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Drinking Out Loud

The World's Most Underrated Wines

Some wines gorge on hyper-praise, while too many others starve for attention

Matt Kramer
Posted: May 17, 2011

It's probably fair to say that no wine lover—once beyond the basic level of grabbing a bottle for dinner at the supermarket—is not aware of what might be called “the injustice of the wine world.” This injustice is really a matter of recognizing that, often for reasons not first apparent, some really good wines get short shrift. They are, in a word, “underrated.”

Before we go any further, let's consider this potent word. At first glance, you would think that “underrated” involves—brace yourself—scores. In the modern McCarthyism of those who accuse wine critics of having distorted the world of wine by the use of scoring systems, allow me to suggest that the concept of underrated has little to do with scores.

Oh sure, if a wine gets, say, 100 points, everyone will sit up and take notice. But that has less to do with the score per se than it does with the idea that someone, somewhere, found a particular wine to be perfect. By definition, such event is so rare as to be intrinsically attention-worthy.

Instead, the notion of underrated is better expressed and understood through the lens of what is indisputably the world's most powerful scoring system: money.

If I've learned anything in my life so far, it's this: Money is the sincerest form of flattery. You can examine all the high scores for wines you care to, but if the wine in question does not appeal to the popular palate, then people will not vote with their wallets. Scores are—forgive me—overrated.

Want proof? Take a look at the scores from any critic you choose to examine, and I promise you that you will find numerous sweet dessert wines from Sauternes, Austria, Hungary, California, Australia and Germany that regularly, even habitually, receive ratings in the mid- to high-90s. Do these wines command correspondingly high prices, especially given the disproportionately high costs of creating them? They do not. Nor, for the most part, are they lusted after. The same applies, by the way, to Port. And I won't even discuss the plight of Sherry.

All of which shows that scores are, to use a phrase, beside the point. It's money that matters. It's money that tells us whether a wine is "underrated.”

Let me give you an example. Twenty years ago you could safely say that Barolo was seriously underrated. Critics everywhere agreed that Barolo was Italy's finest red wine, yet its price was derisory, both in and outside of Italy. The same was true of the once-lowly Barbera. No more.

Is Oregon Pinot Noir underrated? Take a look at the prices and you tell me. Ditto for Russian River Valley Pinot.

Is Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon underrated? I think we all know the answer to that. But what about Sonoma County Cabernet? Its advocates, looking enviously at Napa's prices for the variety, say that Sonoma Cabernet is indeed underrated.

Is Bordeaux underrated? Certainly not at the classified-growth level, but very likely so below that elite status. Is French Champagne underrated, including small-volume "grower Champagne"? Look at the prices. I hardly think so.

Are Austrian wines underrated? If you're a fan you might say that they have not been given their public due. Yet they are far from cheap. Austrian wines enjoy a fervent local audience and an equally fervent, if smaller, coterie of foreign fans. Both are willing to pay quite respectable prices.

And what about Burgundy, you ask? Given the intensity of demand and the generally high prices, I hardly think anyone could legitimately describe Burgundy as underrated.

Now let me broaden the scope. Which wines do you think are underrated today? Which wines aren’t getting the prices they deserve given their exceptional quality and/or—and this is important—their originality?

Allow me to submit a few nominations of my own:

Just About Everything from the Loire Valley

Can there be any other area in the world—and I include whole nations such as Argentina and Chile in this—where wines are more underrated than in France's Loire Valley? When you think about both the originality and the exemplary quality issued by the best producers in Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur, Sancerre, Vouvray, Muscadet, Savennières, Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon, can there be any doubt that these wines are underrated?

Increasingly, I find that my cellar-bound purchases are disproportionately of Loire Valley wines, especially the great Cabernet Francs from Chinon and Bourgueil and the whites from Muscadet. Look at the prices of even the finest producers from the zones and you'll agree the only word is "underrated."

Chianti Classico

Sure, it was their own fault that producers in Chianti made such a muddle of things in the past 25 years. There was too much Cabernet Sauvignon, too much Merlot, too much Syrah, too much new French oak, too much experimentation and too little focus on their own great indigenous red grape variety, Sangiovese.

But those days are, if not gone, fast receding. In the past decade the best wines of Chianti Classico are very likely as great as any this ancient zone has ever produced. The use of new oak has diminished dramatically; the employment of international blending varieties is now much more judicious; and there's a new pride in presenting Sangiovese front and center.

Yet price tells another story: Chianti Classico has not yet been redeemed in the public eye or palate. I'd say it remains in the underrated side of the ledger.

Cru Beaujolais

Now, here's an example of a category of wine that was not so much underrated as very nearly self-destructive. The producers of Beaujolais consecrated themselves to the benighted category of Beaujolais Nouveau. Consequently, the past few decades saw a corrosion of prices and public esteem that is only now beginning to be reversed.

Here's my prediction: Although the best cru Beaujolais fall squarely into the underrated category today, the pendulum is swinging. I predict that in five years time, cru Beaujolais will no longer legitimately be underrated. And of course, we will pay accordingly.

The list of other possibilities around the world is considerable, even extensive. It includes such places as Alsace, Sicily, Greece, Hungary, Argentina, Chile, Tasmania and Croatia, to name but a few.

Or maybe such a discussion might be served through the lens of grape variety: Teroldego, Gamay Noir, Lagrein, Pinot Blanc, Zinfandel, Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, even Riesling.

You tell me. What's your definition of "underrated"? Which wines do you believe fall into that category, and why? We might all get some good buying tips out of this!

Joseph Kane
Austin —  May 17, 2011 12:06pm ET
Duoro. And let's hope it stays underrated. With the exception of Quinta do Crasto's Nacional, most of the wines from Duoro are underpriced and WAY over deliver. Brilliant stuff, and big bang for the buck.
Matthew Segura
San Francisco, California, USA —  May 17, 2011 12:58pm ET
California/Washington Syrah!
Brett R Turner
Hawthorn Woods, IL —  May 17, 2011 1:22pm ET
I still believe Aussie shiraz and shiraz blends are underrated. The values remain fantastic. In my opinion, California Sauvignon Blancs are not given their due along with Merlots from Washington. Finally, I enjoy Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling from Alsace - perhaps the best white wines I can think of for sipping or all kinds of food.
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  May 17, 2011 1:52pm ET
agree with the duoro area, wonderful values there.Since visiting Greece, I love the white wines from the islands, especially Assyrtiko. It's just hard finding them.
Steve Schoellerman
San Diego, CA  —  May 17, 2011 2:09pm ET
Tokaji, Tokaji, Tokaji! That is to say Tokaji Dry, Tokaji Late Harvest, and--- the King of Kings---Tokaji Aszu.
James Betts
Nevada —  May 17, 2011 2:32pm ET
Spain can not go unmentioned here. Gnarly old monastell that produces fruit driven, but acid structured wines for under $15. Not to mention the bounty of other grapes and wines that go unnoticed by many consumers. Though I have to say, for my own selfish consumption I hope they continue to go "under$rated".
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles, CA —  May 17, 2011 3:16pm ET
I think most underrated areas have been mentioned, unless one wants to get more detailed and start listing individual producers. But I just wanted to point out that for some wines, not even a perfect score will get people to sit up and take notice. Ch Rieussec 2001 was awarded 100 points by WS and was also Wine of the Year. Robert Parker gave it 99 points. I bought a few half bottles in 2005 for $110 to $125. This wine is still easy to find in stores and the price is still in that same range. This would obviously not be the case for a 10 year old, 100 point, Wine of the Year from most other wine regions.
Brian Duffin
rocky river, ohio —  May 17, 2011 3:37pm ET
Syrahs from Washington state and mid-priced ($15-$25) Cabs from Chile, Australia, and yes, Sonoma. Plenty of modestly-priced Spanish Garnacha and Tempranillo, as well as Rhones, that are very well made. Austrian Gruners. And agree with the Loire Valley as maybe the best of all. Thoughtful article.
Bellmore Liquor And Wine
New York —  May 17, 2011 4:42pm ET
Tokaiji! And Middle eastern Europe wines!! Especailly those white wines from Austria! Love unoaked white wines with creamy flavours!
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  May 17, 2011 6:50pm ET
Almost any kind of Riesling, but especially German. They come from a highly developed country, so they are not especially cheap. But where else on earth can you get wines of the quality of the modern Spatlesen or Erste Lager or Erste Gewachs bottlings, for $40 or less? Indeed, in the best years even the modest QbA wines absolutely rock, for less than $20. Where else has there been such a string of fine vintages as the Germans have had in the last decade?

Franconian Sylvaner? Please, don't get me started!

David Clark
(for The Wine Connection)
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  May 17, 2011 8:22pm ET
I'm not generally big on white wines but dry Australian Riesling (surprise - Clare Valley) are among the few I consistently look for. Southern Sisters is a bargain. Often I have to get down on my knees to find Rieslings on the lower shelf. While we're at it - how about some really good and cheap Rousannes.
Fred Brown
Maryland —  May 17, 2011 8:33pm ET
David Clark is spot on with the Rieslings.
William Englehaupt
arlington, VA —  May 17, 2011 8:57pm ET
Cru Beaujolais are a best buy in my book! With so many in the under $30 range great buys.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  May 17, 2011 10:47pm ET
Rieslings in particular, and the Loire and Finger Lakes, NY as regions. Have you ever tried the wines of Wiemer, Red Newt, Ravines or Ventosa? You really should, and virtually all are $20 or less...these are some nice wines at great prices.
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  May 17, 2011 11:15pm ET
WA Syrah. Aussie Shiraz. Spain Spain Spain for Garnacha Monastrell and Tempranillo. Loire wines don't do anything for anyone with a New World-biased palate, so I think that's too broad a generalization. German Riesling, Kabinett and Spatlese, maybe the most underrated.
Joe Downs
Vason Island, WA —  May 18, 2011 7:57am ET
Dry Sherry!
Ioannis Papadakis
Athens, Greece —  May 18, 2011 9:20am ET
From Greece: Certain dessert wines like Muscat of Rio/Patras (especially from Parparoussis)and the sweet, fortified muscats from Samos. Dry whites from indigenous varieties like assyrtico from Santorini and robola from Cephalonia.
From Spain: Traditionally styled Riojas from the likes of La Rioja Alta, Marques de Riscal and R. Lopez de Heredia. Also Rueda whites.
From France: South and Southwest France like Languedoc-Rousillon, Cahors, Minervois and Madiran. Agree with Matt concerning the Loire and Cru Beaujaulais.
Italy: Lesser-known appelations like Verdicchio di Matelica, Gattinara, Valtellina and Castel del Monte.
German riesling in general (except beerenauslese and above)
Kenneth A Galloway
Paris, France —  May 18, 2011 10:57am ET
i know far too well what you're talking about, especially dealing with the Loire ... i completed a 6-month contract in export development and SMM for Domaine du Closel, hands down one of the best Savennieres producers ... as I'm sure you know (although unfortunately probably only with the Clos du Papillon) these wines can be simply majestic, endlessly complex, and the longevity and evolution in the bottle is simply amazing (BTW we would drink bottles, recorked in the fridge, up to two weeks after opening ... they would just keep on getting better) ... anyways my point is, i worked the Paris market a lot ... in my 6 months on the job, other than my wine geek friends, i LITERALLY did not run across ONE SINGLE PERSON that had even heard of the AOC ... as you know French drink a lot of wine (although the consumption is plummeting) but the average French doesn't know anything about the juice or the regions. To say Savennieres was difficult to sell in Paris would be like saying it was difficult to find Bin Laden. It was a damn hard task! And we also faced the problem with pricing. We were advocates of keeping the prices up, since Savennieres is a low production, organically grown and quazi-biodynamically farmed (whether the vines were certified or not) region. But we (the owner and my boss, also the AOC president) faced a lot of pressure from local producers who were steadfast at lowering their pricing. Anyways, Savennieres is on my top three list of most inspiring and favorable wines in the world (along with Barolo and Tokai) so in the personal and selfish sense, I don't mind being part of the small group of Savennieres lovers. But still I'd love for more people to experience this wine.
Gherardo Fedrigo
Solana Beach, CA —  May 18, 2011 12:12pm ET
LAGREIN!!
Roberto Wagner Almeida
São José dos Campos, SP, Brazil —  May 18, 2011 1:43pm ET
Torrontés, the white grape from Argentina that gives wines that smells like a bunch of flowers.
And California's Pinot Noir. Outside USA the majority of wine lovers doesn't know how splendid are the american wines made of Pinot Noir. I'll make a radical statement: they are often much better than Burgundy's famous and expensive wines.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  May 18, 2011 3:44pm ET
I consider "underrated" is a function of price and reputation. The WS Top 100 itself shows that consumers can expect very good quality and complexity at a $15 price point. Most white Loires under $20 that I have tried have been distinctly chaptalized and/or have not done much of anything interesting on the palate, so if there is one that's very good at $35, I would scarcely consider it underrated relative to its peers.

Demand is also a function of versatility: I enjoy Mosel Spatleses and 3-point+ Tokajis, yet I do not purchase more than a handful of bottles per year simply because don't pair with our day-to-day food options at home. Suspect demand and price won't change much for these wines unless general gastronomic habits shift towards more complementary options. For now, expect ribs, steak, and fruit-bomb cabs and shiraz to continue to dominate in North America.

I consider Georgian (ex-soviet republic) M-MS reds underrated in Western countries. Maybe this will change once folks discover how well they go with game and sweet-savoury dishes.

Second choice is Monastrell from Jumilla and Yecla. Case in point: if the outstanding Bellum Providencia (old-vine, single vineyard, under $20) came from California, it would easily command a price over $70.

And Lacrima di Morro d'Alba: tremendous and distinct varietal, though still overshadowed by Nero/Uva di Troia, Negroamaro and Primitivo...

Curtis Moore
San Diego, CA —  May 18, 2011 5:52pm ET
My suggestion would be wines from South Africa. Only the high volume stuff makes it way into the US yet if you go to the wineries in South Africa, where much of the wine produced is consumed locally or shipped only to Europe, the wine is teriffic and relatively speaking very well priced. It cost me a fortune in extra baggage charges but I carried back 18 bottles; my wine friends were amazed at the quality.
Tom Miller
Vestavia Hills, AL —  May 18, 2011 6:45pm ET
Wow. I need to go out and get some of these wines. I really like the Monastrell and Savennieres ideas. Two Kermit Lynch selections that I had this past weekend that are around $20 are the 2009 Chignard Fleurie "Les Moriers" (pretty tight initially but really showing the potential for Cru Beaujolais in 2009) and a 2009 Punta Crena Pigato "Vigneto Ca' da Rena" from Liguria (perfect with the Jumbo Lump Crab Louis but would be a great ringer wine in a tasting because few people have ever heard of the Pigato grape). I have also relished both the red and white pound-it-down quaffing wines produced by Methymneos. They are made by Ioannis Lambrou from the unique Chidiriotiko grape, grown in an organically farmed vineyard in Western Lesbos, Greece. Talk about your underrated wines!
Pamela Heiligenthal
Portland, OR —  May 18, 2011 8:16pm ET
Great article Matt! Head to Spain for many underrated wines! If you’re looking to cheat on Albariño, try Godello as it’s a superbly perfumed, aromatic white with arrays of mineral, peach and melon with zesty lemon-lime undertones. It doesn’t get the love that Albariño does, and it should. For reds, everyone’s familiar with Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta and Monastrell, but what about Mencía. It is not a well-known grape in the U.S. but I predict its popularity will increase in the coming years. It’s similar to a Cabernet franc producing a high quality wine with high acidity and a super-fragrant bouquet that will knock your socks off--fruity yet complex; sexy and structured; elegant and silky with aromas and flavors of black pepper, violets, mineral and earth enveloped with red and black fruits. Sounds tasty doesn’t it?

~Pamela Heiligenthal
Enobytes.com
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  May 18, 2011 10:54pm ET
Spanish monastrells and tempranillos. Maybe, even, some Italian dolcetto d'alba's.
Vintrinsec
Montreal, Quebec, Canada —  May 19, 2011 1:08am ET
Spain for sure, and I do agree with Pamela: Godello from Valdeorras, Mencia from Bierzo, but also wines from Catalan regions such as Terra Alta, Montsant, Yecla, Bullas and Jumilla.

Reds from Southern Oregon(Rogue Valley)offer great values, Cabernet blends and Chenin Blanc from South Africa are incredibly cheap for what they are, Rieslings from all around Australia(and not just from Clare Valley),whites & pinot noir from Tasmania, pinot gris from Waipara(New Zealand)...

There are plenty of underrated/undervalued regions/terroirs all around the world. One just have to dig in and be curious!

-Francois Blouin (Vintrinsec, Montreal, Canada).
Toni Fadnes
Oslo, Norway —  May 19, 2011 4:44am ET
Undiscovered, rather than underrated: The dolcettos from Dogliani, Beaujolais (09 might change that), and Languedoc. I have not tasted the top Croation wines, but a number of vino friends are quite positive..
Steven Sherman
san francisco —  May 19, 2011 1:47pm ET
Chablis, Macon, unsexy regions in Burgundy like Marsannay, Maranges and Santanay, along with some of the wines from Muscadet(especially Pepiere),Juranscon, Gascogne and Savoie can be great values along with extremely interesting wines
Martin Cousineau
Montreal, Qc, Canada —  May 19, 2011 1:48pm ET
I love to open up a 15-20$ bottle that makes me say “hummmm” every sip! It turns out that this mostly happens with Chilean Cab and South African reds. I can’t remember the last time one of these wines made me regret their purchase. But for some reason, I have a hard time convincing myself to switch from Bordeaux to lesser prestigious regions. My main motivation for collecting wine remains cellaring (10-15 year average) so I guess I feel more confident with regions that proved their cellaring capability. Moreover, I know much more about Bordeaux than any other region in the world!

I’ve been reading your articles making a point about the Loire valley and it’s been in my intentions to discover the region. Still on my to do list! I also prefer encouraging small producers selling their wines at a decent price than being in the speculating market competing with Chinese billionaires.
Mary Hack
Hudson, NY —  May 19, 2011 2:03pm ET
Finger Lakes Riesling-world class!
Leonard Cupo M D
Honolulu, Hawaii —  May 20, 2011 7:10am ET
Italian white wines in general, but particularly those from Alto Adige and Campania.
Marco Giovanetti
Montreal, Canada —  May 21, 2011 1:44am ET
Tannats from Uruguay and Madiran. Some very fines wines under $20.00
The 3rd Corner
Palm Desert, CA, USA —  May 21, 2011 3:40am ET
MADEIRA! Its indestructible! Best value in underated dessert wines! Bual = yummy
Clinton W Mitchell
Naperville, IL —  May 22, 2011 8:54am ET
Reds from Washington and Santa Barbara Co.; whites from Oregon and Alsace.
If we're talking "value" wines, I'd say Argentina, Spain and Cotes du Rhone.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  May 23, 2011 11:30am ET
Merlot, ever since "Sideways"; and before that when many producers (of wine, not movies) made such garbage that it destroyed whatever reputation it had.
Michael Holzer
Miami Fl —  May 26, 2011 9:38pm ET
My vote goes for:

1.Baja California wines - LA Cetto Nebbiolo, Adobe wines
2.Xinomavro from Northern Greece (thimiopoous/Alpha estate)
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  June 4, 2011 2:10pm ET
Matt,

What a great topic for a blog! Every wine lover in the world has got a favorite or two that he or she considers "underrated". Look at the amazing response you got here! Perhaps you should revisit this topic every once in a while, wine is an always moving target.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
J Ross
London —  June 5, 2011 4:53pm ET
Some great suggestions above and many selections I'll be trying.

The great underrated family of wines must be Sherry. From dry finos and manzanillas to really nutty amontillados and sweet PX there is something for everybody and at great prices.

I know many people have reservations about Sherry but give it a go, you may just be surprised.
Nina Witikka
Finland —  June 8, 2011 2:06am ET
Languedoc apellation wines, especially some domaine wnes from smaller biodynamic producers.
Côtes du Rhône - is there any more French wine like it??
Puglia, Italy / watch out for them!
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  July 22, 2011 1:06am ET
In the Southern Rhône, Cabernet is never accorded appellation status, as it is considered a non-traditional grape for the region. In the 19th century, Cabernet once grew on Rhone farms, and so replanted parcels that qualified for the Vin de Pays. Cabs show the character of the Lubéron, with rich, ripe, forward fruit, and the garrigue scents prevalent in vineyards especially like Citadelle's. The light Cabs are wonderful pairing with grilled meats.
David K Welch
Galveston, TX —  July 22, 2011 9:15pm ET
Spanish sherry is very underrated. Everytime I drink one I wonder why I don't drink more. From Manzanilla to Fino to PX it is just plain wonderful stuff.

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