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Ask A Somm: How Can I Find the Best Value Wine?

What is a "shoulder vintage"?

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Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

Though Aspen, Colorado stalwart Jimmy’s may be lauded for its extensive beverage program heavy on agave distillates, the American eatery likewise offers a bold wine program built on domestic bottles. Twenty-seven-year-old Greg Van Wagner (a Frasca Food & Wine alum) heads up the 650 plus bottle list and is ready at a moment's notice to pair common and unsung wines with crab cakes and meatloaf. Just ask. Below, Van Wagner contemplates wines that over-deliver for the price.

Q: It always feels rewarding to discover delicious, well-priced wines. Can you share some of your favorite wines that overachieve for the price?

Van Wagner: When I think about wines that overachieve for the price, I define this category as wines that offer more character and complexity than their price might suggest. These are the great middle ground wines … not the $10 supermarket wine, nor the trophy wine that sits in the cellar meant for contemplation. These are wines that are special and tell a story, yet without the high price of a cult wine. These are wines that you can drink on a Tuesday night, or bring to a dinner party with friends. These are a category of wines that taste like it costs twice its price.

... think about land prices when looking at value.

How to find these wines? Definitely ask your local wine merchant or sommelier. Find the people whose palate most aligns with yours and be willing to trust them and take the risk with your money. Wine merchants and sommeliers certainly don't go into the business to strike it rich, we do it because we love wine and love sharing it with other people. These are the people to really help you unearth the wines often overlooked, within the realm of what you find enjoyable.

Have a mental list of a couple wines you've enjoyed in the past and a price point, and a good wine professional should be able to make a solid start from there. Don't be afraid to roll the dice either. If you spend $20 on a bottle of wine you didn't like, well now you know. It's the same principle as eating "strange" food when traveling abroad, you have to eat the grasshoppers to decide whether you like them or not.

When looking for wines that overachieve, don't be afraid to be a contrarian. After all, wine is a market that is still based on supply and demand. So, if you are only playing the game of wines that everybody thinks are great, then you'll pay a premium for it. Whether that's looking to second wines of prestigious producers (often without the high speculation markup from wine investors) or shoulder vintages, there is opportunity there.

Have you checked out some '04 Bordeaux lately? It's very serious and a fraction of the price of the critically lauded 2005 vintage. Very talented but new producers are the best, at least for the couple years before they are discovered and the price rises. Also, think about land prices when looking at value. If a winery has to pay $500,000 per acre for vineyard land in one region, but only $50,000 in another, it may be useful to taste and see if they spent the other $450,000 well. Also, there are certain wine regions that overachieve as a whole, and those are never the bottles you see with the fancy neck tags in the wine store.

Here are a few recent discoveries that have really stuck with me:

  • 2005 Franciacorta, Ca' del Bosco, Cuvée Annamaria Clementi ($90): Ca' del Bosco has always held a close spot in my heart for offering much of the quality of prestige cuvée Champagne, but at a price that's a little more palatable. I'm not the only one either. When I had a group of 24 Master Sommeliers in last May, they all attacked this bottle. This wine has power and deep aromatics, but it's also bright and very food-friendly. As far as sparkling wine from alternative zip codes, while many areas of the world produce their own style of bubbles, I think Franciacorta stands out from the rest.
  • Drouhin Vaudon, Chablis ($33): Over the last 150 years, the Drouhin family has been making Chablis that is consistently great. Chablis is a great introduction to white Burgundy. Me and many of my somm friends will often crack open a bottle of Chablis before a bottle of Premier Cru Puligny-Montrachet, as we can afford to open more than one bottle of the Chablis!
  • Frog’s Leap Zinfandel ($28): John Williams is the winemaker with a tremendous history in the valley and a firm believer in dry farming. Zinfandel often gets a bad rep, but this wine plays beautifully with food. This isn’t that overpowering, jammy bomb of a wine. It is a perfect wine with roasted meats and barbecue. And unlike many Zinfandels, you can drink more than a glass without falling on the ground. This is a very balanced Zinfandel from a premier producer and premier wine region that offers a great value for the price.
  • 2013 Jonathan Didier Pabiot, "Aubaine," Pouilly-Fumé ($42): While it's easy to make comparisons between Didier Pabiot and the famed Didier Dageneau, you can certainly see some similarities when you taste their wines. Pabiot's Aubaine bottling comes from just three organically farmed hectares of his best land and is always worth the extra couple dollars. These wines are clean, expressive, powerful, and a very good reminder about the broad spectrum of Sauvignon Blanc as a variety versus just an everyday summer sipper.
  • 2007 Emidio Pepe, Montepulciano, d'Abruzzo ($70): Emidio Pepe is a rarified producer of Montepulciano (the grape, not the town in Tuscany). While the grape is generally formed into fruit-forward, dark, and easy-drinking red wine, his wines are serious, meaty, and profound bottles meant to go the distance. Pepe uses only very old techniques such as foot-trodding, lengthy aging in concert and in bottle, and all wild yeasts. These are great for guests who are adventurous and perhaps want to get away from their go-to bottles in Bordeaux and the Rhône.

Have a wine-related question you'd like answered? Hit the comments.


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