A Cheap Person's Guide to Fancy French Wine
We all want to drink like we’ve got Zuckerberg money. But the truth is, expensive wine doesn’t even taste as good as we think it does. According to science, we should be paying less attention to the price of each bottle, and more attention to what’s on the label.
Fortunately, your friendly neighborhood Master Sommelier not only knows how to read a wine label—he or she can tell the difference between good stuff and total plonk. And as the guy or gal buying wine for your favorite restaurant or retail store, an M.S. also knows a thing or two about value. So I’ve asked four well-respected Master Somms from around the country to target some of the best wine steals in the seven most prestigious wine regions of France.
As it turns out, the most value can be found in lesser-known appellations close to those famous for high price tags. Master Sommelier Josh Nadel—founder of Gothic Wine and Beverage Director of New York’s NoHo Hospitality—uses the Rhône valley as an example: whereas Châteauneuf-du-Pape gets all the glory, land is more affordable in nearby Luberon, allowing for higher yield and economy of scale.
“Luberon isn’t as good as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but the tangible profile of its wines—dark, sun-ripened fruit, full-bodied, moderate-to-plus-high alcohol, decent acidity—is roughly 80 percent the same,” Nadel explains. “Maybe the vineyards aren’t as old, the terroir is slightly different, the farmers aren’t making the wine the same ways—so you lose your last 10 to 20 percent of complexity, and the ability to age it for as long.”
This trade-off can be applied to most wine regions in France. Drink your wine within a few years of purchasing it, and you’ll be able to save lots of moola on juice from the appellations recommended below.
“Values abound,” says Andy Myers—Wine Director for José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup—of the Bordeaux region. The key to finding the best deals, he explains, is avoiding Classified Growths and illustrious geographical indications, seeking out the underappreciated heroes of the region. “I drink a bunch of white Bordeaux (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon),” Myers says. “Château Bonnet from Entre-Deux-Mers has nice acid, nice body, and it’s $9 at Whole Foods. That’s [basically] free.”
If it’s red you fancy, those partial to the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines of the Left Bank should seek out stuff from Moulis-en-Médoc (like Château Biston Brillette!) or Listrac-Medoc (Château Fourcas Hosten!)—both excellent appellations overshadowed by nearby meccas such as Pauillac and Margaux. For those into the Merlot-based wines of the Right Bank, look for Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac (Château Gaby!), or Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion (Château Saint-André Corbin!)—all fantastic, but second fiddle to places like Pomerol and Saint Émilion.
And if all of this is too much, you can also simply pick up some regional Bordeaux from a known, reliable producer. For around $15 you can get Légende Bordeaux Rouge or Bordeaux Blanc, each produced by the Rothschild family—owner of Château Lafite Rothschild, the über-famous Premier Cru classé estate.
Myers is less confident, however, about finding value in Burgundy. “Burgundy is that crazy redhead you dated in college,” he sighs. “Sure, it was arguably the hottest semester (or weekend) of your life, but in the end, all you had to show for it was some emotional scaring and a laundry bin of burned clothes. Burgundy will empty your wallet and break your damned heart.”
I’m a bit less skeptical of the notion that the region has value to offer, as I’ve pointed out before. You’ll pay big bucks for Premier or Grand Cru, but well-made, inexpensive Pinot Noir-based reds can be found in the Village-level wines of Marsannay or Fixin. For whites, check out the Chardonnay of Saint-Véran, the Sauvignon Blanc of Saint-Bris, or the Aligoté of Bouzeron.
Myers suggests a different approach to keeping costs down in looking for off-vintages of outlying appellations. “Try and find anything from 2015 in the traditionally-too-cold regions of Hautes-Côte-de-Nuits and Hautes-Côte-de-Beaune,” he suggests. “These regions on the upper slope of Burgundy used to be too cold to make good wine; not anymore (thanks, Global Warming!). If you find anything there in the $10-$20 range it will likely be from Domaine de la Never-heard-of-it, but in decent vintages (like ’15), it’s worth the gamble.”
According to Dustin Wilson, co-founder of Verve Wine, “the Loire Valley might just be the best 'bang for your buck' region in all of France.” Andy Myers goes so far as to call the Loire “the cheap bastard’s playground.”
For those into Muscadet, Brahm Callahan—Beverage Director for Himmel Hospitality Group—recommends Stéphane Orieux’s 2016 Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine “Sur Lie,” for its amazing value and food-friendliness. Myers likes Chateau de l’Oiselinière’s crisp, dry Muscadet for its “killer minerality.” And Wilson looks to Domaine de l'Ecu and Domaine de la Pepiere as Muscadet “staples”—all of which can be found for under $15.
When it comes to red wine in the Loire, “Chinon is amongst the pinnacle of Cabernet Franc,” as Josh Nadel puts it. But with its ever-growing notoriety, Chinon can get quite expensive. Alternatively, Nadel implores us to check out Anjou. “That larger geographic designation of land allows for greater production; the wines are a bit on the lighter side of medium, meant to be consumed in their youth and are well suited for every day.” Wilson is a particular fan of Domaine Breton in Anjou-Saumur.
There are plenty of other cheap counterparts to the more famous Loire appellations, too. As Nadel says, “Saumur Blanc is a value entry to Vouvray, likewise Touraine Blanc to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.” And Callahan explains that the commune of Menetou-Salon produces “the exact same kinds of wine as in Sancerre but often at half the price; Domaine de Châtenoy makes an awesome example that won’t break the bank.”
“Just behind the Loire in quality-to-price-ratio is Alsace,” claims Brahm Callahan. Mostly whites from expressive varieties like Riesling or Gewürztraminer, some Alsace wines are “priced like cheap Pinot Grigio, but deliver like Grand Cru Burgundy,” he says. “Top producers often make single vineyard wines at the top of their portfolio, but will declassify grapes that don’t make it into their top wines to blend with grapes from the generic appellation.” Case in point, Callahan mentions Pierre Sparr, which has been in the game since 1680: “While their top wines can be pricey, they make an AC Riesling that, for $15, will blow your hair back.”
Josh Nadel is equally enamored of Alsace, but warns that low output and manual labor prevent the wine from ever being “dirt cheap.” Thus, he offers two options: Bump your budget to $30 “and experience some of the most compelling wines for the money on Earth—such as Domaine Weinbach’s ‘Cuvée Théo’ Riesling, or anything by Ostertag, Albert Mann, or Schoffit,” or “go there, preferably, experience the unparalleled hospitality and cuisine of the region, meet the consistently accessible and affable winemakers in person, and buy the wine directly from them at a fraction of the price.”
“The northern Rhône tends to get a bad reputation in terms of price point,” prefaces Dustin Wilson. “Though, as with any region, it's simply about knowing where to look. For savory Syrah, look to Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph.” Specifically, he recommends David Reynaud's Crozes-Hermitage “Beaumont” for $23.
But realistically, most of the Rhône’s value lies in the Southern half of the valley, known for its Grenache-based blends. “Look to the ‘crus’ of the southern Rhone,” Wilson says, “such as Rasteau, Cairanne, and Vacqueyras.” Meanwhile, Josh Nadel namechecks Luberon (try Domaine de la Citadelle’s “'Chatagnier”) and Cairanne (in particular, Domaine l’Ameillaud) as other steals for around $15.
As Andy Myers sums up the Rhône: “Avoid any village with a name you’ve heard of or can pronounce.” Which producer, you ask? “Who cares,” he says. “They’re all delightful and uncomplicated variations on Grenache or Syrah. Full-bodied, slightly spicy and warm, restorative wines. Don’t get too hung up on a particular producer; it leads to fear of experimentation.” After all, if you’re only paying $10 to $20, taking a risk is just a fun “part of being cheap,” as Myers puts it.
“Over the last decade, Beaujolais has definitely been having a moment,” says Dustin Wilson. “These lighter bodied, Gamay-based reds are super easy to drink, full of refreshingly high acidity, and bright fruit flavors. Best of all, the wines are generally always affordable, usually between $15 and $30. Marcel Lapierre's ‘Raisins Gaulois’ is super delicious, and won't cost more than $20.”
Josh Nadel argues that bargain hunting in Beaujolais is all about targeting the right village. “The trendy producers (Foillard, Lapierre, Metras, etc.) have gotten expensive. Ignore those and look for wine from the villages of Fleurie, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, and Regnie.” You can do so with confidence because of the lengths today’s importers have gone to sift through the now darling region for the best stuff. “If you find Beaujolais in a decent wine shop, it has to go through the filters of an importer, a distributor, and a sommelier or shop-keep. This happens even in big box stores: the wine for Whole Foods, for example, is vetted by a Master Sommelier.”
Wilson adds Brouilly to the list of village names to look out for. “If the label just says ‘Beaujolais’ or ‘Beaujolais-Villages,’ there are still some fantastic values to be had, but you have to be much more focused on the right producers,” he explains.
On that note, Andy Myers recommends Domaine du Vissoux as “pretty tasty for the price ($15, give or take). It’s like light Pinot Noir with really delightful and spritely acid. Super easy to wreck a whole bottle without trying.”
Of all regions, Champagne is perhaps the toughest to crack on a pauper’s budget. “It is incredibly expensive to make a bottle of Champagne, due to the unique method of production,” explains Brahm Callahan. “When I am value shopping for cheap Champagne I generally look for what we call ‘buyer’s brands,’” created by retailers to produce in larger volumes and sold in-house at lower prices. To his point, a £17 bottle of UK grocer Co-op’s own brand of bubbly, Les Pionniers NV Brut, was awarded Gold in the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships 2017.
“There are also a number of cooperatives (groups of growers that have pooled their resources) that produce some solid wine,” Callahan continues. “Beaumont des Crayères is one of my favorites, and Nicolas Feuillatte is another readily available option,” both at roughly $30. And if you’re looking to really push the limits of your cheap-o budget, Gosset Brut is a great way to spend $35.
Andy Myers, however, is having none of this. “There are no bargains in Champagne anymore. Not even going there. Drink Cava from [Spain’s] Raventós i Blanc, instead.”
Touché, Master Somm. It’s a good thing that France has so many other affordable options to offer.