The great wines of the world are expensive and often hard to find. They’re unmistakable. The same way a movie star is instantly recognizable on screen, wine stars are instantly recognizable in a glass.
At the same time, part of what makes a great wine is how well it expresses something larger than itself: the region of origin, the grape variety or varieties, the character of the vineyard, the tradition behind the wine.
This is why it is possible to find affordable wines that echo the characteristics of the truly extraordinary. A terrific $17 Côtes-du-Rhône from an obscure property (or even from a well-known property) may never achieve the complexity, depth and nuance of a top-level Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but at the same time it can offer a hint, or more than a hint, of what that much more expensive wine from the same general region is like. A superlative, $60 Australian Shiraz may offer far more richness and intensity than a very good $15 bottle, but at the same time the two wines may share certain flavors: ripe blackberries, say, with a subtle vanilla note from the oak barrels in which both were aged.
A few tricks of the trade will help you find really affordable wines that will give a hint of the truly extraordinary. Here are five tips for finding great steals:
1. Follow the winemaker
Great winemakers tend to make top-quality wine no matter the price. For example, Ben Riggs, a fantastically talented young Australian winemaker, makes both of these delicious shirazes.
For more great Australian wines, see this guide to the best reds.
2. Trust a great producer no matter the price
Antinori has been making some of Tuscany’s best wine since 1385 — more than 600 years of experience. And its Tignanello bottling, first released in 1971, was one of the original “SuperTuscans”: A style of red wine that blends French grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance) with Chianti’s local Sangiovese variety.
For more great Italian bottles, see Italian Grapes from A to Z.
3. Go for Location
Some regions are known for being great when it comes to a particular grape, for instance Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Pinot Noir. Merry Edwards is one of the Russian River Valley’s star Pinot producers, but her wines don’t come cheap. Staying in the same region can lead to some of the same characteristics in a good affordable wine.
4. Look for extraordinary grapes in everyday bottles
Some producers use excess grapes from their top wines to bolster the strength of their more affordable ones. Case in point: Olivier Leflaive makes great premier cru Burgundy from the renowned vineyards of Meursault that costs upwards of $75. But his basic white Burgundy, Les Setilles, also uses grapes from Meursault; they’re just not mentioned on the label.
5. Remember that Famous Names Charge Famous Prices
Cristal is great Champagne, but you pay for its fame. Laurent Perrier, a great but perhaps lesser known producer, sells its top Champagne for half as much. And Louis Roederer, the French company that makes Cristal, also makes a terrific American sparkling wine for a fraction of Cristal’s price.
For more great Champagnes to try now, plus great Champagne cocktails, see Food & Wine's Champagne Guide.
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