- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Loving the List: Best Bargain Bottles
Just about everyone loves to dine out for special occasions – celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions, a juicy book contract, whatever – and on these occasions we might be in the mood to splurge. We choose a fine and expensive restaurant, and expect to blow a small fortune on dinner. For these rare and expensive nights, it’s kind of exciting to throw caution to the winds and order that rare and expensive wine: a beautiful Burgundy, a killer Cab, a cool Cuvée de Prestige Champagne, a sexy Syrah. Enough alliteration; you know what I mean. A night of exotic fun, at least until the credit card statement arrives.
Special occasion dining, complete with special and expensive wines is a rare, hopefully memorable treat. But most of us also like to go out to get a bite to eat with friends and/or family at a favorite Hudson Valley restaurant, not to celebrate anything special, but simply to reaffirm friendship, to catch up on the latest news, or just to hang out and let someone else do the cooking and do the dishes. On days or nights like these, you’re looking to relax, and you’re certainly not interested in blowing a wad of cash or credit on wine. So, how do you drink good wine without spending a lot of money? It’s actually pretty easy.
First, don’t pick a fancy, expensive restaurant. Meet your friends at a place where the food and wine are good, the service is bright and friendly, and the price is reasonable. Ask to see the wine list as soon as you sit down, to give you some time to peruse the list. Don’t hesitate to ask for a couple of copies of the list if more than one person at the table is interested in choosing wine. I really like informal restaurants where the wine list is appended to the menu, so that everybody gets a chance to look at the list.
Don’t be afraid to settle on a per-bottle price range for the wines you plan to order. Choosing wine is not an exercise in impressing people with how much money you spend (or think you have to spend). It’s about ordering an enjoyable wine to accompany an enjoyable meal. If the wine list seems out of whack - too expensive for the place, or just plain too expensive for you, make a note of this, and carefully consider if you want to come back next time. One solution to this problem: order your wine by the glass, and stay within your budget.
Thankfully, the above scenario happens less and less these days, as restaurateurs know that their customers want to enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner, and if those customers are unhappy, they don’t come back. Most good restaurants have “good” wine lists: a choice of enjoyable wines at various price points. There are low-priced wines, moderately-priced wines, expensive wines, and ultra-expensive wines to choose from, but what really constitutes good value in a bottle of wine?
“Value” is a relative term; relative to how much money you have to spend on a bottle of wine. Ironically, if money is no object, the most expensive wine on the list might be the best “value,” because that 1990 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is selling for just about the same price as in a good wine shop, with almost a zero percent markup. Unfortunately, the price is $325. So, if you have the money, this is a great value. But let’s stop dreaming, and get back to reality.
Most of the time “value wine” is represented by a moderately-priced wine that delivers contentment. It under-promises (price) and over-delivers (pleasure). The good news is that there are lots of “value wines” appearing on wine lists, if you just know where to look.
Just as it’s unlikely that you are going to choose that $325 Brunello as your “value” wine, I would also would warn you away from choosing the least expensive wines on the list, especially if they are from well-known New World regions, like California, Chile and Australia. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these wines, but they might not represent great value. I’ve seen Chardonnay from California, Cabs from Chile, and Shiraz wines from Australia that retail in wine shops for less than $10 selling for more than $30 on many wine lists. Although $30 is usually a reasonable price to pay for a bottle of wine in a restaurant, the markup on these wines can sometimes be as high as 500%(!). If the restaurant buys the wine for the wholesale price of $6 and charges $30 for the wine, there’s your 500% markup. This does not represent good – or even mediocre – value. Plus, wines in these categories can usually be found easily in wine shops, where at $10 to $12 retail they are good values. So, drink these wines at home, not in restaurants.
If you want to find the best values on a wine list, go off the beaten path; wines that aren’t as well-known as they should be from regions that are just beginning to gain notoriety for the quality of their wines. Take a serious look at these wines; they often represent good value, and certainly deliver the goods: the pleasure of a good wine at a good price.
Over time, I’ve found that certain wines deliver excellent value on most wine lists. While not all of these may be represented on every restaurant’s list, some of them will be. This list is not complete by any means, because by the time you read it I’m sure that other value-driven but delicious wines will pop up on lists all over the country. But for now, here are some consistently outstanding wine values.
If you love bubbles, there are great alternatives to Champagne, which is consistently the most expensive sparkling wine on any wine list. Good alternatives include: Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, Cremant d’Alsace for France, American bubbly from California, Washington State, Oregon, the Finger Lakes of New York State, and New Mexico.
For good value from New World wine regions, stay away from most California Chardonnay and instead consider Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris from the Golden State. You don’t have to pass up all Chardonnay, however. Good values can be found from Oregon (Pinot Gris, too), and Washington State (also great values in Riesling and Gewürztraminer). New York State’s Finger Lakes produce excellent dry Riesling and Chardonnay, but the best values can be found in our own Hudson Valley (especially Chardonnay and Tocai Friulano from Millbrook and Chardonnay from Whitecliff).
Canadian Riesling and Chardonnay represents good value, but may be a bit hard to find on most lists. Easier to find is one of the best current values in white wine: Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. And don’t forget fragrant, floral, but dry Torrontes from Argentina.
Australian Riesling, usually semi-dry, is a great value, as are Aussie Sauvignon Blanc, Verdelho, and “Rhone” varietals such as Viognier, Marsanne, or Roussanne, sometimes blended together. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is very popular and is still an excellent value, as is New Zealand Chardonnay. South Africa shines with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and especially Chenin Blanc.
The Old World is a treasure trove for value wines if you know where to look. The Alsace region of France produces under-valued dry Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc. Light-to-medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc-based wines can be found at good prices from Bordeaux’s Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves districts. And fine white Burgundy can be quite affordable if you stay away from the more expensive districts and focus on the white wines of Chablis, Rully, Montagny, and Macon-Villages. If you like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley (both mineral-laden Sauvignon Blanc wines), look to Quincy and Menetou-Salon. Also from Loire try Muscadet Sevre et Maine (perfect with oysters or lighter fish dishes), as well as dry Saumur and off-dry Vouvray, both made from Chenin Blanc.
Spanish whites are eminently affordable, and include wines from Rueda, Penèdes, and Rioja, and especially Albariño from the Rías Baixas region, and Godello from Ribeiro.
Italy is best-known for its red wines, which makes its white wines economically seductive. From Piedmont, look for Gavi and Arneis; from Tuscany, Vermentino and Vernaccia di San Gimignano; from Umbria, Orvieto Classico; Soave Classico and Pinot Grigio from Veneto; Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Müller-Thurgau from the Alpine regions of Friuli and Alto Adige. One of the little-known and affordable pleasures in white wine is medium-full bdied Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico from Marche. Southern Italy and islands are great places to find affordable wines: Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo from Campania; Vermentino di Gallura from Sardinia; Chardonnay and blends of native varietals from Sicily.
Portugal’s Vinho Verde is remarkably light and remarkably inexpensive. Also look to dry Muscat from Terras do Sado and the white wines of Dão and Bucelas. Greek whites are still little-known and still excellent bargains. Look for whites made from Moschofilero, Malagousia, Robola, and Assyrtiko grapes, as well as international varietals and blends, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Don’t forget Germany and Austria: Riesling from the Rhine and Mosel River valleys of Germany and Grüner Veltliner from various Austrian regions.
RED AND ROSÉ WINES:
Dry rosé wines, so versatile with so many dishes, are almost always the best value on any wine list, and good to great rosés are produced all over the wine world. Pay special attention to wines from Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, as well as crisp rosés from California.
When it comes to red wines, it’s a big, wide, wonderful wine world. California Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and blends of some or all of these grapes are affordable, as is Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendocino County and the Sierra Foothills. Washington State produces value-driven Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rare Lemberger*. From New York, consider Long Island Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (and blends of these), and fine Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc from the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes. Look for the same varietals from Canada.
Chile’s single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines are great values, as are Argentine Malbec and Bonarda. South Australian Shiraz from the Barossa Valley and Grenache from McLaren Vale can be delicious. New Zealand and South Africa produce interesting and affordable Cabernet Sauvignon.
France has some real and surprising bargains, such as Pinot Noir from Alsace. Speaking of Pinot Noir, look for reds from Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits-Villages, Cote de Beaune-Villages, Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-les-Beaunes, Mercurey, Rully, Givry, and the blanket appellation, Bourgogne. True value is found in Beaujolais-Villages and the “Cru” Beaujolais wines, such as Moulin-A-Vent, Morgon, Brouilly, and Fleurie, all produced from Gamay grapes. The Loire Valley is best-known for its whites, so look for its reds: Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny made from Cabernet Franc, and Sancerre made from Pinot Noir. The Rhône Valley is packed with value: Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Rasteau, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Vacqueyras, and Gigondas. From the south of France – Midi and Provence - look for hearty reds such as Minervois, Fitou, Faugeres, Corbieres, Aix en Provence, and Côtes du Roussillon. Even Bordeaux produces some elegant but affordable reds from the St. Emilion, Lalande de Pomerol, Fronsac, and the Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg regions.
Spanish reds are becoming ever more popular, but are still reasonably priced. Wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, and especially the regions of Montsant, Bierzo, Cigales, Navarra, Toro, Jumilla, and Campo de Borja are worthy of your attention and your dollars. Portugal makes great reds that are literally underpriced. Look for wines from the Douro Valley, Bairrada, Beiras, Alentejo, Ribatejo, and Dão regions. Greece: excellent reds made from the Xynomavro grape, such as Naoussa, and the Agiorghitiko grape, such as Nemea, as well as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvigon, and blends.
Italy still makes great wine at great prices, you just have to know where to look on the list. From the Piedmont region seek out Nebbiolo d’Alba, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Grignolino. Tuscany: Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino, and Morellino di Scansano; Umbria: Lungarotti “Rubesco” and Caprai’s Rosso di Montefalco; Abruzzo: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo; Veneto: Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella “Ripasso,” Bardolino Classico Superiore, and Merlot; Friuli and Alto Adige: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Lagrein, and Teroldego Rotliano. From the south and islands of Italy look for Salice Salentino and Primitivo (it’s Zinfandel!) from Puglia; Aglianico del Vulture from Basilicata; Cannonau di Sardegna from Sardinia, and Nero d’Avola from Sicily.
Enjoying wines at enjoyable prices often requires us to try something new, something unusual. More often than not, our sense of adventure is amply rewarded. So, the next time you dine out, take a walk on the wild side and choose a wine that appeals to your taste and to your wallet. Blaufrankisch from Austria, anyone? (red, delicious, and affordable, and it’s the same grape as that rare Lemberger* from Washington State).
Some Hudson Valley Restaurant Value Comparisons:
Brunello di Montalcino, La Togata 2000: $90
Rosso di Montalcino, Marchesato Degli Aleramici 2005: $36
(Both 100% Sangiovese from the same wine region in Tuscany, Italy)
Barolo, “Marcenasco,” Ratti 2003:$80
Nebbiolo d’Alba, “Sontuoso,” Valdinera 2005: $45
(Both 100% Nebbiolo from the Langhe region of Piedmont, Italy)
Freelance Café and Wine Bar
Cornas, “Granit 30,” Vincent Paris 2005: $77
Crozes-Hermitage, Guigal 2004: $39
(Both 100% Syrah from the northern Rhône Valley, France)
Chardonnay, Grable Vineyard, Napa Valley 2005: $77
Chardonnay, Millbrook, Hudson River Region 2006: $29
The Red Onion
Cava, “Brut Reserva,” Dibon, Spain NV: $24
Brut, Veuve Clicquot, Champagne NV: $80
Meursault, “Le Meix Sous Le Château,” Jean-Phillippe Fichet 2000: $96
Rully Blanc, “La Chaume,” Jacques Dury 2005: $41
(Both oak-fermented Chardonnay from Burgundy, France)