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Want to reduce your spending on wine but not your enjoyment? Natasha Hughes suggests some everyday substitutes for a range of classic wine styles that deliver on both taste and price
Although many Square Meal readers do work in the City, you don’t need to be a financial whizz to work out that wine prices have risen dramatically in recent years. The reasons for these price hikes? Import duty and VAT have risen, while the value of the pound has fallen relative to a number of currencies, making it more expensive for importers to purchase wines at source.
As a result, wine regions that were once benchmark blue-chip appellations such as Sancerre, Burgundy and Bordeaux, are now priced beyond most pockets – for everyday drinking, at least. But luckily, if you’re partial to Chablis, or have a yearning for Hermitage, there are plenty of acceptable substitutes – if you know where to look.
No celebration is complete without a bottle of Champagne, but if you’re planning a large party, there’s no need to spend upwards of £20 per bottle. Cheat with a case or two of Crémant de
(one of more than half-a-dozen French appellations for sparkling wine). It would take a very discerning palate to tell the difference between Vitteaut-Alberti’s creamy NV Blanc de Blancs (stonevine.co.uk) and the real thing.
If you’re looking for a really special bottle of fizz, though, you don’t always have to spend top dollar on a special cuvée from one of the main Champagne houses. Trendy grower Champagnes tend to pack an awful lot of personality into each bottle for around half of what you might expect to pay for a big name. It shouldn’t take more than a sip or two of Pierre Peters’ powerful Cuvée de Réserve (bbr.com) or Barnaut’s rich Grande Réserve (leaandsandeman.co.uk) to convert you.
Chablis has long been a British favourite. If you’re after a hit of the same smokiness and weight that you get with Chablis Premier Cru, head for Veneto, where the best Soaves, such as Inama’s
2010 Soave Classico (lescaves.co.uk), deliver incredible minerality. If, on the other hand, unoaked Chardonnay is what floats your boat, you’ll find alternatives in France’s Limoux region:
Domaine Begude’s 2010
Le Bel Ange (Majestic), for instance, has plenty of crisp, lemony fruit. The relatively cool climate of Western Australia also delivers limpid Chardonnays with Chablis-like green apples and citrus notes. Omrah’s 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay (slurp.co.uk) is a good starting point for those new to the style.
It’s easy enough to find an oaked Chardonnay, but if you want something that stands a chance of emulating the elegance of a Côte d’Or Burgundy, you need to be prepared to spend a little bit (good-quality oak doesn’t come cheap) and narrow your search to relatively cool climes. Chile’s coastal regions are beginning to deliver a lot of bang per buck, as demonstrated by Maycas del Limarí’s 2008 Reserva Especial Chardonnay (Waitrose), a rich wine that does a passable imitation of a ripe Meursault. California’s more maritime vineyards are also a source of Burgundian-style whites: the sophisticated Saintsbury’s Carneros Chardonnay (Majestic)could easily be confused for top Village-level Chassagne-Montrachet. Other good bets come from Australia’s Yarra Valley or New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay. A wild-card alternative to Premier Cru Puligny is the smoky 2010 Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, Santorini produced by Gaia (greatwinesdirect.co.uk, thesampler.co.uk).
The wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are made from Sauvignon Blanc, the grape that made New Zealand famous. But you can’t just substitute one for the other: the Kiwi wines lack the smoky, lean self-restraint of the French originals. Wines from lesser appellations of the Loire, such as Claude Lafond’s 2009 La Raie, Reuilly (hhandc.co.uk), make good everyday substitutes. Alternatively, look for a good Sauvignon de Touraine or a Quincy. South Africa and coastal Chile are also capable of making zesty, herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs: 2010 Viña Leyda’s Lot 4, Leyda Valley (thewinesociety.com) is a great example of how restrained New World Sauvignon Blanc can be.
Red wines from the most fêted regions are also becoming nose-bleedingly expensive. There’s been much debate this year concerning the true value of investing in en primeur Bordeaux, and while the region’s top wines have a seductive elegance, they are – most definitely – for special occasions only. Everyday enjoyment should be sought in Bordeaux-style blends from neighbouring regions. 2008 Murets de Gouts from the Côtes du Marmandais (Majestic) offers brilliant value, and similar wines can be found in Bergerac, the Côtes de Duras and other south-western appellations.
Given the popularity of Bordeaux blends, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of New World wannabes. If you’re looking for a wine that will have some of the herbaceous, floral character and firm tannins usually found in wines from Bordeaux, you need to search for wines from cool zones. South Africa’s Stellenbosch is becoming increasingly good at producing wines that emulate the originals: the 2008 Estate Red from Meerlust (thewinesociety.com) has more rounded tannins than a true Bordeaux, but the fruit offers a sophisticated mix of pencil lead, blackcurrant and cedar. Western Australia’s Margaret River is also a great source of Bordeaux taste-alikes, both red and white. Moss Wood’s 2008 Amy’s Blend (Waitrose) is a perfumed example of the region’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds.
Winegrowers around the world have long been trying to create Pinot Noir with the complexity and elegance of the wines made in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. Successful examples tend to command high prices, so there are limited savings to be had – although it’s worth bearing in mind that even basic Burgundy seldom costs less than £15 a bottle. New Zealand has perhaps become the best-known source of New World Pinot Noir, and at the moment Marlborough is proving to be a good place to look for lively red-fruited versions. The 2008 Winegrowers of Ara Composite (negociants.co.uk) has crunchy redcurrant and mulberry fruit and Pinot’s typically silky tannins. Australia’s relatively cool Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula (both in the state of Victoria) are also good sources of elegant, layered wines: De Bortoli 2007 Estate Grown Pinot Noir (thewinesociety.com), while not cheap, delivers the kind of smoky complexity one might expect of a good Pommard.
Barolo and Barbaresco are often thought of as Italy’s version of Burgundy. These long-lived wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape, are renowned for their rich perfume and their capacity to acquire layers of earthy complexity as they age. Slightly less expensive are Nebbiolo di Langhe wines from producers like Cascina Fontanta (2008, bbr.com) or Bruno Giacosa (2009, nywines.co.uk). Although these wines are less complex or ageworthy than a Barolo or a Barbaresco, they exhibit plenty of the grape’s characteristic aromatics.
Moving back to France, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is often considered to be the quintessential southern Rhône appellation, but these heady, herb-strewn wines command high prices. Luckily, though, a run of great vintages in the region has meant that lesser appellations, such as Vacqueyras, Lirac and even the Côtes du Rhône, have made wines with enormous depth. Try the spicy 2009 Domaine des Espiers (stonevine.co.uk) or Domaine Maby’s broad-shouldered 2009 La Fermade (yapp.co.uk).
Finally, travelling north up the Rhône will bring you to the true homeland of Syrah (aka Shiraz). Unlike the plush, velvety wines made from the grape in warmer climes, northern-Rhône Syrah has a
sinewy elegance, as well as aromatics of cracked black pepper, violets and smoked meat. Wines from just outside the designated AOCs, in the Collines Rhodaniennes, make particularly good substitutes
for Crozes-Hermitage or St-Joseph, especially when made by a good producer like Domaine Georges Vernay, whose 2010 De Mirbaudie (yapp.co.uk) offers the real deal at
a slightly lower price than an AOC wine.
Further afield, the take offered on the grape by New World producers is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Although Tabalí’s 2008 Reserva Especial Syrah, Limarí (thewinesociety.com) is perhaps richer in alcohol than the ideal, it does a stunning rendition of the aromatics you’d expect from a far lighter wine; it is typical of the style of Syrah now being produced in Chile’s cooler regions. Syrahs from New Zealand are similar in style, perhaps with a touch more of those crushed violet petal notes. If you’re looking for a wine with the heft and weight of a Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, though, you could do worse than reach for a bottle from one of Australia’s cool-climate zones. Clonakilla’s Hilltops Shiraz, at a third of the price, is widely considered to be a bit of a star example. A touch of Viognier fermented with the red grapes (as they do in Côte-Rôtie) lifts the wine’s aromatics, highlighting layer after layer of spicy, liquorice-tinged berry fruits. The 2010 vintage (slurp.co.uk) is lovely as it is, but the wine – like the Côte-Rôties that provide its inspiration – would benefit from a few years’ ageing (alternatively, Waitrose offers the 2007).
Andrea Bricarello, wine buyer, Galvin group
‘As an alternative to Condrieu, we recommend a Marsanne. The wines can be quite similar in aromatics, although a Marsanne won’t have the richness and weight of a Condrieu. On the other hand, Condrieu can be tiring to drink, so I think it’s nice to have a fresher alternative.’
Matthew Cocks, wine buyer, Cubitt House group
‘I might once have looked to New Zealand for an alternative to Sancerre, but these days the price is almost the same, and the quality is so much more variable than it used to be. We now tend to look to other appellations in the Loire, like Menetou-Salon or Touraine, for wines that are vibrant and fresh. I also like Spanish Verdejo: it’s a little bit more complex, especially when the wines are partially barrel-fermented.’
Roberto Della Pietra, head sommelier, Gauthier Soho
‘You might find an alternative to red Burgundy in Alsace: the region’s Pinot Noir can be good. Another option might be a Cabernet Franc from the Loire: it has a similar lightness of texture,
minerality and freshness. I particularly like the Clef de Sol from Domaine la Grange Tiphaine, an outstanding blend of 55% Cabernet Franc and 45%
Côt (Malbec). Served at cellar temperature it’s a real wow.’
Laura Rhys MS, head sommelier, Hotel Terravina
‘It’s difficult to find a good substitute for famous wines. Having said that, although a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape may have a little bit more complexity and spice than other wines from the southern Rhône, some of the best producers in Lirac and Gigondas are producing wines that do much the same kind of thing.’
This feature was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.