I depart from my usual column about wine to clear up a number of emails I have received concerning the ancient conundrum of price versus quality.
I will start with a line that I have frequently used: I have tasted some $10 wines that were exceptional and $125 wines that were not worth a tenth of their price. Since the first cavepeople figured out that if they squeezed the juice out of some fruit, let it sit around for a week or so, a beverage with an interesting after-effect will occur, as will a critic.
With that out of the way, we get to the subject of this column: With the price of wine escalating at a rather alarming rate, what are the best buys for your shrinking wine-buying dollar?
There are certain constant costs in making any wine, such as the bottle, the label, the closure, the shipping and the salaries of those involved. These costs differ depending on the country, and as William Shakespeare put it, “there’s the rub.” There are many wine-producing nations of the world that, for whatever reason, have a lower cost of living and thus can produce wine at a noticeably lower cost. That doesn’t necessarily indicate lesser quality.
First and foremost among wine-producing countries is Italy, a nation that is the most prolific wine producer of the world. The wine competition in Italy is so fierce that the producers know that a poor review could ruin them. It therefore also stands to reason that Italian wines, regardless of the price, will be a worthy wine.
I am not intimating that the first taste of a $7 Italian wine will leave you passed out on the floor with your eyes rolled back in your head in ecstasy, but rather that it would be an enjoyable example of the variety. It also is a fact that Italians are not dumping their lesser wines on “those unsophisticated hicks in the USA.” Since we have a little thing called the internet, a bad reception here would reach Italy in seconds and do considerable damage to the winemakers’ product and reputation.
Two South American countries that are shipping prodigious amounts of quality affordable wines to this country are Argentina and Chile. Both of these countries have growing conditions similar to California as they are located as far south of the equator as California is north.
In fact, both nations’ major grape-growing regions have conditions that emulate the Napa Valley with one glorious exception. The vineyards are located on both sides of the Andes and are irrigated, in part, by the mineral-laden water that runs from those mountains. This water adds a wonderful mineral element to their wines.
Last on my list of nations producing excellent and affordable wines is Spain, which has an interesting wine history. When the Great French Wine Blight almost destroyed all of the vineyards of France in the 19th century, many of the country’s grape growers and winemakers headed south to Spain, which had not yet been hit by the blight. The wines they produced there were at best miserable as the conditions in Spain were very different than those of France. It took many years of work but by the 1950s, Spanish wines were right up there with the best of them. Here too, a lower price had brought doubts to buyers, but with modern Spanish wines, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) no longer applies. It has taken a long time for Spanish wines to recover from their former image, but they most definitely have recovered and then some.
The conclusion here should be to never judge a wine by its price tag as there are many excellent wines selling for around $10 that are more than worthy of your attention. There is a world of discovery and excitement just sitting there on dealers’ shelves to entertain and excite customers, all at very inviting prices.
Wine columnist Bennet Bodenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.