Secret wines: How to ferret out good value
For a good deal, look beyond the grape that's well-known, well-marketed, higher-priced
In wine, if you're looking for the deal, you've got to look beyond the well-known, the well-marketed and the, well, higher-priced. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
By and large, though, most of the wine that we buy is made from fewer than a dozen of those. For whites: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. For reds: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and a few others.
The main reasons for that may be comfort and security, but the upshot is also greater expense. Wines from those dozen generally are more expensive than wines from the other several thousand.
We also buy most of our wine from our own country. Not to lower the flag down the pole, but an enormous amount of super wine also arrives from unfamiliar lands. Much of it comes at a great price.
In wine, if you're looking for the deal, you've got to look beyond the well-known, the well-marketed and the, well, higher-priced. Here are some tricks that I've used to ferret out good value in under-the-radar "secret wines."
If the name of the wine is difficult to pronounce, chances are the price is right. When I was a kid, I always looked for a red Burgundy called Pernand-Vergelesses, a small village with some killer (and more easily pronounced) next-door neighbors such as Corton and Nuits-St. Georges.
Americans will mangle pronunciation for wines that they simply must have ("Polly Foosay" for Pouilly-Fuisse), but they'll put up crossed fingers at unfamiliar wines spelled with more consonants than vowels.
Here's your opening. Such wines, low in demand but stellar in quality, often sell below other wines from the same regions or countries, often made with the same grapes by the same winemakers, but with more recognizable names.
2010 Zantho Blaufrankisch Burgenland Austria: "Learn" blaufrankisch, potentially Austria's greatest red grape, now peaking across the country's winemaking; this version, a good example: herb-y and smoky notes accent dark fruit aromas and tastes, with a chalky, round-the-mouth tannin that closes off the juice. $15
2010 Herri Mina Rouge Irouleguy France: From the hands of Chateau Petrus' longtime winemaker, now retired and returned to his native Pyrenees, this all-cabernet franc is a remarkable combination of plush dark fruit, richly rendered waves of tobacco, cocoa, dried herbs and minerals, and muscular tannins. $35
2011 Darcie Kent Gruner Veltliner Rava's Blackjack Vineyard Monterey California: Not only wouldn't you expect to find this grape in California, but you'd also never suspect that it could mirror so perfectly its displaced sib from Austria; blindfolded, you'd never know; white fruits, citrus edge, white pepper finish; pinpoint acidity. $15
Other mouthfuls: the grapes agiorgitiko, trincadeira, falanghina, zweigelt, savagnin, loureiro; the places Txakoli, Bourgueil, Rully, Vacqueyras, Naoussa, Tokaji Aszu, Bairrada
Travel away from the familiar. Good grapes grow and talented winemakers practice all over the globe, not merely in, say, Napa Valley or Tuscany.
Some of the more striking wines that I've sampled over the past few months have come from slap-on-forehead locales, such as a luscious syrah from the Snake River Valley of Idaho, a red blend off the Judean Hills of Israel and a tannat from Uruguay.
2009 Coiled Wines Syrah Sidewinder Snake River Valley, Idaho: As opaque as a red wine could be, coating the glass on a swirl; super syrah, all dark fruits, notes of spice from wood, wonderfully rich but supple tannins. $25 (from coiledwines.com only)
2008 Flam Winery Red Blend Classico Judean Hills Israel: A 50/50 mix of cabernet sauvignon/merlot with a nose right out of the Medoc, all wet stone, graphite and earth over dark fruits; high-toned, even austere in the delightfully cabernet way; just terrific example of how a blend works. $25
2011 Bodega Bouza Tannat Canelones, Uruguay: Prediction: tannat soon becomes the next South American red wine value, the next malbec, not because it imitates any red that came before it, but because its combination of rusticity of character and finesse of flavor is too delicious to miss at this price. $18
Other fun trips: Sardinia, Umbria, Croatia, Loire Valley reds, Margaret River, Yarra Valley, dry furmint from Hungary, Sierra Foothills
Finding neat wines is sometimes like a dog nosing out a truffle, searching the well-worn spots — eh voila! Uncovering a gem may mean putting aside the expectation that you'd never find one precisely where you're looking.
While both the Mirassou and Gallo families have been making wines in
California for decades, their names too often come off as scuffed as a favored, tough, very ancient pair of slip-ons. Look again.
2011 Mirassou Pinot Noir California: All the winery's "California" appellation wines sell at $12, so the family makes good money on its sauvignon blanc and probably loses a bit on this really fine pinot, crafted out of cool-climate fruit with all the bells and whistles good pinot-making requires. $12
2010 Gallo Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Signature Series Santa Lucia Highlands California: This is Gina Gallo's line of wines, with her John Hancock right there on the label; terrific, bright fruit pinot (berries and cherries), its depth delivered less in aroma and more on the tongue, with lengthy persistence of its pretty flavors. $35
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 30 years.