Looking for unbeatable value? We asked six Decanter experts to choose the region or wine they feel is seriously underrated, and recommend the 12 bargains that you should snap up.
Alsace Sylvaner – Ian D’Agata
Alsatian Sylvaner is one of the world’s best-kept secrets: many wines are truly worth twice the price they sell for. Some producers still churn out industrial levels of neutral, insipid Sylvaners, but the best range from being delightful and delicious to truly profound, world-class wines made from late-harvested grapes, offering uncanny richness, depth and some sweetness.
Why are Alsace’s best Sylvaners so uniquely great? The main reason is extremely old vines (often 50 years or more) – a fortunate situation that is the result of unfortunate legislation. An ill-conceived 1962 law decreed only Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Riesling were ‘noble’ grapes worthy of planting in grands crus. Not surprisingly, Sylvaner vines were uprooted from such sites, as the wines would not sell at the higher prices fetched by having the grand cru name on the label. This also resulted in increased plantings of the four noble varieties (in 1976, Pinot Gris represented only 3% of area under vine in Alsace; today it is 15%), tellingly even in unsuitable sites for those varieties. The result is that there are now many insipid Pinot Gris made from supposedly hallowed sites.
But things are looking up: the Alsace vineyard area planted to Sylvaner (4% today compared to 15% in the 1980s) may be increasing, as producers have told me recently they will be planting more.
Simpler, crisp and clean Sylvaner wines are made by Albert Boxler, Leon Beyer (The Wine Society sells the 2013 for £8 a bottle), Dirler-Cadé (from 50-yearold vines in the heart of the Kessler grand cru), Domaine Weinbach, Hugel, Josmeyer, Kuentz-Bas, Muré and Ostertag, all of which are redolent of white flowers, delicate herbs and quince. Agathe Bursin and Albert Seltz’s are much deeper: Seltz owns old vines on the Zotzenberg grand cru where Sylvaner was historically famous.
Last but not least, the late-harvested Sylvaners by Burn from extremely old vines in the Clos-St-Imer are world class: rich and deep, redolent of honeyed quince, marmalade and cinnamon. He sells them for an unbelievable €5 at his cellar: taste to believe!
- Agathe Bursin, Sylvaner, Lutzeltal, Alsace 2013
- Ostertag, Les Vieilles Vignes de Sylvaner, Alsace 2012
Bairrada – Anthony Rose
It might be unfair to brand the Douro and Alentejo ugly stepsisters, but it would not be out of place to call Bairrada the Cinderella of Portugal.
Its wicked stepmother would be the Marquís of Pombal who, in the 18th century, ordered that its vineyards be uprooted to protect the authenticity of Port. Its fairy godmother is Baga Friends. This group of quality-minded growers, led by the legendary Luís Pato and energised by Dirk Niepoort, has taken a variety of steps in vineyard and cellar to galvanise Bairrada into making the potentially excellent, local Baga grape fit the delicate, yet elusive slipper of a fine-quality, great-value, long-lived red wine.
With half of its chalky-clay vineyards planted to Baga, Bairrada – a relatively small region of 8,840ha that lies immediately south of Porto on the Atlantic – has a number of natural hurdles to overcome to achieve the necessary pre-conditions for quality red wine production. First, its proximity to the Atlantic means that September harvest rains can be a serious threat, while ripeness can vary as much as two weeks between south and north. And the vigorous, late-ripening, thin-skinned Baga grape itself is susceptible to rot if left too long on the vine and to astringent green tannins if picked too early.
Improvements in viticulture, including control of diseases, crop thinning, preservation of old vines and better management of the vineyard cycle, have resulted in better quality wine. Still in the shadow of the better-known Douro and Alentejo, the underappreciated Baga has the edge on value. As Filipa Pato, daughter of Luís, says: ‘Baga is difficult and needs a lot of attention. It’s like a kid with a lot of character – treat it well it gives you back a lot.’ She continues: ‘Baga is unique in Bairrada because it is the only grape that can really transmit the different expressions of each location.’ Winemaking decisions too, such as whether or not to de-stem, winemaking equipment, type of oak and length of ageing, have adapted to increasing attention to exposition, vine age and the vineyard potential.
These improvements have culminated in distinctive, often excellent-value wines, not forgetting a handful of fine sparkling wines made from Baga, with less astringent and rustic tannins and more distinctive, complex characters with aromas and flavours of black fruits, beeswax, olive, spice and smokiness. Among the region’s best producers are the Baga Friends themselves, namely Luís Pato, Filipa Pato, Niepoort, Sidónio de Sousa, Buçaco Wines, Quinta das Bágeiras and Quinta da Vacariça, along with Caves de São João, Adega Cooperativa de Cantanhede, Caves Primavera, Caves São Domingos, Caves Aliança and Campolargo.
Muscadet – Fiona Beckett
The first wines you taste are often ones you remain loyal to. I was introduced to Muscadet by a London wine merchant a number of years ago and have always retained a particular affection for it despite its displacement by more fashionable but (to my mind) much less distinguished Picpoul de Pinet.
Others have been less loyal. Muscadet sales have nosedived since its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s – surely a factor in the value it now represents.
This large appellation occupies a large area at the mouth of the Loire, the predominant grape being Melon de Bourgogne. Most is designated Muscadet Sèvre et Maine and is aged ‘sur lie’ (on its lees) which gives it, despite its modest 12% alcohol, a complexity and nuttiness that Picpoul lacks.
At its youngest and freshest (some also have a slight spritz) it’s the ideal seafood wine, notably with oysters, but extended lees ageing can create wines of remarkable longevity. I’ve drunk a 17-yearold Muscadet from one of the region’s best producers, Luneau-Papin – that was still as fresh as a daisy.
It’s also worth looking out for wines from the three crus communaux – Clisson, Gorges and Le Pallet – which are subject to more stringent regulations in terms of yields and vine age, and which produce richer, weightier wines, comparable to more highly regarded Chablis.
An increasing number of producers also deploy skin contact and oak ageing to increase weight and complexity in their wines, though I’m not convinced this is always a bonus. The sharpness, salinity and piercing intensity of Muscadet is part of its charm.
Other producers to look out for include Domaine de l’Ecu, Vincent Caillé, Jo Landron/Domaine de la Louvetrie and Domaine de la Pépière. With decent vintages in 2012, ’13 and ’14, and Muscadet still seriously underpriced, now is a good time to buy.
Rheinhessen Riesling – Markus del Monego MW
Rheinhessen is Germany’s largest wine-growing region and used to be one of its most famous and fashionable at the end of the 1800s. But then came Liebfraumilch in the second half of the last century and suddenly sweet, cheap and dull became the order of the day. Classic producers like Gunderloch or Heyl zu Herrnsheim continued to make great Rieslings, but prices collapsed across the board.
Fortunately since then, things have changed significantly for the better in Rheinhessen: Riesling is important once more and accounts for 15% of the vineyard area. In addition, a new generation of gifted young winemakers has rediscovered the grape’s potential, and they are now producing stunning results in a variety of styles. These vary from bone dry to lusciously sweet. And best of all, the wines seem to combine the crisp style of the Mosel with the opulence of the Pfalz and the juicy elegance of the Rheingau.
The trend started with vintners like Keller and Wittmann in the 1990s. Now the latest group to take the region by storm is Message in a Bottle, a group of 28 young winemakers united by the idea of making genuinely exciting quality wines while also having some serious fun.
And while the quality has caught up with Germany’s best white wines, the prices most certainly haven’t. Indeed, at these extremely attractive prices, everyone can afford to have fun with them because they represent astonishing value for money. Compared to Rieslings of similar quality from the Rheingau or Mosel, these are just a fraction of the price. In the UK, prices begin at £11 a bottle and are even cheaper in Germany.
One member of Message in a Bottle is Stefan Winter. I love his Dittelsheimer Riesling Trocken 2013, coming from vines 20 years and older growing on limestone. Another brilliant producer is Jochen Dreissigacker, whose similar ambition is to ‘take something good and make it truly excellent’. A case in point is his 2013 Organic Riesling Trocken.
del Monego recommends:
Maule – Patricio Tapia
Maule is definitely not Chile’s most in-vogue wine region. Although it has some very old vines and a long and venerable tradition of winemaking, it is also the largest wine region in Chile by some distance. Maule has 50,000 hectares out of 130,000ha planted up and down Pablo Neruda’s long thin country. Despite this, Maipo and Casablanca have been far more in the spotlight of late.
It may be a symptom of distances from the capital. While Maipo is located in the outskirts of Santiago, Maule is about four hours’ drive away. In our modern times that sounds like a pretty short distance. But 100 years ago – without cars or highways – it was a very long trip.
Of course, Maule’s low visibility is also partly due to its reputation for being the main source of bulk wines in Chile. For instance, a kilo of Cabernet or Carmenere grapes can cost five or six times more in Maipo than in Maule. And the same is reflected in the cost of Maule wines, which are generally much cheaper than their equivalents elsewhere. So you can find some deliciously lush and rustic Cabernet Sauvignons or spicy Carmeneres at low, low prices.
Meanwhile, change has been afoot. In recent years, Maule has also undergone a major revival, first thanks to the exciting rediscovery of Carignan – a grape of real personality, texture and perfume. Today, producers like Morande, Gillmore, Undurruga and De Martino are making great Maule Carignan for less than £20 a bottle. Some even cost less than £10 – a ridiculous price for the quality.
Another rediscovery, which has shifted attention to Maule, has been the País grape, originally brought by the Spanish conquistadores. For a long time, it remained in the shadow of French varieties, such as Cabernet or Merlot, which arrived in the mid-19th century. Today, however, País – which gives firm tannins, but also seductive, red fruit flavours – is on the rise thanks to Louis Antoine Luyt, Miguel Torres, Concha y Toro and others. The wines are often brilliant bargains.
Burgenland Blaufränkisch – Stephen Brook
Blaufränkisch is not exclusive to eastern Austria – it’s also known as Kekfrankos in Hungary and Lemberger in southern Germany. But it does seem to deliver its best results in Austria’s Burgenland, alongside the Hungarian border.
The grape has a high natural acidity, so has to be picked at good ripeness to avoid astringency. It’s also a variety that is easily dragged down by high yields and clumsy winemaking. Fortunately the days of trial and error in Austria are long past. No serious producer will overcrop Blaufränkisch any more, so stringy, bitter wines are mercifully hard to find.
There is less agreement on how to age the wine, however. Throughout Burgenland you will find a diversity of styles – something that should be regarded as a strength. Lighter versions will be aged in casks or tanks to preserve the primary aromas and fruit. The result should be a refreshing, zesty red wine for relatively early consumption.
In contrast, Blaufränkisch is often aged in barriques. In the 1990s it was fashionable in Burgenland to use as much new oak as possible. Today the wines – even the oakier ones – are far better balanced.
This is where the variety really comes into its own. A concentrated, sensitively oaked Blaufränkisch is a wine of character, complexity, and staying power. It pushes the variety into the same league as a seriously good Syrah, Cabernet Franc or Sangiovese, but at a sensible price. True, some single-vineyard bottlings have become ‘cult’ wines that fetch silly prices within Austria, but there is no shortage of stunning wines between £15 and £30.
The best zone around the Neusiedlersee is Leithaberg, a range of well-drained limestone hills that produce elegant wines. However, further south in Mittelburgenland, a region of rich clay slopes, Blaufränkisch is truly at home, producing fullbodied wines of richness and weight. And even further south, in Südburgenland, slate gives a very different character to the wines.
So from a stylistic point of view, consumers are spoilt for choice. Furthermore, the wines come in a wide band of prices, from inexpensive but moreish cask- or tank-aged styles to denser and more structured wines that fetch high prices. However, it is not difficult to find wines that over-deliver in terms of quality.
My top producers from Leithaberg would include Paul Achs, Pittnauer, Prieler, Ernst Triebaumer and Umathum. From the Mittelburgenland, seek out Albert Gsellmann, Silvia Heinrich, Iby and Paul Kerschbaum; and from the Südburgenland, try Krutzler and Schiefer.