The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Champagne and Châteauneuf

For the world's loftiest wines, the price of admission can be too steep to get familiar. Here's the trick to benchmarking on a budget
Aug 14, 2012

I admit: I'm a sucker for the classics, the stuff out of Bordeaux, or Oporto, or the Mosel tippled at feasts and fairs by princes, pashas and men in powdered wigs. These made up our modern wine world in its infancy, and these are the styles that taught the rest of the world how wine is made. I think it's important that they remain a part of a drinker's education and evolution. I also think that to understand a wine, you need to drink it, regularly, from different producers and vintages.

Here's the rub: Greenness in wine experience rarely correlates with green in a bank account, and there are certain appellations that you essentially cannot crack without at least $35 to put down on a bottle.

So I benchmark on a budget. How? By drinking on the edge. Consider: Neighbors Châteaus Cos-d'Estournel (an esteemed Bordeaux second-growth) and Lilian Ladouys (a once-sleepy domaine on a recent dramatic surge in quality) are separated by a stone's throw—and $325, in the current 2009 Bordeaux vintage.

Sure, you can't fully experience the real thing unless you open your wallet for it. But there are satellite wines in orbit of the stars, and through tasting these, you can learn the regional techniques in the vineyard and the winery, the grapes, the quality of the vintages and even, without edging too far toward heresy, a bit of the terroir of the greats. When you do finally pop that Barolo or trockenbeerenauslese Riesling, only the last piece of the puzzle will fall into place: What makes it so special.

For examples, I'll start with two French legends and their under-$20 not-quites.

Champagne

Land in Champagne is second only to Bordeaux's Pomerol appellation in price; grand cru vines change hands for $800,000 an acre. Some folks there can barely afford to make the stuff, let alone sell it in the United States for under $35. But there's bubbly to be had outside the bubble.

Crémant de Bourgogne is what you're looking for, specifically those that pull as much Chardonnay and Pinot as possible from Burgundy's "Golden Gate," which is the Auxerrois, Chablis and the Tonnerrois. This area—in its northerly location, its climate and its celebrated expression of Kimmeridgean limestone-clay soils—is more a kid sister to Champagne than the red-headed (or blonde) stepchild of Burgundy.

"It's not exactly the same type of limestone as in Champagne, but very similar," said Jean-Philippe Archambaud, the director of Simonnet-Febvre. Though foremost a Chablis house, it blends five bottles of crémant too. All crémant is made in the traditional méthode Champenoise, and good producers use only Chardonnay and Pinot, aging their wines as much as four years before release. (Vintage Champagne must be aged three.) "I have a lot of fun," said Archambaud, "when I do blind tastings."

For those who like bracing bubbly, some crémant makers are even getting in on Champagne's trendy, but very tricky, dalliance with the zero dosage practice. (Forgoing the tiny amount of added sugar in the dosage makes a crisper wine, but the high acidity can veer into unbalanced tartness.)

Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The regal wines of the Southern Rhône's flagship region enter the market at about $35 these days as well.

The terroir of Châteauneuf is surely most famous for its heat-holding round stones, the galets roulés, that keep vines warm at night. As Fabrice Delorme, co-owner of Châteauneuf producer Domaine de la Mordorée, explained to me, around 1.7 million years ago the Rhône River was so big that its force carried these rocks and deposited them where they are today. Now the Rhône has slimmed down, but the stones remain—and not just on the Châteauneuf side.

They don't extend east to current darling appellations Gigondas and Vacqueyras. However, in the Lirac appellation, said Delorme, who also works the left bank, "most of the terroir is very similar" to Châteauneuf. The rocks and grapes are the same—primarily Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre for reds—but where one appellation is remembered for the blessing of the pope, the other, Lirac, was convicted of introducing phylloxera to France. Don't let that scare you off.

What budget benchmarks would you recommend?

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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