Sunday, January 13, 2008

Is It Risky to Drink Inexpensive Wine?

You may have heard from wine drinkers who claim it is risky to buy inexpensive wines such as Cotes du Rhone in quantity for enjoying over a period of 10 years or more. My son's guitar teacher, who is certainly not well to do, said that he would never pay less than $20 for a bottle of wine. "It's too risky," he said. "You never know what you're going to get."

I think it all depends on your point of view, your income and your confidence in being able to find a wine that's real rather than artificial. I enjoy wine every night with family and am looking for something I can afford that pleases everyone and that goes well with food. For me, it's much riskier to spend $80 on one bottle of wine than $80 on a full case of wine that I know is going to be good from day one and is probably not going to go over the edge too quickly if I miss the mark and buy too much.

I have been buying inexpensive wines, mostly from the Southern Rhone, regularly since the early 1980s. I choose my wines carefully, and I'm rarely disappointed. The wines have nice early fruit that reflects the vintage, then start deepening out and taking on personality traits. L'Espigouette and Favards are right across the road from each other on the Plan de Dieu, but their personalities are unique enough that I could probably pick them out of a blind tasting. Vieux Chene is nearby and has several cuvees--all unique and all with different aging cycles. More recently, I've added Grand Prieur, Marotte, Sainte Anne and others. Until the Euro started strengthening against the dollar, I could buy any of these wines for about $50 to $60 a case, and I considered it much riskier to not have enough of them than to have too much. I start drinking as soon as I buy and I keep drinking until they're gone. In 20 to 25 years of drinking, I've rarely had a bottle reach the point that it became unpleasant to drink. Some blossom into nice surprises; others hang in there and stay about the same (I have no problem with that since it gives me a wider drinking window). And a few I know (such as 1998 Couroulou Vacqueyras) may need a decade before they start showing their stuff. I've talked to many of the winemakers of these estates and know that most make their wines for drinking within about three to five years. But they nod knowingly when I tell them of their wines that surpass that by several years. Yields in the Southern Rhone are relatively low compared to even some of the high-priced wines of Bordeaux and Napa. Winemaking has improved tremendously over the past 20 years, and the wines I love are made with a combination of traditional methods and contemporary know-how. They have good balance and, most important to me, are devoid of new oak. I know what I'm getting from these wines from day one, and I like the smells and flavors as they develop. In my opinion, they all develop--some faster than others. But most important, they taste good. And that's more than you can say about some $80/bottle wines.

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