A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
It’s not difficult to think of overpriced wines, but I’d like to dwell on the much more appetising subject of wines that I believe are routinely underpriced.
Nowhere is my contention that there is no direct relationship between wine quality and price better illustrated than in Bordeaux. The first growths have succeeded in positioning themselves as luxury brands, products that only the mega-rich and pampered wine writers such as myself ever get to taste. But there is real quality at the other end of the spectrum among the so-called petits châteaux, those without a famous name. They may not have quite such wonderful terroir (although the extent and boundaries of the classified growths are much more fluid than most wine consumers realise) but the owners of the petits châteaux often put just as much effort into maximising the quality of what they put in the bottle as their better-rewarded counterparts at smarter addresses.
The difference in quality between top and bottom ranks of the Bordeaux châteaux hierarchy is least marked in really successful, ripe vintages such as 2015, 2010 and 2009 when you don’t need tip-top terroir to make a good wine. I for one will be looking carefully at the 2015s of the so-called crus bourgeois.
France has more than its fair share of bargains. There has been the most effective shake-out in the Languedoc in the south so that many of the least good vineyards have been pulled up and a heartening proportion of the remaining players really are making seriously interesting wines with intensely local character.
Up in the hills the terroir is as propitious as anywhere, and blends of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre can often express it eloquently. But because the Languedoc has so little history of making fine wine, prices tend to be under half what they would be in a region with a longer tradition. Almost all wine properties there are pretty small too, so they have not been able to establish much presence and reputation on international markets – a shame for them but an opportunity for us wine lovers.
Perennially underpriced are Muscadet and Beaujolais, both French staples that were once much more fashionable than they currently are. Beaujolais has seen the most amazing turnaround in style and ambition with a new generation determined to make wines much more in the image of red burgundy than in the image of the old fast-fade Beaujolais Nouveau style.
As for Muscadet, prices are seriously depressed from the point of view of the growers, so that even fine examples with years of bottle age can be sold by The Wine Society at under £11. Indeed the Loire in general is a wonderful hunting ground for those looking for true value, especially as all but the most commercial wines of all colours age particularly well.
But for those who reckon the freshness and delicacy of a fine Loire wine is for wimps, there is always the Côtes du Rhône, a massive appellation with no shortage of sunshine and spicy grapes that have a framework all of their own – no need for expensive oak cooperage (this can be true of the Languedoc too). Most of the wine is red, much of it lip-smacking, but the whites are becoming increasingly interesting and refreshing. Hardly any Côtes du Rhône is at all expensive, although an exception is Château de Fonsalette made by the extraordinary Château Rayas of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The other day Fonsalette’s pure Syrah 1990 stood comparison with the famous Hermitage La Chapelle 1990 when served blind.
But when I’m asked for a blanket recommendation of underpriced white wines I always cite South Africa – and that was before the recent depreciation of the rand. Virtually all South African wines cost less than their counterparts from elsewhere. The reds are becoming increasingly refined but I have long been a fan of the whites, whether crisp Sauvignon Blancs, elegant Chardonnays or the wide range of styles of the Cape speciality grape Chenin Blanc. We’re also seeing more and more interesting, quintessentially South African blends of the produce of old vines.
Its red wine counterpart has long been Chile, even if for many years Chilean red was arguably too predictable: ripe, often rather monotone Merlot or Cabernet with more or less leafiness depending on whether yields were, respectively, high or low. But there is currently a revolution in Chilean winemaking and the range of styles and flavours, both red and white, has recently widened dramatically – without any concurrent rise in prices. Many of the vines supplying the more interesting wines are located in previously rather démodé regions in the south, notably Maule and Itata, where grape prices are low – almost too low for the local farmers. But there are now many light-bodied reds, and some interesting dry whites made from Muscat. And from vineyards close to the cooling influence of the Pacific, Chile can field an increasing amount of really good Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The fact that Americans are still to discover fine Chilean and South African wine has, alas for producers, helped to keep prices low.
One obvious candidate for underpriced wine is another unfashionable one: sherry. The prices of UK supermarket own-label sherries are almost criminally low and surely cannot continue at this level. I would not recommend their most basic bottlings, but most of the wines in superior supermarket own-label sherry ranges are dramatically underpriced – particularly the nuttier ones labelled Dry Amontillado, Dry Oloroso and Palo Cortado.
It is also quite easy to find the German wines that are underpriced: by heading for up-and-coming younger producers who are not (yet?) members of the prestigious VDP association of top estates. There are various organisations such as Generation Riesling that can provide a short cut to the winning combination of ambitious winemaking with relatively low prices.
In Italy it is generally a question of heading for wines that are currently out of the harshest spotlight of fashion such as Orvieto and Verdicchio for whites and Cirò, Chianti Classico, Dolcetto di Dogliani, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Valpolicella for reds.
The wines of Portugal are generally underpriced because historically the world’s wine trade has associated the country with cheap wine, even though quality is now stunning. And Spain can field a host of underpriced wines, if you avoid the most famous names of Priorat, Ribera del Duero and Rioja.
It may be easier than you think to find bargain bottles.
Tasting notes on all these wines can be found in our tasting notes database of 125,000 wine reviews.
SOME SPECIFIC BARGAIN BOTTLES
Comte Leloup du Château de Chasseloir, Cuvée des Ceps Centenaires 2010 Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine (£8.75 The Wine Society)
A A Badenhorst, Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2014 South Africa (£10.80ish Bottle Apostle, Stone Vine & Sun, SA Wines Online, Quaff and others)
Le Clos du Château L'Oiselinière 2009 Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine (£10.95 The Wine Society)
Emilio Lustau Dry Oloroso NV Sherry (£6 a half-bottle Morrisons)
Clos des Fous, Locura 1 Chardonnay 2012 Cachapoal, Chile (£13.50 Eclectic Tastes)
Braunewell, Essenheimer Kalkstein Riesling 2013 Rheinhessen (£15.95 Lea & Sandeman)
Miguel Torres, Reserva de Pueblo 2013 Itata, Chile (£9.75 Noel Young)
Quinta Nova Colheita 2011 Douro (£22 a magnum The Wine Society)
Ch Greysac 2008 Médoc (£11.99 Majestic, £9.99 if any six bottles are bought)
Domaine des Terres Dorées, A L’Ancien 2013 Beaujolais (£12.55 Black Dog Wines)
Ch d’Or et de Gueules, Trassegum 2011 Costières de Nîmes (£14.99, reduced to £12.99 in March, The Real Wine Co)
Dani Landi, Las Uvas de la Ira 2013 Méntrida, Spain (£23 The Sampler or £19.86 mail order from Cru World Wine)