SEVERAL YEARS AGO, serious wine consumers were desperately in search of a few fine wine values, but today's shopper has a cornucopia of reasonably priced wines to consider.
Before you rush off to your favorite wine shop with no particular buying strategy in mind, I offer some thoughts about what might be the smart buying decisions to make during the coming year.
There is no question that domestic wineries are feeling financial strains as a result of the dramatic increase in consumer interest in French and Italian imports. Prices are tumbling for California and East Coast wines as the wineries, wholesalers and retailers are confronted with increasingly swollen inventories. For this reason, California's best wines--cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and riesling--will offer excellent values over the next year.
In fact, the price gap between the bottom of the line of California jugs and the higher priced varietals is narrowing at a rapid pace, to the point that jug wines may even seem overpriced, given the difference in quality of their more expensive varietal cousins. Furthermore, the new California vintages of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay coming on the market are the 1980's and 1981's respectively. The 1980 cabernet sauvignons are the most intensely flavored and interesting wines since the excellent 1974 vintage, and should do much to help the cabernet sauvignon producers regain some of the glamour they have lost as a result of more recent mediocre vintages such as 1979, and the overrated 1978's.
The current crop of new chardonnays and sauvignon blancs on the market are from the 1981 vintage, a year that produced generously fruity, soft, fat wines which are ideal for present consumption. Additionally, they harmonize beautifully with the East Coast's seafood. They are rarely priced over $6.
France's wine producers have been the beneficiaries of several consecutive, very good and large crops. Buyers from countries whose currency has skyrocketed in value against the franc, notably the United States, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, have flocked to France in search of all types of French wines. Because French wines are lower priced than they have been in some time, values abound.
The most remarkable values are the very good 1982 muscadets retailing for $2.99 to $3.99, a price so low that some shoppers think there is something wrong with the wine. White burgundies from the Ma connais region are priced reasonably at $5 to $6.50 a bottle, as are the delightful, spicy white wines of Alsace. The only exceptions are the Alsatian wines that constitute the "special cuvee's" and "reserve" bottlings of producers; these wines still cost $10 or more. The 1981 and 1982 vintages for the Ma con region were quite successful. In particular, 1982 produced fat, flowered wines in Ma con. From Alsace, look for the very fine 1981's.
Quite surprisingly, another value from France is nonvintage champagnes. Several years ago forecasters had predicted a champagne shortage with prices skyrocketing. In fact, nonvintage champagne prices consistently topped $20 a bottle. Now the powerful dollar, combined with the huge vintage of 1982, has stabilized prices and in some instances, caused prices to drop. Many of the top nonvintage champagnes like Laurent-Perrier, Perrier-Jouet, Lanson and Lecart-Salmon, can be found for $14 to $16 a bottle, a full 25 percent less than these same champagnes sold for several years ago.
If such values from France are not exciting enough to put pressure on your purse or whet your palate, consider one other French gem. French red and white bordeaux are inundating the American marketplace. In addition to the good bargains that exist from the 1979 vintage, the 1980's are arriving, and if selected carefully, can provide shockingly good values. The 1981's will arrive this fall and next spring; their prices will be reasonable, and their quality very good. Yet it is neither the 1981's, the 1980's or the 1979's that I would put my money on. The 1982 red bordeaux constitutes the greatest vintage since 1961, and it may be another generation before such quality is seen again. These wines are available for sale as "futures" from local wine shops such as Calvert/Woodley, MacArthur Liquors, Morris Miller and Harry's, and the prices for many wines represent phenomenal bargains. These wines will no doubt represent the most publicized bordeaux wines in nearly two decades, and therefore, prices will only get higher.
If you have any money left after these buying tips, then what about the wonderful 1978 and 1979 Italian wines from Piedmont; the numerous well made Spanish riojas which are incredibly undervalued; the big explosive, heady, underrated wines of France's Rho ne Valley; the deliciously intense red wines of Australia; refreshing, bargain-priced flowery white wines from Germany, particularly the 1979's and 1981's; and the inexpensive, well made wines of South America? Most of these wines are widely available in good quantities, and from the best of these countries' producers. Oh . . . don't forget to latch on to a few bottles of the 1977 vintage ports, the greatest vintage for port since World War II. In a few years, they will become scarce and very, very expensive. And finally, don't forget to save a few dollars for a good corkscrew.