WINE BLING on a BUDGET
“Drink moderately, for drunkenness neither keeps a secret nor observes a promise.” ~ Cervantes – Don Quixote ~
The fashion and design worlds have a concept style mavens call “high/low.” It’s the savvy shopper’s secret, a way to achieve a posh look on a student’s part-time salary. You carefully shop the bargain bins for items that either eerily mimic the latest overpriced designer wear or that match well with the latter in a yin-yang sort of way. Say, a $250 NT Jockey T-shirt from Costco worn with a $21,000 NT pair of Christian Louboutin heels from Sogo.
You can do the same with wine. Many premium styles have what I would describe as more affordable analogues that don’t carry the usurious built-in brand premiums. As with style and design, finding a good knockoff takes a modicum of knowledge as well as healthy confidence and creative imagination. I’ve become aware that people are somewhat dubious concerning taking risks with wine. I’ve heard it first hand from friends and clients who’ve voiced their disappointment at having to negotiate the gauntlet of buying wine at the big box store’s and supermarkets here in Taipei. Says Stéphane Castera, director of food and beverage for Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver. “You can’t always buy Prada, but you can buy something which looks really good, which is well made, and it can satisfy your needs.”
A perfect example, when talking wine, is California red zinfandel (high) compared with Italian Primitivo (low). Decent versions of California’s signature grape start at about $1500 NT, while top-quality zinfandels sell for upward of $3000 NT. Full-bodied and jammy, red zinfandel often is recommended in cookbooks as the ideal pairing for sweet-spicy barbecued meats as well as pizza, burgers and game-day snacks such as chicken wings and chili. Yet many zin fans don’t know that primitivo, made mostly on the south-Italian peninsula of Puglia and usually costing $300 NT to $900 NT, is made from the same grape and shares the basic flavor profile of its California cousin.
The structure of the wine is going to be the same. Now, is the wine going to have the richness of a Ridge or a Seghesio (two top California zinfandel producer)? No. But it’s a good wine at a good price. It’s not mass produced and it’s not a boxed wine.
Allow me to offer a few other stylistic high/low counterparts.
Red Bordeaux (high)/Chilean-Argentinan Cabernet Sauvignon (low)
Chile and Argentines main wine-growing regions are sunny, yielding riper, more opulent fruit flavors than generally is the case in Bordeaux. But if you want good cabernet sauvignon or merlot and can’t afford the $2000 NT-plus of a classified red Bordeaux (I can’t), I’d recommend going with a $450 to $1000 NT Chilean or Argentinian. It will likely beat the pants off any other sub-$1000 NT cabernet, including those inexpensive big brands from Bordeaux itself, I love the Los Vascos Grand Reserve for $900 NT, part of the Lafite Rosthchild family of wines. Spanish reds from the Ribera del Duero region (often a blend of tempranillo with cabernet or merlot) try the Fontana-Fontal Temperanillo Mesta at $475, also the Penedes region wines are generally good bets for satisfaction.
Red Burgundy (high)/Cru Beaujolais (low)
Great red Burgundy, perhaps the most recherché wine category of all, is made from pinot noir. Good ones tend to be made in small quantities by tiny producers with spotty distribution and run about $3000 NT plus. In recent years, Burgundy addicts have increasingly experimented with alternative sources of pinot noir from such copycat regions as Oregon, Carneros and Russian River in California and, most recently, New Zealand. As a money-saving strategy, though, it has become all but fruitless. Those “alternative” regions often now charge just as much or more for decent pinot. The key here is to think laterally. Stylistically, the best alternative to good red Burgundy, for my money, is quality Beaujolais. It’s made from gamay instead of pinot noir, but when it’s good, it’s way more satisfying than bargain pinot noir. I speak here of quality Beaujolais specifically from the 10 best hillside towns of the Beaujolais region. These so-called cru Beaujolais (which carry such place names as Chénas, Brouilly, Juliénas and Morgon rather than Beaujolais) can pass for good pinot noir in professional blind tastings. I’ve seen it happen. I’d do a Chénas (as a substitute for red Burgundy). The crus are up the hill. They’re not on the lower section of Beaujolais. They don’t have the juicy fruitiness. They have a bit more body and structure.” Part of the reason is that the vines tend to be older and yield less but more concentrated fruit. At about $500-1500 NT per bottle, Cru Beaujolais is the savvy poor man’s red Burgundy. My two cents worth, Valdivieso Reserve Pinot Noir 2006 (you guessed it-Chile), Robust, sweet fruit, med-full body at $550 is a no brainer for excellent drinking.
Chianti (high)/Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (low)
I am, again, thinking laterally here. Chianti is a medium-bodied red made from the sangiovese grape in a central Tuscan district. Good examples now almost all cost more than $1000, unfortunately. Bright red cherry, firm acidity and an undercurrent of earthiness hinting at mushroom and tobacco are all classic elements of the flavor. You can often find similar nuances and structure in a grape called montepulciano (not to be confused with the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, where they make something called Vino Nobile based on sangiovese). Montepulciano – the grape – is widely grown in the lower-cost region of central Italy called Abruzzo. Drinkable examples are as low as $350, and very good ones can be had for $400 to $700. Another option is the sangiovese-based reds from Tuscany’s neighboring (and generally less expensive) region of Umbria. A good choice is the Aldiano Montepulcino D’Abruzzo DOC 2007 at $750, it’s quite suave, but not Soave.
Barolo (high)/Gattinara (low)
The so-called king of Italian reds, Barolo, now costs a king’s ransom, roughly $2500 and up a bottle. It’s made in the Piedmont region from the highly tannic, acidic nebbiolo grape. And, quite frankly, it tastes like no wine produced in any other region in the world. Which is why the best substitute may be Gattinara, a red based mainly or entirely on nebbiolo in a town not far from Barolo in Piedmont. Prices for Gattinara, which tends to have less endurance in the cellar, are about half those of Barolo. I think you can find some great wines in Gattinara, although not often found here in Taiwan. I personally substitute my Barolo drinking with Ripasso from Valpolicella, these wines made from corvina and rondinella grapes tend to be bolder and juicier wines than Borolo, but they satisfy my Italian cravings just fine. The Zonin Valpolacela Ripasso at $800 is an outstanding wine (even if I could find a primitivo, I’d drink this in it’s place). A big unctuous mouthful of yummy.
Sancerre (high)/Touraine (low)
A crisp, grassy, iconic white, Sancerre is made from sauvignon blanc in the Sancerre district of France’s Loire Valley, where the grape achieves a sublime balance of citrus-like fruitiness, herbal-grassy notes and a sort of stone-like mineral quality. It’s the perfect spring tonic, a fine match for lightly dressed salads and vegetable dishes as well as a variety of cheeses (especially goat). Sancerres usually cost between $800 and $1400 a bottle, though, which is serious coin for most people. At about half the price you could uncork a lesser known Touraine. Made from the same white grape not far from Sancerre, Touraine wines usually are priced from $350 to $600 and do an impressive Sancerre imitation. My favorites because of their availability here in Taipei are the many fine Sauvignon Blancs, especially the Reserve designations coming out of the Chilean Valleys. $350-700 NT buys good value with a lot of diversity in their flavor profiles. Valdivieso’s 2007 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc at $550 is awesome, and it’s sibling 2007 Sauvignon Blanc is a best buy at $350.
Here it’s Old World white Burgundy and expensive California and New Zealand “Brands” vs. New World affordability. There is no comparison between the two, but there is satisfaction to be had. South Africa, Australia, Chile and Argentina are abundant and affordable here in Taiwan. Argentine’s Dona Paula 2007 Estate Chardonnay at $550 is sophisticated, while Valdivieso’s 2006 Reserve Chardonnay has bottle age and is drinking beautifully at $525. For ultra value try Valdivieso’s 2008 Chardonnay for $350, your money goes a long way here.
Champagne (high)/Cava (low)
My preference is for the dry sparkling wines of northeast Spain as a dirt cheap substitute for $2000 NT and up Champagne. Made using the traditional, labor-intensive process perfected in the Champagne region of France (in which the bubbles form naturally inside the bottle with the addition of yeast and sugar), Cavas generally cost between $600 and $900. Cava’s are my preference compared with today’s trendier choice Prosecco. Good Prosecco from Italy is a riskier navigation, but if you stick with the Gancia label (Italy’s oldest producer) you will be delighted. Gancia’s Pinot di Pinot “Rose” for $540 is dry enough and satisfy’s while Jane Ventura Cava at $599 is delightfully elegant.
Well that’s it for this month quaff. See you out and about town my friends and Bon Boire.
Mark encourages your inquiries and questions on the world of wines and spirits and can be contacted at email@example.com