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Collectibles Even I Can Afford
By Robert Whitley
Feb 22, 2012
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It isn't enough for me to merely understand how I got to this place where my home is stuffed with bottles of wine in every available empty space. In recent years, I've had to come to grips with the reality that I can no longer afford to buy the wines I once loved, the wines that by and large set me on the path to collecting fine wine as a hobby.

The status-conscious Asian wine market and the ever-speculative auction market have driven the price of classic Bordeaux and Burgundy to such extremes that I can't imagine they are any more than trophy wines at this moment in time, wines to be admired as fine art and very rarely drunk. Who really opens a $2,000 bottle of Lafite Rothschild?

None of this has slowed me down. Every year, I add hundreds of wines to the collection, replacing not only the wines I've consumed but also the wines I've donated to various charitable causes. Keeping the racks filled is an ongoing task, and I have learned with each passing vintage that there is plenty of amazing wine in the pipeline that is both cellar-worthy and affordable.

My definition of affordable for "collectible" red wine is less than $100 a bottle, and far less if I can manage it. I still buy Bordeaux and Burgundy, but I look for great wines from those regions that haven't yet caught fire on the auction circuit or with the Asian money crowd. And I also find spectacular collectible reds in Italy, Spain and California.

I could go on and on and recommend dozens of affordable reds worthy of your cellar, but let's begin with this mixed case of some personal favorites of mine that I've purchased over the years:

Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe ($80 plus) —Stephan von Neipperg has done a remarkable job since assuming the reins from his father in 1985; not that the chateau was in disarray by any means. In recent years, I've tasted vintages as far back as 1953 that were in impeccable condition. The typical cepages at this estate is about 50 percent merlot, 45 percent cabernet franc and the remainder a bit of cabernet sauvignon. This is a right-bank Bordeaux with serious backbone and the ability to improve in the cellar over several decades. I would seek out older vintages, because in most cases they are less expensive than the "star" recent vintages of 2005 and 2009.

Chateau Prieure-Lichine, Margaux ($50 plus) — This famous estate is the legacy of the late wine authority Alexis Lichine, who turned it around and put it on the map after purchasing the property in 1951. It has changed ownership since the death of Lichine in 1989, but Lichine's quest for excellence has been maintained, and recent vintages have been stellar. It is a fourth growth and well priced given the level of quality.

Chateau St. Jean 'Cinq Cepages,' Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley ($70 plus) — The price has doubled since this wine topped the Wine Spectator's Top 100 list several vintages back, but my only comment on that would be that the wine was severely undervalued prior to attaining the lofty accolade. Though the name suggests this is a blend that draws upon the five primary Bordeaux grape varieties — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and Malbec — it is always cabernet sauvignon dominant, and says so on the label. This is a superb California cab, and it is consistently superb.

Corton Grand Cru, Burgundy ($50 plus) — So you don't think you can afford to stock grand cru Burgundy in your cellar? Think again. Corton, situated in the Cotes de Beaune near the village of Aloxe-Corton, is the largest grand cru vineyard in all of Burgundy, with more than 100 producers making wine from the 200-plus-acre parcel. I have a bunch of the 2004 Louis Latour in my cellar now, and it is beautiful at this stage of evolution.

Feudi di San Gregorio 'Serpico," Irpinia IGT, Campania, Italy ($50 plus) — This 100 percent aglianico is one of the great red wines of southern Italy. In good vintages, it is stunning: beautifully structured, well balanced, and laced with fruit and mineral complexity. The 2000 vintage is superb at the moment. The 1996 is a beauty, as well. It isn't easy to find this wine in the U.S., though the importer, Palm Bay, is among the nation's most prominent purveyors of Italian wine. Most of the Serpico in my cellar was sourced in Enotecas in Italy and found its way to these shores in my suitcase.

Flora Springs Trilogy, Napa Valley ($40 plus) — I've been stocking this wine in my cellar for more than 20 years and have nothing but good things to say about the evolution of the older vintages. What amazes me, however, is the price. Other Napa Valley "meritage" blends have gone over the moon in price, but Trilogy recently saw a price reduction from $60 suggested retail to $50 (meaning with case discounts and such, you can get the price into the $40 range). Flora Springs owner John Komes told me recently the price reduction made Trilogy the hot ticket for Flora Springs, and that it is now the winery's top-selling wine. There is no better value in collectible red wine in the Napa Valley. Period.

Grgich-Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($50) — That's it, just the basic Napa Valley cab from Grgich. This venerable winery does make a more expensive red, but the "regular" Napa Valley cab has an impressive track record, and it's relatively affordable as Napa cabs go. I am still finding the Grgich cabs from the 1990s in excellent condition, and yes, they're better now than ever. So much for the notion that California cabs won't age.

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($70 plus) — Choosing only one Brunello was very difficult, and in practice Brunello is one of my favorite collectibles. I have a fair amount of Banfi, Biondi-Santi (far too expensive for this list) and Col d'Orcia Brunellos, just to name a few, but the Il Poggione Riservas have consistently been among the most profound Brunellos I've tasted and, considering the quality, among the most fairly priced.

Joseph Drouhin Premier Cru Clos des Mouches, Burgundy ($70 plus) — The Drouhin family owns the largest parcel of this famed vineyard in the Cotes de Beaune, easily one of the top premier cru vineyards in the region. Though not inexpensive, it's a steal at the price for a red Burgundy that can easily age for 20 years or more.

R. Lopez Heredia 'Vina Tondonia' Rioja Reserva, Spain ($40 plus) — Lopez Heredia, located in the Rioja alta village of Haro, is one of the oldest wine houses in Rioja and remains very traditional despite being surrounded by producers that have gone "modern." While the new generation of Rioja wines is quite compelling and winning converts every day, there is no getting around the fact that Vina Tondonia is truly one of the great red wines of Spain and capable of improving over 30 to 50 years in a temperature-controlled cellar. Given the amazing quality in the bottle, it's dirt cheap, too.

Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Oro, Tuscany, Italy ($40 plus) — Make sure you pick up the Riserva "Oro" with the gold label rather than the Riserva with the tan label at nearly half the price. They are both good wines, but the Oro is probably the greatest Chianti of them all and possesses a remarkable capacity to age. As recently as a few years ago, I was enjoying the 1957 vintage, and it was still in good shape. I like to purchase this wine in magnums when I can find them.

Vietti Barolo Castiglione, Piedmont, Italy ($40 plus) — If there is a better value in Barolo, I haven't yet come across it. From the Castiglione Falletto zone of the Barolo district, the price on this wine constantly amazes me. It's at least one-third less than comparable Barolo, and consistently outstanding, as all of the Vietti wines are. Though the wines of Barolo have changed over the years and are less tannic and astringent when young, they nevertheless possess tremendous potential to age, and are among the world's finest reds for food.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.