But there are ways to experience the character, and even a sense of the thrill these wines can give, without defaulting on your mortgage. Here are three strategies that will require some time and research, and certainly your attention, with a modest investment — but not a fortune.
First, look for second labels of the great wines. Barrels of wine that don’t make the cut for the top cuvée are still delicious, and they often get blended into a “second label.” Admittedly, they can still be pricey. Chateau Lafite Rothschild’s second wine, Carruades de Lafite, has ridden the coattails of the winery’s first growth wine into the triple digits, costing nearly $250 a bottle from Total Wine through Wine-Searcher.com for futures of the 2018 vintage. But Domaine de Chevalier, a grand cru producer in Bordeaux’s Graves Pessac-Leognan appellation costing about $80, produces a second wine called L’Esprit de Chevalier for about $30 and a delightful red wine called La Petite Lune that costs about $15. These would be a great start on an exploration of the wines of Bordeaux. (Chevalier makes great white wines, too.)
Second, focus on appellations, starting from a larger region and working your way to smaller districts. Want to explore Napa cabernet sauvignon? Chateau Montelena, a venerable estate, makes a Napa Valley cabernet that sells for about $50. The estate cabernet, from the winery’s vineyards near Calistoga in northern Napa Valley, costs up to three times that. Frog’s Leap winery, in Napa’s Rutherford district, sells its estate cabernet for about $65. These are small, family-owned wineries. Robert Mondavi winery offers cabernets from several Napa Valley districts, as well as its single-vineyard wines.
Pinot noir is notable for expressing the flavor of the place where it’s grown, and winemakers love exploring these nuances. Siduri winery makes a wide variety of pinots from California and Oregon. Its Santa Lucia Highlands wine, followed by single-vineyard bottlings from Garys’ Vineyard and Rosella’s Vineyard, will give you a good view of Central California terroir. In Sonoma County, look for Gary Farrell Vineyard’s Russian River Selection. If you like it, consider ordering some of the winery’s single-vineyard wines from Hallberg or Rochioli vineyards.
For Oregon pinot, my favorite wineries are too numerous to list. Brooks Winery, Domaine Drouhin, Eyrie and J. Christopher make a good start. Look for a Willamette Valley appellation wine, then explore wines from the valley’s sub-appellations, such as Eola-Amity Hills, Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton.
This approach works slightly differently with imported wines. Brunello di Montalcino may be the ultimate expression of Tuscan sangiovese, but it starts around $50 a bottle and can range into the triple digits for top wines. Look for its sibling, Rosso di Montalcino, at about $30. Rossos are usually made from grapes grown on younger vines, and they are not aged as long as brunellos. But they are often delicious, packing a lot of value for their price. And once you explore rosso di Montalcino, branch out to rosso di Montepulciano, the younger version of vino nobile di Montepulciano. (Montalcino and Montepulciano are both traditional hill towns in Tuscany. Montepulciano is not to be confused with the grape of that name grown in the province of Abruzzo.)
Sauvignon blanc fans know Sancerre as the preeminent appellation for the grape in France’s Loire Valley. Several other appellations, including Quincy and Pouilly-Fumé, offer great value for less. And wines labeled with the wider appellation, Touraine, can be delicious for $8 to $15, about half the price of most from Sancerre.
My third strategy for value is to look for producers from famous regions who have branched out with vineyards in less famous areas. My recent feature on the greatest values of 2019 highlighted three examples. Jean-Luc Terrier and Christian Collovray, brothers-in-law vignerons from Macon, in Burgundy, expanded their business into the mountains of southwestern France near Limoux. Their Domaine Antugnac Chardonnay and La Closerie des Lys Pinot Noir are fantastic wines at very reasonable prices. Chablis producer Famille Brocard makes an outstanding chardonnay from just outside the boundaries of Chablis, carrying the rather plain designation of Vin de France. Even after a price hike from recent U.S. tariffs, it’s still a bargain at $15.
These wines may not stand out on a retail shelf amid the pretty labels with various critters. Investing in a good wine reference, such as the “World Atlas of Wine,” will aid your research. But your best ally is an independent wine retailer. They’ve already done the hard work.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to an appellation in the Loire Valley as Pouilly-Fuissé. In fact, it is Pouilly-Fumé. This version has been corrected.
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