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Finding Great Value Wines

I have often been asked what are great value wines.   As every stores carry different products, it is best I provide my approaches to finding great value wines instead of giving you a static list: 

1.  Second wine or wineries owned by famous producers:  Leverage top- notch wine-makers and production team without paying for the full price.  Many wineries have a second wine:  it is made with the second best grapes (the best goes into the first wine), but by the same winemaking team, following the same philosophy and vinification methodology.   Second wines are often more approachable when young. 

Some of my favorite second wines include Alter Ego by Chateau Palmer, Clos du Marquis by Leoville Lascases*, Aromes de Pavie by Chateau Pavie, and Pavillon Rouge by Chateau Margaux. 

*Clos du Marquis was once Leoville Lascases’ second wine before the introduction of Le Petit Lion in 2007.   Unlike other second wine, it is a great value as it is made from the best grapes in a plot across the street also owned and managed by Leoville Lascases. 

2.  Great producer, not so great vintages:

Vintage affects the market price of a wine.  Great year is priced at a premium and not so good year is often priced at a discount.  We can often find great deals on wines made by great producers in not so great years.

To illustrate, let’s look at the retail price of Lafite Rothschild in the United States across vintages:

Lafite Rothschild Price by Vintage

Great vintages such as 2000 and 2005 command a premium.  When you want to buy a bottle of Lafite, the 2001 and 2004 in relative becomes better value for money.  It is made by the same great winemaking team, just not in the best year. 

It is important to note that vintage quality differs for different regions as climate will differ.  For example, 2004 is an average year for Bordeaux (France) but an amazing year for Piedmonte (Italy).

Some value for money vintages that are ready for enjoyment now: 
Bordeaux:  2001, 2002, 2004.
Burgundy:  2003, 2007
Rhone:  2002, 2003

3.  Insider Knowledge:  One often discovers great value when talking to producers or people very deeply rooted in the wine business. 

Grand Cru Wines “Demoted” by Producers due to Young Vines:  Some Burgundian producers stressing great quality would label wines made from young vines but in grand cru vineyards as premier cru.   Specific vintage matters as this will only happen for few years until the young vines “grow up”.  

Wines Produced by Great Winemakers but Under a Different LabelHenri Jayer’s is undisputably one of the best and most well-known winemaker in Burgundy.   A Henri Jayer Richbourg would cost over US$8,000 per bottle in the US market. 

Insider would know in certain years, Henri Jayer had produced wines for his brother George and Lucien, as well as his nephew Emmanuel Rouget.  These wines cost fraction of the price.  But knowledge of the exact vintage is key.  These secrets could be discovered when you speak to connected winemakers and negociants in the heart of Burgundy. 

In addition, Jayer had a long term contract (1945-1987) with Madame Noirot-Camuzet.  Jayer would manage her vineyards and produced her wines in exchange for half the harvest (which he branded his own name).  For these years, wine lovers would be finding great value by buying Madame Camuzet’s wines.  To this date, Domaine Meo Camuzet stressed that they are still following Henri Jayer’s philosophy and approach.

Disciples for Henri Jayer includes:  Emannuel Rouget (Henri’s nephew who managed his vineyard from Henri retirement to demise), Meo Camuzet, Claude Dugat, Jean-Yves Bizot, Philippe Charlopin-Parizot, and Chauvenet Chopin.

4. Alternative Regions:  Some wine producing appellations require producers to contribute the trade association that does marketing and legal work in their interests.  In the example of Champagne, a fair portion of the price goes into such fees. 

As mentioned in the earlier article (Wine & Price:  Are You Paying for Quality or Marketing), another way to approach great value wine is not minimalizing your contribution to legal and marketing fees.

Some great Champagne alternatives:  Cremant de Bourgogne, Franciacorta, Cava.

These are all made in the traditional method (second fermentation takes place in the bottle).  Cremant de Bourgogne and Franciacorta even use the same grapes.  Note that Cava is made from Spanish local grapes. 

5. En primeur:   Traditionally, en primeur has been a great way to buy wines at low pricing.  En primeur means buying the wine before it was released.  However in recent years, en primeur has been releasing at market value rather than at the traditional closer to cost value.  This has reduced the incentives of many wine lovers.  

As en primeur (Bordeaux) is normally delivered two years after payment, it is critical to only buy from a trusted and established merchant.  There have been many scandalous companies that run away with customers’ money. 

Quick rule of thumb for en primeur:  it does not make sense to buy en primeur for wines that do not go up in value at release (as you have to prepay two years in advance).   A smart buy would be a wine that you think would go up 30%+ at release.   That would justify a capital commitment early on.  

6. Read and explore:  There are many wine writers and critics exploring the world of wine out there.  Decanter Magazine always has a section that highlight good value wine with tasting notes. As everyone has a different palate preference, follow a wine critic that shares a similar palate and passion.  For example Burgundy lovers may want to read Allen Meadow’s review on Burgundy more so than Robert Parker’s.  Parker has a strong preference for oak structure.  

A final word on Robert Parker’s influence:   Mr Parker has a significant influence on the price of wines.  Highly rated wines would often jump up in prices.   I always like to find wines that are delicious but low on the Parker point.  My favorite example is Talbot.