It used to be that the best wine from classic regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Tuscany, and Napa was still inexpensive enough to drink on a regular basis. You could order it at restaurants. You could open it on a weekday with leftover lasagna.
Sadly, this time is over. Tuesday is no longer Montrachet night in anyone’s household, nor will it ever be again, unless that household is made of Bitcoins.
This same list of regions is still frequently invoked, except now as a compendium of wines that consistently disappoint us. This is because we buy relatively inexpensive versions, hoping to find some measure of greatness befitting the price. Instead we find something not great at all.
The story of how this happened is one of supply and demand with a dash of fetishism. It starts in the vineyard, where quality and yield play a perpetual game of tug of war. The best grapes are thought to originate from lower-yielding vines, which is why classic regions have long enforced legal limitations on yields.
There are a number of responsible ways to manage crop load such as dry farming (no irrigation), or encouraging competition through cover crops and dense vine spacing. There are also plenty of costly and wasteful ways. In the early 2000s, Napa became the poster child for green harvesting, a practice in which perfectly healthy grape clusters are cut off the vine to direct energy toward the remaining fruit. If you ever wondered how a $350 bottle of cult Cabernet Sauvignon got that way, it starts with the piles of rotting fruit left behind on the vineyard floor.
It ends with the fact that people are simply willing to pay for it. Fine wine is by nature finite, and without the steadying influence of a tradition that enforces wine’s role as a daily staple (substitute institutionalized commercialism), the U.S. wine industry found its calling in rebranding fermented grape juice as a luxury good. As we all know, this dubious title banishes any correlation between price and excellence; the importance of quality is replaced by the invisible tendrils of brand strength. Other countries followed suit, and prices marched upward.
In his November 1976 column of “Wine Talk” that appeared in the New York Times, Frank Prial outlines how to build a wine cellar for $1,000. In the course of this hypothetical shopping exercise, he casually tosses in a case each of Domaine Dujac Morey-Saint-Denis and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, single bottles of which now cost in the hundreds of dollars. It’s a nauseating premise in light of wine prices today, but a sort of madness ensues (and a corresponding wish to do bodily harm to the late author) when he ends his article bemoaning, “You can only do so much with $1,000.”
Hold your fire. There’s good news. The most exciting wines being produced today don’t come from the regions traditionally considered classic, nor are they the most expensive — they are just a little harder to find. Thanks to a new wave of pioneering, naturally minded producers, long-overlooked regions are finding their voice.
The affordability of the resulting wines stems from a shift in values. The goal was once to create expensive-tasting wine that emulated the style of more prestigious regions. Champagne unsuccessfully mimicked Burgundy until finally learning to market its unwanted carbonation as sparkle (arguably the cleverest branding feat of all time). Now the aim is to make wine that reflects its vintage and environment.
This might sound easy, but making wine that smacks of place is actually a difficult thing to do well. It requires restraint, faith, and very good farming. One winemaker described it as “having the courage to do nothing.”
Here are four new classics.
The Basque Country
With a wine like Txakoli (chok-oh-lee) and a grape like Hondarrabi Zuri (on-da-ra-bee zoo-ree), no one is surprised that this region along Spain’s north coast hasn’t yet taken the world by storm. There are two places Txakoli is consumed: the local town of San Sebastian and the wine-geeky U.S. — even in Madrid, cafegoers are perplexed by this exuberant fizzy white wine. But any dish improved by rock salt and a squeeze of fresh lime will taste great with Txakoli.
This dramatically steep terrain in the heart of Spain’s Galicia is home to the red Mencia grape, whose wines evoke wild strawberries crushed over granite. Viticulture would be impossible if not for the ancient stone terraces built by the Romans — a reminder of just how long the locals have been at it. Take a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and replace its floral perfume with stone dust, and you’ll start to understand the flavor of these wines.
This active volcano along Sicily’s east coast is one of the most exciting regions to emerge in the past twenty years. Gnarled vines sprout from ink-black lava, a terroir continuously renewed by frequent eruptions. The reds are at once explosive and elegant, like sea-sprayed Barolo. The grapes to know are Nerello Mascalese (Etna Rosso) and Carricante (Etna Bianco).
The 10 “cru” villages in the hilly northern section of Beaujolais offer more pleasure per dollar than any other red wine in France. Made exclusively from the Gamay grape, these gently rustic bottlings epitomize wine’s role as an amplifier of food and fun. Try Beaujolais with roasted chicken, a dish that’s as easy to make as Beaujolais is to drink. One importer put it best: Beaujolais is “meant to be devoured.”
Today’s wine drinkers have the world at their fingertips, or a least a world — one that bypasses the inflated markets of Burgundy and Bordeaux in favor of long-neglected places whose wines are soulful and fairly priced. In some cases, they are steals.