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An over-inflated investment market has put many of the top echelon of fine wines beyond the reach of the average wine lover. Don’t despair, says Andrew Catchpole, there are many excellent alternatives to the big names that stand up to cellaring and are great, affordable drinking to boot
Over the past couple of decades the notion of buying and cellaring the top fine wines has become no more than a pipe dream for most people. A rampant investment market has seen prices inflated to a point where only the very wealthiest can seriously contemplate opening and drinking big-name bottles without inwardly blanching at the price tag attached. This top-end market, led by Bordeaux’s celebrated big hitters, plus a smattering of Burgundy, has become increasingly detached from an ever-growing and eminently more affordable market laden with opportunities to source, cellar and actually drink excellent wines.
Indeed, as Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine puts it: ‘Fine Wine is a nebulous term… The extent to which this category of wine coincides with the best
wine the world produces has declined slowly but steadily since the 1970s.’ What’s more, this trend has, if anything, accelerated since this (admittedly old) edition was printed. This is due to
improvements in both winemaking techniques and vineyard management, plus exploration of new regions and the realisation of the potential of old regions. These factors have combined to lift the
quality of wines available to an unprecedented degree. Whether you’re looking for wines to age and enjoy or drink in glorious youth, a spot of adventurous and off-piste buying will ensure that you
are not in competition with the big bucks of the global financial elite.
‘En primeur Bordeaux has shot itself in the foot,’ says one purveyor of fine wines, who wished to remain anonymous. However, there is a secondary, highly fragmented and less frenetic future wine market (wine sold before bottling) that is well worth considering. Merchants and agents such as Berry Bros & Rudd, Tanners, Bibendum, Armit, Lay & Wheeler, Awin Barratt Siegel and many others offer en primeur or ‘lying abroad’ offers (where the wine is purchased before release and remains in the country of production, still in barrel), especially for Rhône wines, plus a smattering of other leading lights including top Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese and even occasional headliners from the New World. Of course, these tend to be among the most fêted wines a region has to offer, but even so they typically fall outside the wild speculation and price inflation that underscores en primeur Bordeaux (recent market fluctuations notwithstanding).
An excellent example is Tanners’ second Douro ‘lying abroad’ offer for
2007s, following on from the success of its offering of 2005 Douro wines from this exciting ‘new’ fine wine
region. Wines such as Chryseia, the joint project between Bordeaux’s Bruno Prats and the Symington family, at £207 per six bottles and Niepoort’s Batuta, £279 for six, top the billing, but perhaps
even better value is found in wines such as Quinta do Passadouro Reserva, where £160 per six buys the potentially long-ageing fruits of 70-year-old Douro vines. ‘We didn’t do a Bordeaux offer and specifically decided to look for great-value wines with the potential and complexity to cellar and age from
elsewhere,’ says Tanners’ John Milhous, who presides over the Douro offer.
The Douro may be the new kid on the fine wine block, but other established table wine regions can also represent better value for money than big-hitting investment names. This may be because they don’t have the volume to sustain a heady investment market or, like Germany, have simply fallen out of fashion. Either way, it means top estate wines can be exceedingly good value.
Merchants with strong German portfolios, such as Awin Barratt Siegal and O W Loeb, offer en primeur and lying abroad offers on leading German estate wines and the price-to-quality ratio looks even more attractive when compared with the best of, say, white Burgundy. Top wines from estates such as Dönnhoff, Loosen, Egon Müller and JJ Prüm over-deliver, not least with taut, mineral-lined Rieslings that age as gracefully as any wine over many years in the cellar. Get to know and trust your merchant and you should be able to source a host of less-famous names that equal these big hitters at keener prices.
This is as true of the top Italian regions such as Barolo and Brunello, Spain’s Priorato and Ribera del Duero and France’s own Burgundy region. However, as Carlos Read of Moreno Wines points out, if it’s good value and the potential for graceful ageing you are looking for, then you must take care to choose the right wines. ‘It’s no good just looking at Parker points and going for big, over-extracted wines if you are looking for finesse and the possibility of ageing in a cellar,’ he says. ‘Take a region like Priorato, where there has been a massive influx of new wineries – you need to seek out the longer-established estates, those with older Garnacha vines, wines such as Clos Mogador, Finca Dofi and Clos Martinet, if you want wines that will age with great finesse.’
Moreover, as Joss Fowler of Berry Bros & Rudd points out, with a spot of intelligent buying, this new world order doesn’t mean giving up on the classic French regions. ‘With Bordeaux there are plenty of up-and-coming wines and you have to think beyond the big “brand” names that command the highest prices,’ he says. ‘Graves is an excellent example, with wines such as 2006 Haut-Bailly at under £400 a case, or 2006 Domaine de Chevalier at £260 a case, representing outstandingly good value.’
Fowler could have added a host of other wines, but the point is that to find the best-value buys you need to find a merchant you trust, one with a track record of specialising in your chosen region, then develop a relationship based on your wallet, expectations, needs and tastes.
Staying with traditional France, there’s much value to be had in the southern Rhône, where a good-to-great run of vintages, culminating in the superb 2007, makes
it a rich hunting ground for well-structured wines combining finesse, complexity and cellar-worthy concentration. Berry’s 2007 Rhône offering was its most comprehensive yet and despite Robert
Parker declaring it ‘the greatest vintage in the southern Rhône for 30 years’ a case of 2007 Vieux Telegraph could be snapped up en primeur at a reasonable £245. Compare this with a top name
Bordeaux from 2005 – such as Château Lafite Rothschild, currently at £865 a bottle – and the relative value this
represents is clear. Go to the list of a respected specialist such as Yapp Brothers, and the value of Rhône wines is further impressed, with 2007 Côte-Rôtie from Jasmin offered at £276 per dozen in
bond, or the 2007 Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage, which will age beautifully, a snip at £158.
For the truly adventurous, it’s well worth seeking out merchants whose place in the trade is driven more by a hankering for terroir-expressive, off-piste finds than any bean counter’s bottom line.
One such is on-trade specialist Les Caves de Pyrène. ‘It’s something of a generalisation, but if you are looking for wines that have the potential to age, then those from cooler climates, from older vines, with a core of minerality and structure, and from better vintages, are most likely to work best,’ advises Les Caves’ Doug Wregg. Most refreshing is Wregg’s take on what is worth salting away. He is an advocate of aged off-piste whites and reds, pointing out that Friuli, white Loires such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, plus reds such as Bourgueil and Chinon, can all age well, as can fuller-bodied Gascon reds such as Madiran and Irouléguy.
Similarly, Lance Foyster MW at boutique-sized merchant Clark Foyster, suggests seeking out wines by producer and site to find some of the best value around. His 2007 Coume del Mas Quadratur from Collioure in the Langeudoc-Roussillon is, at £27, a superb-value Grenache-Mourvèdre-Carignan blend worthy of ageing and a snip compared with similar styles from across the border in Priorato. The same price buys a minerally, savoury, finely structured MacForbes Woori Yallock Pinot Noir from the cooler end of Australia’s Yarra Valley, which should appeal to anyone who loves fine red Burgundy.
The heartening thing is that in the space of this article it’s impossible to even scratch the surface of the wealth of fine wine alternatives available. Wines
that offer intrigue and interest enough to warrant the attention of collectors and drinkers, as opposed to those motivated by investment and big-name labels. There is no denying that the world’s
greatest wines attract the highest prices, but beyond this ethereal club, with a little judicious research and a nose for wine that simply makes for great drinking, there are many sublime
alternatives to be found. And, if you develop a good relationship with your merchant(s), they may also let you in on smaller parcels of hard-to-get wines. It’s a world beyond the big-buck bangs of
a Parkerised cellar, but all the better for it if you want to enjoy drinking the wine you buy.
Check out the following regions and wine styles, but always consider the producer, vintage and the track record of the wines, especially if you are looking to age and cellar.
Find merchants you like and trust and develop a relationship with them so they can best advise you on the wines to suit your palate, wallet and requirements.
Consider your own tastes and don’t shy away from specialist merchants who have the ability and drive to delve deeper into a given region than the bigger generalist. The best advice is to get
yourself on the mailing list of several merchants so you can compare offers, prices and ranges of wine, all of which can be cross-referenced with the wealth of wine guides, columns and online
sites, blogs and comparison sites such as wine-searcher.com.
Italian fine wine specialist, with global spread.
Awin Barratt Siegel
German specialist with great global trimmings.
Berry Bros & Rudd
Broad selection, but best known for premium-end wines.
From fine Burgundy and Bordeaux to the best of the New World by way of the rest of the globe.
Fields, Morris & Verdin
Burgundy supremo, now part of Berry’s.
Les Caves de Pyrene
Specialises in Gascony and terroir-driven producers from elsewhere.
Modern Italian specialist, top-end New World and smart additions from around the globe.
Savvy Spanish specialist.
O W Loeb
German specialist with much else besides.
Stone, Vine & Sun
Languedoc, Rhône, Loire, Burgundy and South Africa specialist.
Great regional all-rounder with excellent Portuguese list.
Top Rhône specialist, plus Loire, Languedoc, Burgundy and more.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2009