This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
So, in straitened times, what sort of wines are likely to offer the best value? This is hardly an original topic but I hope that, like most unoriginal topics, it will be useful.
The stunningly obvious candidates in my view are the less expensive wines of the southern Rhône. For between £5 and £8 (or well under $20) a bottle you can find a host of wonderfully rich, herb-scented, characterful reds - and a few whites too. The vintages currently available, 2007, 2006 and 2005, were all excellent and at this price level most of the wines on offer should be drinking well already. Look out for names such as, most obviously, Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Costières de Nîmes, and, just north of the fashionable Luberon, Côtes du Ventoux, where quality has soared in recent years. The dreadfully punning brand Chat-en-Oeuf red Côtes du Ventoux and Vin de Pays d'Oc white counterpart spring to mind. These wines, made by the British importers Boutinot at their winery there, are adorned with, yes, a cat on an egg, but the real joke is the standard price: £4.99 at Waitrose, Asda, Booths and Morrisons. These wines taste as though they should cost at least 50% more.
Of similar structure – relatively high alcohol but finishing dry rather than sweet in the French manner – are the wines of Roussillon. The winemakers of this Catalan corner of southern France seemed to slumber for many a year but have woken up with a start, or have perhaps been shaken awake by the advent of so many incomers from elsewhere. A higher and higher proportion of the ancient bushvines here are being used to provide great-value, if sometimes rather heady, reds. Some of the more obvious bargains include Marks & Spencer's Grenache Noir 2007 Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, which tastes as though it should cost so very much more than £5.99 a bottle
Between the southern Rhône and Roussillon lies the vast but shrinking sea of vineyards that is the Languedoc. Inevitably in the world's single biggest wine region, quality is all over the place. A wide range of individual domaines are hand-crafting wines of real character and selling them at very fair prices. Others are perhaps a bit unrealistic in their pricing. And then there is an ocean of very ordinary wine – much of it from the co-ops that have long dominated the region. A particularly noble exception to the lack of vision that has been endemic within the Languedoc's co-operatives is Mont Tauch in the village of Tuchan in Fitou and Corbières country, which has for some years been one of the most nimble southern French co-ops at providing wines for export markets. One of my favourites of their many bottlings is their Fitou Les Douze (£6.99 at Majestic), a fiery but well structured blend of the produce of 12 of their best local growers. Fitou L'Exception is one pound more.
Lovers of French wine in general would do well to stock up now, before new shipments at stiff euro prices dominate the shelves and wine lists. If you can find lesser but well chosen red (and, again, white) bordeaux you will be doing well, for the same reason. The Wine Society of Stevenage is particularly fastidious in its selection from the thousands of wines available here. You do have to pay a membership fee to join this society but its aim is not to make a profit and it does have some of the best deals available for fine wine storage if that is of interest. Snap up 2005 reds and 2006 whites from Bordeaux while ye may.
This advice applies of course to any wines made in the Eurozone. Spain has long been a source of some of the best-value reds available, like those of Roussillon over the Pyrenees, generally the produce of old bushvines, particularly Garnacha, Grenache's Spanish antecedent which was for so long undervalued by Spaniards in love with Tempranillo and imported French vine varieties. Marks & Spencer have two particularly fine examples. Their Old Vine Garnacha Montsant is £8.99, so hardly bargain basement, but a steal compared with the Priorats made just next door. The other M&S Garnacha (La Sabrosita 2007 reduced from £5.49 to £4.39 until 31 Jan) comes from Calatayud, which, with Cigales and Campo de Borja, is a reliable source of red wine value. Much further south on Spain's Mediterranean coast, Jumilla and increasingly Alicante are also making wines expressly to appeal to British and American drinkers. Casa de la Ermita has been in the vanguard of this agreeable development in Jumilla but they are by no means alone nowadays.
One particular favourite Spanish red bargain of mine coincidentally also comes with, like the Chat-en-Oeuf, a British-born label attached. Guy Anderson's The Pilgrimage Mencia 2006 from the revived Bierzo region is beautifully made by Master of Wine Norrel Robertson and is now £7.19 from Tesco. Mencía is a fascinating, highly individual north-western Spanish grape variety and most Bierzos cost far more than this.
Obvious examples are those made by the Palacios family (see Richard Hemming on Alvaro Palacios' current releases, which include the most expensive Priorat, L'Ermita - no relation to Jumilla's producer Casa de la Ermita). Rafael Palacios has been eloquently proving that Spain's white wines are becoming increasingly interesting and substantial. The Albariños of Galicia in the cool, wet north-west are reliably refreshing - if rarely bargains. But Rafael Palacios has been working to great effect in the nearby Valdeorras region. The top bottling, As Sortes, is no bargain but what I imagine is the second wine, Louro do Bolo 2007 Valdeorras, is almost better for immediate drinking and sells for around 12 euros in Spain. (Apologies – I was thinking old currency that this would translate into my chosen price bracket in pounds and dollars. It's still worth seeking out, I promise.) And Rioja makes so much wine that there are certainly bargains to be had here, especially among the fruity young, or joven, reds.
Bargain Italian wines are a little more difficult to sniff out but there is a host of keenly priced Chiantis and Valpolicella – not to mention Dolcettos – as well as, from Sicily, Puglia and other points south in Italy, many a special export varietal bottling of the likes of Nero d'Avola and Primitivo for spicy reds and Fiano, Falanghina and Catarratto for white wine drinkers. You could do worse than look at the new Ecco Guide to the Best Wines of Italy for some pointers to the best wines under $25 (although admittedly most of the 35 highlighted hover around the $20 mark).
And then of course there is many a bargain from outside Europe – although currency rates are currently so volatile that it can be difficult to give reliable advice, and wine merchants are finding that they have had to participate in money markets, like it or not. The Australian dollar has been particularly unpredictable recently, while prices of New Zealand wines should – in theory – be softening thanks to the vast 2008 vintage and a friendly exchange rate. Just one wine-producing country has indisputably benefited from recent currency movements. South Africa has long been arguably the world's best-value source of white wine bargains and this phenomenon has only intensified in recent months. Red wine quality is also improving rapidly although Chile continues to supply the UK at least with more good-value red at under £6 a bottle than any other non-European country.
Expect to see many a discount over the next few months, but choose wisely with the above advice in mind.