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:
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."
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.
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!