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The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Classified Sauternes

For some regions, it seems darn near impossible to find a bottle under $40, but the crafty shopper can get a taste of the greats for much less

Posted: Jan 22, 2013 10:45am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

Walkaround wine tastings and by-the-glass pours are a bit like movie trailers. You catch a glimpse of what to expect. Probably you can even tell whether you like it enough to buy a ticket. But to see the full picture, so to speak, you need to see how the wine drinks with food, how it develops in the glass and the cellar. You need multiple screenings.

Unfortunately, when tickets start at around $40, "moviegoing" becomes an expensive hobby. For many wine regions and styles in the world, this is about the entry-level price for a bottle in the U.S. market. But it's possible to get a sense of the techniques in the vineyard and the winery, the grapes, the quality of the vintages and even a bit of the terroir of the greats without dropping more than $20 on a bottle-benchmarking on a budget. In an earlier post, I recommended crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy's "Golden Gate" as a cousin to Champagne and Lirac for a taste of what Châteauneuf-du-Pape is all about.

I'm going to take a slightly different tack here. You can benchmark on a budget for Sauternes by drinking ... Sauternes.

Sauternes, the radiant sweet wine of Bordeaux's Left Bank made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, is typically pricey for good reason. The wine is notoriously tricky to make. Grapes require cool and fog to develop Botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot" that shrivels them, leaving high concentrations of sugar, but less grape for your wine; each vine may yield but a glass. (Read Sweet Wines 101.) The resulting wine is lightly to lusciously sweet, nicely taming spicy cuisine or tangoing with the rich, heady flavors of foie gras and blue cheeses. (Watch our Sauternes primer and Luscious Pairings with Sauternes videos.)

Can you really find first-growth Sauternes for under $20 a bottle? Try $13 a bottle. Here's how.

Instead of going for the grand vin, your best bet is to look for second labels, to which a number of châteaus are giving renewed attention. At Château Guiraud, for example, the second wine, Petit Guiraud, is not blended from a selection of inferior lots; rather it is sourced from a specific parcel on the property designated for that wine. "It's exactly the same blend as the first wine, and the selection in the vineyard when we are doing the harvest is the exact same as if we were 100 percent producing only the first wine," said brand ambassador Augustin Lacaille of Guiraud. Nearby first-growth Suduiraut has also recently doubled down focus on its second label, Castelnau; likewise, de Rayne Vigneau's Madame de Rayne.

Another handy thing about dessert wine and your penny jar: It comes in half-bottles. No less than two-thirds of Guiraud's output is in 375s. One of those little guys for the Petit Guiraud in the current, terrific 2009 vintage? About 13 bucks a pop at some retailers. Castelnau is just a few dollars more.

Then, of course, there is the en primeur, or futures, system Bordeaux uses to sell its wine two years in advance of release, at what may turn out to be a discount from the release price of the bottled wine. A half-bottle of Guiraud's 2011 grand vin can be had for as little as $25. This is a wine my colleague James Molesworth described as "a stunner in the making"—potentially a 96- to 99-point wine. The 2011s from first- and second-growth châteaus Doisy Daëne, Doisy-Védrines, Caillou, Clos Haut-Peyraguey, de Myrat and de Rayne Vigneau-a handful of other potentially classic Sauternes and Barsac-will set you back about the same or less.

But if you want something to drink now, high-quality second labels are increasingly serious wines. As Lacaille put it, "It's a good option to start educating the palate on Sauternes—and maybe to have an everyday Sauternes."

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

Atlanta, GA —  January 29, 2013 4:54pm ET
Great call Ben! When the '09s came out, a local big name retailer near me started shuffling out Doisy-Védrines '05 and '07 375 ml bottles for under $20. I stocked up and "fortified" (yeah, yeah...) the dessert wine portion of my little 250-bottle cellar.

This is a great option for those of us who can't afford (or can't get ourselves to pay hundreds of dollars for) the liquid gold of d'Yquem.

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