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Drinking Out Loud

Life Is Unfair

Where the bargains are right now
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer makes his picks for today's top wine regions for value.

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 17, 2017

When we start out with wine we all go through the same evolutionary stages. First, it's bewildering, what with these many terms such as tannins, fruitiness, finish, nose and so on. Then, as in learning a language, you begin to correlate words with experiences. Got it, you say.

In our exploratory wine-buying, we all initially believe that expensive wines are better than cheap ones. After all it's largely true, up to a certain point. But true enough to seem like a pretty solid fact.

But then comes a revelation of another sort: The seeming fact that expensive is always better than cheaper isn't as rock-solid as you once thought. We all arrive at this revelation only after having tasted a broad array of expensive wines, which gives us a baseline.

Then you try a wine you've never heard of, with a price low enough as to offer no expectation of real quality. Price, after all, is a signaling device. If a producer asks $100 a bottle you presume and anticipate that the wine will be (and should be) exceptional. At $10 a bottle your expectations are commensurately lowered.

Now comes the "emperor's new clothes" moment. You've had enough fine (and expensive) wines to know what "good" is. You taste that hundred-buck bottle and you say, "This is nothing. They've gotta be kidding." And you're right.

It is at this moment in the evolutionary progression of a wine lover that he or she becomes a "wine adult." Price is only a rough indicator of quality. Increasingly, you discover an ever-larger number of wines that you now know are far better than their low prices suggest. Life is unfair—and that applies to wine too.

Never has this been more true than today. We are awash in bottles of genuinely fine wines selling for "unfairly" low prices. You already know the reasons: universal scientific winemaking education; universal winery technology; a radical upshift in ambition everywhere; and not least, our consumer access to more wines from more places on the planet than wine lovers have ever seen before.

But because life is unfair, only a small fraction of all these new, improved wines can command a premium. Achieving that premium requires not just exceptional—or at least sufficient—quality but also somehow capturing the public's attention and fancy. This requires a "secret sauce" of fashion, media attention, unrelenting promotion and no little luck and good timing. Twenty years ago, for example, you would have struggled to achieve a premium price for Pinot Noir. Today, it’s a cakewalk.

So where are the bargains now? Fair or not (to the producers), every wine lover loves a deal. Where to look? What follows are one deal-lover's suggestions of exceptionally good wines selling at "life is unfair" bargain prices.

The World's Two Greatest Winegrowers' Cooperatives: How does $20 sound for either a truly fine white Burgundy (Chardonnay) from the Chablis district or a terrific Nebbiolo sourced exclusively from Piedmont's famous Barbaresco zone? Not bad, you say? How right you are.

Winegrowers' cooperatives usually confine themselves to commodity, bulk production. But that's very much not so with La Chablisienne, which produces an estimated one-quarter to one-third of all the wine produced in Chablis. Founded in 1923, it has leaped in quality in recent years.

Piedmont's Produttori del Barbaresco, for its part, has excelled since its founding in 1958. Its members collectively own an estimated 40 percent of all the top vineyards in the Barbaresco zone.

So what are the twenty-buck "life is unfair" bargains? They are La Chablisienne Bourgogne Chardonnay (which I've seen priced as low as $13) or one of their multiple Petit Chablis bottlings ($16).

On the red side is Produttori del Barbaresco Nebbiolo, often composed in part of "declassified" wines from the top crus in the zone. Bargains, both.

Chile: If ever you need an example of the unfairness of (wine) life, Exhibit A is probably Chile. For reasons that could make a nice little master's thesis in marketing, Chile first got stigmatized in the 1990s for selling pleasant but unexceptional commodity wines at low prices.

The problem was—and still is—that selling wines based on a low price is a race to the bottom. Someone, somewhere, will always be able to sell their wines even more cheaply.

That, in the proverbial nutshell, is what happened to Chile. In the space of just a few years, Chilean producers got double-teamed and body-slammed by Argentina, with its bottomless supply of inexpensive Malbec, and by Australia's massive wine companies, which process tanker-loads of bulk wines at preposterously low prices. (Life isn't completely unfair. In the race to the bottom, some Australian bulk producers themselves hit bottom and found themselves deeply in debt or even bankrupt.)

Fast forward to 2017. Chilean producers have wised up, making ever-better wines, both red and white. Prices remain low even though quality has improved dramatically. Chilean winegrowers now ruefully know that higher quality is their only way out of the low-price ghetto, however long it takes.

But life remains unfair at the moment, as Chilean wine prices remain disproportionately low for the newly improved quality. Their (profit) loss; our gain. Look to Chilean wine, both red (Cabernet Sauvignon; Carmenère) and white (Sauvignon Blanc) in 2017 as a source of much-better-than-you-recall quality at bargain prices.

Chianti Classico: I mentioned Chianti Classico in a recent column, noting that, "After decades of fumbling with "international" grape varieties and excessive oak, the latest Chianti Classico wines are purer and better-made than ever. Seriously underpriced at the moment."

I realize that I'm repeating myself, but I would like to underscore just what a bargain Chianti Classico is at the moment. While neighboring Brunello di Montalcino seems to get ever-higher prices, Chianti Classico is suffering from the "life is unfair” syndrome.

In the past decade, the best growers in the zone have really gotten their quality act together, concentrating on the best clones of Sangiovese as well as more frequently employing indigenous blending grapes such as Canaiolo Nero and Mammolo rather than excessive and unneeded additions of Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon not to mention excessive oak. The result are purer-tasting, highly individual wines.

But have these producers received the attention and higher prices they deserve? They have not. Partly it's their own marketing fault; partly it's the price of fashion. Everyone thinks they know Chianti, but the change has been substantial, even radical. Prices for many superb wines are currently stalled around $25 give or take a few bucks. Worth a new look, I assure you.

Is life unfair for many fine wines? It sure is. Enjoy it. After all, today's deal can easily, and surprisingly quickly, become tomorrow's fashion darling. And, of course, you know what happens then.

Eddie Earles
Kentucky —  January 17, 2017 11:58am ET
Campania, Basilicata, Umbria, and most of Spain are awash in modestly priced wines that outdrink pricey California offerings. Happy hunting!
Robert Hight
CA —  January 17, 2017 6:57pm ET
Hi Matt,
You don't have to go to France, Argentina or Chile to realize your life is unfair. Reread the WS tasting notes on recent Washington state wines, especially the Columbia Valley. For instance, nothing unfair about a winery making 170,000 cases of a 91 point cab that sells at discount for $7. Keep up the good work and buy American.

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