, with vivid cherry fruit flavors and multiple layers of savory spice. Significantly cheaper than red wines from both north and south, they are wonderfully fragrant and evocative.
Wines from the various Beaujolais crus can range from lithe and lively to deep and brooding. For delicious examples of the first style, try Château de Basty Régnié 2009 ($15) or Château de la Chaize Brouilly 2009 ($20).
As for the second style, try the consistently stunning Domaine Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2010 ($25), which has the added advantage of being able to age gracefully with five to even ten years of cellaring.
MORELLINO DI SCANSANO IN TUSCANY
One of the trendiest wine regions in Italy these days is Bolgheri in an area of Tuscany called the Maremma. This is the home of the chicest super-Tuscans, wines like Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Le Macchiole “Paleo Rosso,” all of which sport three figure price tags.
Farther south in the Maremma, near the town of Scansano, the wines cost less and taste (almost) as good. But beware: Money is pouring into the area, with new vineyards being planted by many of the top producers in Italy. Scansano surely is an example of a neighborhood about to become more fashionable.
For now, though, some excellent values come from wines labeled Morellino, that being the local name for Sangiovese. They all contain at least 85 percent of that grape, and like top Chiantis, tend to taste of cherries, with a herbal, sometimes spicy undertone.
Bellamarsilia 2011 ($18) is a good example, as is Suberli 2010 ($17). Both have supple tannins, a long, satisfying finish, and unmistakable Italian flair.