When people ask me where I look to find the best values in wine, I hesitate. I hesitate, because I don't have a pat answer that I can send them on their way armed with the security of a quick phrase, or a snappy all encompassing line. The best starting point of a philosophy is to quote the old time baseball player Wee Willie Keeler;
"You gotta hit 'em where they ain't."
Here are three places to find a deal, and that does not mean just the cheapest wine. That means finding the best value for your dollars:
1) Southwest France
There are quirky little examples throughout the wine world that take a little bit of discovery. For instance, Argentinean wines are exploding in the US marketplace right now. Malbec, the lead red grape of Argentina's popularity, can trace it's history to Southwest France, and specifically in the region of Cahors. Long ago, the wines of Cahors were thought to be on a level equal to the wines of Bordeaux. Vine disease wiped out their plantings, and the resulting re-plants had never been held in the same regard. Centuries later, the popularity of Argentinean Malbec has spurred reinvestment into Cahors, and there are terrific Malbecs re-emerging from Cahors at very fair pricing.
Try: Chateau du Cedre 2005 (Cahors) Aprroximate $15 Retail
Spain, a country whose wines have exploded in popularity in the US, has always been popular in England. The major wine production region of Rioja has been well known and well respected around the world for great wines of comparative value. Rioja, has a lot of influence from the winemakers of Bordeaux, but there are a few major advantages to the wines of Rioja. The ageing laws are as follows: six months in oak barrels, and then an option for six months of additional ageing either in oak barrels or in bottles for a Crianza red wine. The next level, Reserva, requires three years between barrel and bottle ageing, with a minimum of one year in each. Gran Reserva, the top level red Riojas, are aged for two years in barrels, and three years in bottle before being released in the sixth year. So why is it so appealing?
Rioja is the most famous of all regions of Spain, yet in a world market they are still able to produce wines of incredible price/value. Here are a few reasons why:
a) By the time the wines get to the marketplace, they are ready to drink. Unlike Bordeaux, whose finest wines need at least five to ten years to become approachable; the finest of Rioja are already aged. Not only are they aged, but not in uncontrolled warehouses like some sales channels of Bordeaux wines, but at the winery itself, where proper storage conditions are far more likely to be pristine.
b) Clearly not the cheapest wines on the market, some of the top flight Gran Reservas are a relative bargain in comparison to the other great red wines of the world, and they are pre-aged in the cellar and ready to drink. Many of them will benefit further if cellared, but once they are released to the market, they are ready to be consumed.
c) Tempranillo, the majority grape in red Rioja wines, is a crowd pleaser, with a mouth weight somewhere between Pinot Noir, and Merlot. The flavors are bright cherry lip smackers with a little earth and oak.
There is a great investment in very expensive barrels, and time by the Rioja wine industry to hold a wine for six years. Six years without any return on investment. This is after all the wine business, and a commitment to high level of quality at a fraction of the cost of the top Bordeaux, Burgundy, and California wines.
Try: Conde de Valdemar Gran Reserva 1998 (Rioja) Approximate Retail $32 to $35
3) Finding Still Relatively Unknown Wines
Emerging import markets are always the express lane to good value. How do you know them ahead of time? One surefire way is to look at products other consumer markets are using, and look into those wines. England, the home of arguably the finest wine writers in the industry; is a catalyst for emerging trends in the United States, long before they hit the United States.
A great example would be the wines of Greece. Greece, largely ignored by the US population except for areas where there is a large Greek population, is starting to catch a little attention. For at least the last decade, the wine writers of England spoke of the incredible quality, and diversity of Greek regional artisanal modern wines. The US, largely because of difficulties with language, and pronunciation of wines and labels; was slow to follow. High-end Greek restaurants led the way with Greek wine lists, in major metropolitan areas, and the major US wine journalists started to speak very favorably about Greek wine.
So, in recent years there has been an interest in Greek wines that really could be predicted by the popularity in England and the predictable lag before we in the US follow the same trend.
Try: Samos Cooperative Samena N/V (Samos) Approximate Retail $14