From the vine: The superstars and super steals

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.

  • 2005 Mr. Riggs Shiraz ($60): Ben Riggs’s top shiraz comes from three great vineyards in Australia’s McLaren Vale region. It’s packed with flavor, a potent, powerful red wine with intense blackberry aromas.
  • 2006 Woop Woop Shiraz ($12): Riggs sources grapes from throughout southern Australia for this affordable, juicy red. It shares ripe blackberry notes with the more expensive Mr. Riggs bottling.

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. 

  • 2004 Antinori Tignanello ($110): Profoundly complex, Tignanello combines the earthy black cherry essence of great Sangiovese with the darker black currant notes and formidable structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a wine that can age for years.
  • 2004 Antinori Villa Antinori Rosso ($23): Lighter and simpler than Tignanello, the Villa Antinori Rosso still echoes it with notes of cherries and currants. It won’t age for years, but it’s very enjoyable right now.

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.

  • 2005 Merry Edwards Coopersmith Pinot Noir ($56): From Edwards’ home vineyard, this Pinot makes it clear why people love Russian River Valley Pinot Noir — an incredibly silky texture, deep notes of black cherry and blackberry, and graceful tannins underneath to hold it all together.
  • 2005 De Loach Vineyards, Pinot Noir “RRV” Estate ($19.99): DeLoach, a much larger producer, benefits from having Greg LaFollette, a Pinot expert, as their consulting winemaker. This basic bottling isn’t as gorgeously seductive as the Merry Edwards one, but it still has that classic Russian River texture and black cherry flavors.

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.

  • 2005 Olivier Leflaive Meursault 1er Cru Genevrières ($100): Meursault’s trademark earthiness and hazelnut notes help define this gorgeously complex, aromatic Chardonnay (all white Burgundy is Chardonnay). It’s spicy and intense, with flavors that last for seconds.
  • 2006 Olivier Leflaive “Les Setilles” Bourgogne Blanc ($18): Sixty percent of this affordable Bourgogne blanc comes from the vineyards of Meursault, giving it an earthy hint that echoes that in Leflaive’s far more expensive premier cru wine. It’s crisp and full of flavor.

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.

  • Louis Roederer Cristal ($240): Floral and delicate, this ultra-luxury bottling from Roederer is what tête-de-cuvée Champagne (the term for top-of-the-line Champagnes) is all about. You pay for the privilege, though.
  • Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle  ($110): This is also a great tête-de-cuvée Champagne, but from a less well known brand. Refined and graceful, it has notes of citrus and flowers.
  • Roederer Estate Brut NV ($20): Roederer, the French company that makes Cristal, also owns a property in California’s Anderson Valley. From it they produce this top-notch sparkling wine. It may not be as complex as the two expensive Champagnes here, but the Roederer team’s experience shows, and it’s a steal for the price.

For more great Champagnes to try now, plus great Champagne cocktails, see Food & Wine's Champagne Guide.

Ray Isle is senior wine editor of magazine and author of the blog “.”