We identify certain wines with particular regions, known for producing classics. Bordeaux is the home of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, joined more recently by Napa Valley. Burgundy is the spiritual homeland of pinot noir and chardonnay. Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain set the standard for tempranillo. These classics can be expensive, so savvy wine lovers look for less-famous regions for delicious examples at relative bargain prices.
Take sauvignon blanc. It calls the Loire Valley home, and Sancerre, the top appellation, can command $30 or more for its top wines, with Pouilly-Fume close behind. But outstanding sauvignon blanc is produced from other areas of the Loire, most of them labeled as Touraine or Vin de France and costing much less. This region is also known as the “garden of France,” and is a tourist favorite for its ornate chateaus. In some vintages, such as 2017, I find these wines offer a better bang for the buck than Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume.
In my recent tastings of several wines from the Loire, I was especially impressed by the 2017 from Domaine Sauvete, a fourth-generation family producer in Touraine. The wine shows a minerally structure that suggests the chalky soils of the region and a depth to satisfy an ardent Sancerre lover. Another favorite was the Petit Bourgeois 2016, from Henri Bourgeois, a leading Sancerre producer. Labeled simply Vin de France, it was ripe and mouth-filling, a more populist expression, if you will, than the Sauvete’s more philosophical voice. These wines are inexpensively priced simply because they aren’t grown in the ritzy areas of the Loire — sort of like buying a home in Queens instead of Manhattan.
The New World makes some great sauvignon blanc, too, of course. California’s tend toward the opulent, and New Zealand has crafted its own racy style. Chile produces some great bargains, especially in cooler regions such as the Casablanca Valley. Veramonte is a perennial favorite and widely available.
If chardonnay is more your style, and you don’t want to invest in the classic wines of Meursault or Montrachet in Burgundy, look first to Macon-Villages, an appellation in southern Burgundy that offers French style without the pedigree or the price. Chablis, on Burgundy’s northern edge, can also be wonderful, though the more famous ones are pricey.
But chardonnay, as the world’s most popular white wine, is made everywhere. Some regions we don’t associate with chardonnay actually produce world-class examples. Argentina’s Mendoza is known for malbec, but its high-altitude vineyards also render some delicious chard. Look for any bottling from Catena, Salentein or Zuccardi, especially. New Zealand also produces exceptional chardonnay, though it can be hard to find in U.S. markets. But if you see the names Neudorf or Felton Road on a restaurant wine list, pay attention.
If you love Riesling, you’re in luck: Germany makes some delicious cheap ones as well as the world’s best. As I write this, I’m sipping a delicious, minerally 2017 Humphreys Vineyard Riesling from Keuka Spring Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes. I also enjoy Riesling from Washington’s Columbia Valley (Poet’s Leap), Oregon’s Willamette Valley (Brooks), New Zealand’s Marlborough (Spy Valley) and Australia (Frankland Estate).
But if you’re a red wine lover, and Napa Valley cabernet is too pricey, look to Alexander Valley or Sonoma Valley in Sonoma County. Okay, that doesn’t save you much money. Try Paso Robles, where Eberle makes cabernets in the $20 to $40 range. Still too dear? Look further south — way south — to Chile and Argentina, where good bargain cabernet is plentiful. They also make expensive cabernets and Bordeaux-style blends that rival top California and European wines in quality if not cachet. For pinot noir, look to wines from Bio Bio in Chile and Patagonia in Argentina.
If all this seems like a whirlwind tour, here’s some simple advice to keep you grounded. Ask your local retailer to recommend a wine that provides exceptional value for the price. Tell her about a wine you liked, preferably with more detail than, “It was red, and there was an animal on the label.” Be willing to stretch your comfort zone. On your next visit, explain what you liked or did not like about that wine, and ask for a different recommendation. Before you realize it, you will have a delicious rapport with your retailer. And you will have explored the world without even splurging for a plane ticket.