Dan Berger

The pursuit of wines selling for less than they should

The task of the month was to find a set of what was termed “affordable reds,” presumably so our readers will be able to find a set of wines they can purchase and enjoy and know they were not being ripped off.

This is a commendable goal (it always is) and not taken lightly. It’s what I do on regular basis -- factoring in the price when I’m evaluating wine.

I do this almost daily and have a fairly rigid routine that almost all wine judges employ, to one degree or another. It calls for all wines to be held to a guideline in which various factors must be considered if the tasting is to be validated as meaningful to consumers.

Do all the wines have to display varietal characteristics? Isn’t it best when a Merlot smells and tastes like one? (Preferably yes.)

Are there regional elements that give a wine a bit more value? (Such a bonus is devoutly to be wished.)

If there are amorphous red blends in which no varietal is particularly dominant, does the style of the wine enter into a final assessment by the judges? (It ought to.) Or is it merely matter of preference that gives the wine a higher rating? (I’d hope not.)

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And finally, especially in this case, what is meant by the word affordable?

For a wine lover who adores dark red wines with a lot of oak, $50 is seemingly not much to pay – not when Napa Cabernet Sauvignons fetch $100 or more. That $50 becomes very affordable once you win the lottery. But hard to justify if you just suffered a pay cut.

A sample bottle of a fine Condrieu arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, so I chilled and opened it. It was nice, lightly floral (some of the Viognier, undoubtedly) and rather complex with the Marsanne adding weight and other grapes lending complexity.

That afternoon I had a business meeting with some people who might appreciate the wine, including one who was a Rhône Valley white wine lover, so I brought it along.

Everyone was impressed with it, none more excited than the Rhône Valley lover, because he knew that the retail price would be high. And it was. About $85 a bottle. Not really affordable for most people.

This is not really a wine for the masses. The reason for telling the tale is simply to illustrate that just because a wine is expensive is no reason to get excited about it. Although some people still will.

Indeed, some people assume that any high-priced wine is good, and in the case of “affordable reds,” the goal is to find wines that are worth a lot more than they sell for.

In my personal evaluation system, I rated the Condrieu before knowing its retail price, and thought it probably ought to sell for about $25 to $35. So $85 is considerably more than I think consumers should spend.

Am I prejudiced against Condrieu? Perhaps.

But as I taste through a set of wines, I have the consumer’s best interest at heart and believe strongly that the word affordable has to have some validity in virtually all wines -- even with First Growth Bordeaux.

Three years ago, a San Francisco wine merchant, which had been selling a particular 2006 New Zealand Syrah for $25 a bottle (a fair price) dropped the price to about half of that. It simply had not been selling.

I immediately ordered a case because the word “affordable” had suddenly become paramount in this particular case. At $25, it wasn’t bad. At closer to $12, it was a bargain.

Such a situation occurs about once a year for me. And I often end up with more wine than I really need.

But it’s always a pleasure to have a substantial quantity of a truly great wine that cost a lot less than it ought to.

In the last decade, I have found very few wines in the $10 price range I’d describe as affordable. Usually such wines are simply commodities that are serviceable and have little distinctiveness.

For me it takes about $20 or so to find a bargain.

And it happens a lot more often with more obscure wines then it does with mainstream varietals. Want a bargain? Seek out Barbera, Sangiovese, or Gamay. Cabernet, if it is any good, is almost always priced just a bit too high. So is most Syrah.

In the affordable red tasting you will see some blended wines that have Syrah as a key blending grape. Nothing wrong with this of course, but for a wine to exhibit the excellence I seek, the Syrah has to exhibit some distinctive varietal aromas.

Plums and raisins do not offer such distinctiveness. Aromas of Black pepper, violets, wet earth, and leafy characteristics do.

These are the aromas we find in cooler climates. We also prefer red cherries (Grenache?), dried blueberries (Barbera or Sangiovese), green tea/black olives (Merlot), and strawberry/spice (Zinfandel) in such blends.

We shouldn’t abandon this subject without a nod to moderate alcohol. Affordable reds, to me, call for a balance and harmony that provides an opportunity for food compatibility, and 16% alcohol usually does not provide this.

It’s one thing for people to lavish praise on such obviously over-the-top pomposity, but when it comes to affordable wine consumption, or even more exalted offerings, the best bets, for me, show alcohol levels that are moderate, in most cases below 14%.

A final suggestion here is to embrace orphan wines. It’s where the best values always are.

Madeline Angevine, Riesling, Scheurebe, Gewürztraminer, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Gamay, and the like rarely are priced too high.

True, a few of these examples are white wines and the task at hand was to find affordable reds. But the point is that obscure varietals usually are the best values anyway, especially if you have already developed a palate that appreciates distinctiveness.

Now that our tasting panel has vetted the field for your enjoyment, you are free to go shopping, more empowered than your neighbors who do not subscribe to this august journal.

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