Conspicuous consumption is out. Cost-consciousness is in. Spending is, well, different.
After all, should your cost of living make you overhaul your way of living? Do you stop eating meat just because you’re cutting back on filet mignon? And you don’t need head-to-toe designer labels to be fashionably dressed, right?
Acclimating to the current economy is proving to be an exercise in priorities. Fortunately with wine, the top priority—finding those you like—is still paramount. Adjusting how you shop can be fun, because the current market is brimming with discoveries. The trick is to apply your budget to your taste (or vice versa).
What’s the surest way from Point A to Point Z on the road to wine value? Take an open mind to a good store, where the in-house pros know the wines and can give advice based on what you already know you like. Value is never just about price. The key is getting a style of wine you like. If you don’t like Chianti, a good score or a great price isn’t going to change that. But if you already enjoy, say, Zinfandel, a good retailer can turn you on to a Petite Sirah.
The value-hunting tips below come from many years of shopping for wine, as well as some recent real-shelf research at The Grape Exchange in New Rochelle and Mount Kisco Wines & Spirits. The emphasis is on wines to enjoy now, not later. Hey, if you had money to tuck away, wouldn’t you put it in the stock market?
Some types of wine, for varying reasons, are poised to overdeliver at modest (think $15 and under) price points.
• Southwest France has never had the pedigree of Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, but producers there work with the same palette of grapes and get reliable ripening, resulting in simpler wines that show both good fruit and a touch of terroir. Walden from Côtes du Roussillon is a good example.
• Is Portugal the new Spain? Back when Rioja was ten bucks, Spain was the place for cheap, rustic, food-friendly reds. Today, Spain’s prices have drifted upward while lesser-known but hearty Portuguese wines wear the Iberian table-wine value badge now. Try José Maria da Fonseca Periquita (around $10).
• Chile has developed a luxury tier lately (the $70-ish Clos Apalta was Wine Spectator’s 2008 Wine of the Year), but it remains anchored by straightforward varietal wines priced less than comparable Californians. Montes, Santa Carolina, Veramonte, and Anakena are some reliable labels.
• Argentina, where the economy was foundering long before ours, is sending practically all of its “good stuff” to the U.S., led by crowd-pleasing $10-range Malbecs such as Pascual Toso, Alamos, Yellow+Blue, and Altos Las Hormigas.
• California’s North Coast regions get the glory, but the real values are found in the Central Coast, where many of the Napa/Sonoma-based big boys have, not coincidentally, been gobbling up vineyard land. Of special note: Paso Robles for Cabernet and blends, Monterey for Chardonnay.
In the process of tasting every wine that reaches The Grape Exchange shelves, proprietor Michael Grossberg particularly has been impressed by what he calls “side projects” of producers whose primary wines are luxury-priced. Examples include the Odfjell and El Felino lines, both Chilean consulting projects overseen by renowned consultant Paul Hobbs, and Joel Gott’s flashy “The Show” Cabernet ($15), sourced from diverse parts of California. Grossberg is also a fan of négociant wines—ones that have been blended by savvy shippers. Chamarré and Hob Nob are two French examples in the $10 range. And Mount Kisco-based import maven Doug Polaner, who also blends and markets domestic wines, has applied his sourcing know-how with great success in Ex Libris, a killer Columbia Valley Cab that tastes twice its $20 tag.
At Mount Kisco Wines & Spirits, Brian Hourican works the floor and admits that customers have become more sticker-sensitive in recent months. However, he believes people are cutting back more on the price per bottle than on their overall bottle count. He encourages “trading down,” as there essentially are multiple opportunities to get more bang for your buck. Serious Italian red lovers, for example, can buy a lush, concentrated under-$20 ripasso like Masi’s Campofiorin that compares in style to $50 Amarones—and you can enjoy it right away, without cellaring. If you love big, strapping New World reds, tap the recent wave of “high-end” Argentine blends; a six-pack of these young intense reds costs less than a single bottle of Napa Valley’s Dominus. You can even find Pinot Noir for less than one might think: Hourican points to Wyatt, Mark West, and Fleur de Carneros, all bright, fruity, and balanced for under $20.
Wine-wise, Australia is one big mass of irony: amid years of serious drought, there is nonetheless a glut of wine. There should be plenty of excellent Shiraz-based wines (for example, Marquis Philips, Red Dust, and Penfolds’ Koonunga Hill) still reaching our shores at prices in the low teens.
In great years, stay humble. Vintage variation, while not nearly as severe as it was a couple of decades ago, is still a factor, especially in Europe. Play it smart: when a region has a phenomenal year and critics shout it loud and wide, the blue-chip labels are subject to sticker shock. Instead, dip into the basic wine of the region. Straight 2005 Bordeaux is a fine recent example. Next one to jump on is the 2007 Rhônes. A simple Côtes du Rhône, such as Delas or Jaboulet, will hit the high notes for fewer francs than the trophy wines of the Rhône Valley’s more exclusive Châteuneuf-du-Pape.
Unfinished bottle? Don’t waste it. A Vacu Vin pump removes air from the stoppered bottle, helping preserve it. And whether or not you use any preservation device, store the opened bottle in the fridge; cold inhibits oxidation, the chemical process by which wine loses its zip.
If you really want to stretch your wine, consider three-liter “bag-in-box” containers. Don’t laugh. Not only are they more economical and environmentally copacetic than cork-finished 750 ml bottles, their serving valves let no air in, so the wine stays fresh for weeks. Boxes are now designed to fit neatly in your fridge door, and they are perfect for homes where the drinkers don’t always want the same wine. You’ll find premium juice in boxes of Killer Juice, Hardys “Stamp,” Black Box, and Boho Vineyards, proportionately about two-thirds the price of comparable wine in standard glass packaging.
Katonah-based W. R. Tish is a “recovering” wine critic who now develops wine seminars, tastings, and events through his website, wineforall.com.