One of the questions I was asked to answer a short time ago is how does one tell which wine brands offer the best values for my money? This is a particularly challenging question because the answer often is “it depends”. The perception of value highly depends on the end consumer…of course this means you! You, the consumer, give the wine a value, whether you realize it or not, depending on how it makes you feel when you enjoy it (or don’t enjoy it), when you talk about it with your friends, or how it makes you feel to purchase it.
Take Burgundy for example. This is a fantastic region of France making some really wonderful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In an effort to really get to know the Crus (areas and well known vineyards of the region) some friends of mine from the WSET Diploma and I got together and pooled our resources to do a major tasting. We ended up buying around $800 worth of wine equaling 12 bottles which we tasted blind to get our own thoughts down on paper before the big reveal of what they each were and how much they each cost. One of these bottles was $230 by itself. I don’t remember what producer or where at this point (but it’s in my notes so I could look it up if someone is interested) but I remember being astounded by the price as I compared it to similar quality wines that I had tasted from other regions. I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated. The wine was not bad in its own right, in fact I had estimated it to be around the $80 however when the real price was revealed I felt that it was significantly overvalued when some of the less expensive options offered equivalent quality for far less. The point is not which producer made this wine or where it came from but how it made me feel as the person who had spent good money to purchase it.
That’s the problem with purely stating which brands offer the best “value” for the money. It all depends on your definition of value. Some people value the producer. Others value the price they paid for the wine. Even more value the experience of drinking the wine with friends or family at a memorable moment in their lives. I’ve heard numerous stories of people who are out with friends and they order wine. The atmosphere is fun, the conversation, invigorating, and someone suggests that this wine may just be the best they’ve had in a long time. Everyone agrees and some note the variety, producer, and vintage. These folks even go so far as to seek it out again to recreate the experience they had trying it the first time only to be disappointed that it didn’t seem as good. This happens often and it is as much about who you’re enjoying the wine with, and where as it is about the quality of the wine itself.
Price paid is another major factor in the perceived value of the wine. Say you buy a wine from the grocery store. You paid $25. It’s a special occasion and you wanted something nice so you decide to splurge on a “Luxury” wine. You get it home, prepare dinner, open the wine with absolute enthusiasm and take a taste. Somehow the wine doesn’t live up to what you thought you’d get for $25 and you’re disappointed. Now what if you had bought the same quality wine for $15 but you think it was as good as any $20 bottle you’ve had. Now you’re excited with your purchase and think you’ve gotten a deal. The quality didn’t change, just the price, but your entire experience just shifted from one of disappointment to one of complete satisfaction. That satisfied feeling is, for all intents and purposes, why you wanted to know the answer to the question “Which wines offer the best value for the money” in the first place.
Now that being said it should be clear that I want you to determine for yourself what you value most in a wine. This will come from boundless and unbridled experimentation with different regions, price points, styles, and varieties. In a way, it is the reason I design my tasting notes around wine’s personalities which makes it easier to explore new things if you understand that it will be similar to something you already know you like. However I will give you a few suggestions to start your search off in the right direction…
For sparkling wines Champagne has been the king however there are brands of bubbly from the new and old worlds that are really doing great things. New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay makes a fantastic sparkling wine that rivals the quality of vintage Champagne for a fraction of the price. I highly recommend it if you like Light and Bubbly.
For dry white wines, there are few regions in the world that compare with the quality of Burgundian Chardonnay however if you want a really nice Chardonnay from Burgundy look to the north in Chablis (Stone and Chalk). For some reason this little area of the world isn’t in as high demand as their neighbors to the south and for me this is a great opportunity. The good ones are expensive still by everyday drinking standards but you can get a really nice Grand Cru Chablis for around $35 as opposed to the dollars you’d spend for a similar quality white Burgundy. It’s also a refreshingly light style that is generally unoaked which will age quite well if you want to cellar it for a bit.
For dry red wines it’s hard not to look directly at Argentina for the best values. Their ideal climate and inexpensive labor costs are a recipe for great wines at even better values. As people discover this, the wine imports from Argentina in to the US have risen dramatically over the past 5 years but they are still offering good quality overall. Not all of it is stellar but it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re going to get a better wine than what you paid for. Predominant reds are Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon (Power Punches). Another little known value from Argentina on the white side is Torrontes (Zesty and Fruity). If you like Muscato or Gewurztraminers then you’ll probably like Torrontes as it’s an extremely aromatic and floral variety.
Now go forth! Try new things. It’s ok to be disappointed once in a while because the benefits of learning what you value in a wine far outweigh the short term sighs of finding out you’ve bought a wine you don’t value. A great way to start is by finding local wine shops that offer tastings of their wares. That way you can “test drive” the wine before you buy and everyone goes home happy. Remember, only you can decide how to get the best bang for your buck with wine!