I once met a fairly serious wine enthusiast who took great pride in the fact that he "never" spent more than $20 on a bottle of wine.
I found the comment amusing, for I could remember a time when I paid $20 for a bottle of Chateau Margaux and hardly considered it an exceptional value. Of course, that was some time ago and the vintage was considered mediocre. In earlier times, I spent even less on other first-growth Bordeaux, but that was then and this is now. A $20 bill today might get you a nice wine, but it won't even buy you a sip of Chateau Margaux.
The luxury wines of today can cost $1,000 or more per bottle, so I can easily pay $100 for a bottle of wine and consider it a steal. To qualify at that price, however, the wine must be astounding and be able to stand up to wines that cost much more.
The other sort of value wine is the good everyday wine, which fits within the budget of a normal household and delivers delicious experiences on a consistent basis.
If you love wine with dinner and put a $10-$15 wine on the table with every evening meal, your wine budget for the year would likely exceed $4,000. For some, that's a staggering sum to spend on wine, and it doesn't even take into account the occasional splurge on a luxury wine that might cost $50 or more.
I am, like many wine enthusiasts, caught in the struggle between my desire to taste extraordinary wines and my ability to afford them on anything like a regular basis. Some of my recent tasting notes offer good examples of both.
If you're in the mood for a splurge, it would be difficult to do better than the Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay, the Merry Edwards Pinot Noir or the La Jota Cabernet Franc recommended recently in these pages. The La Jota is especially inviting, even at the hefty price of $75, because it's a unique example of a fabulous wine made from a grape that typically doesn't move the needle when it comes to crowd appeal.
On the other hand, two recent "value" recommendations from Torres – the 2010 Sangre de Toro Rosado 2010 Vina Esmeralda -- are solid wines that should impress even more discriminating palates, and at prices below $15, which are a bit easier to swallow. The lower prices have nothing to do with skimping on quality. In general, Spanish wines are underrated and undervalued, though that is changing. There are certainly numerous Spanish wines that would fit comfortably in the luxury category.
But rose from Spain doesn't get much attention nor do eclectic white blends, such as the Vina Esmeralda combo of Moscatel and Gewurztraminer. So you have a top producer, Miguel Torres, making delicious everyday wines that nearly everyone can afford.
I'm all about value when it comes to wine. But context is important, too.
Five Top ‘Value’ Producers
Concannon Vineyards of Livermore, California, has to be near the top of everyone’s list. Though Concannon has numerous wines in the $20-plus range, it really excels at the $10-$15 level with everything from Chardonnay and Merlot to Petite Sirah, its signature wine. Concannon is able to deliver high quality at lower prices because it sources most of its grapes from the vast Central Coast, where the cost of land is less and thus the price of grapes is lower.
Flora Springs is a Napa Valley winery that delivers exceptional value on the high end. This St. Helena winery produces top-notch Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc at prices that are remarkably modest for one of the valley’s longtime stars. I frequently find the Cabernet for less than $25, and it’s a steal at the price.
Charles Krug is another established Napa Valley property that represents a bang for the buck. I recently recommended the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and gave it a score of 91 points, but what really impressed me was the price of $29. It is very, very difficult to find Napa Cabernet that good for less than $30 a bottle.
Banfi is most famous for its Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s great red wines, but recently it has come on strong with exceptional Chianti Classico at $13 and Chianti Classico Riserva that retails for less than $20. Both wines are delicious, the difference being that the Riserva is a bit more refinded and has the structure to improve with age in the cellar while the Chianti Classico is more of a “drink now” wine.
Cameron Hughes is not a producer in the traditional sense, but a negociant. He cherry picks odd lots of wine from top wineries in classy appellations throughout the world, then bottles it under his own name and sells it at a steep discount. Hughes knows there are excellent batches of fairly exceptional wine that for one reason or another don’t make the cut and aren’t used in the parent winery’s final blend. Those wines are typically sold off and used in much larger blends to improve quality. Hughes produces small lots, instead, thus he is able to deliver Cabernet from Stag’s Leap and Chardonnay from Carneros at a fraction of the price that the wine would sell for under the parent label.