Food & Wine Thursdays: Drink This, Not That – Sensible Alternatives to France’s Big-Ticket Wines

It is with much sadness, but not without a long-felt sense of inevitability, that I report Wine Spectator’s final collapse into total senility. But we can take comfort in knowing that, if you eliminate subscribers over 50 years old, those who read it ironically for the giant pictures of James Laube and Matt Kramer, and wine shops which stock the magazine largely for bathroom reading, Wine Spectator’s earnest readership is approximately 14 and its dementia will largely go unnoticed.

Long teetering on the brink of irrelevance, it was the esteemed magazine’s March 31, 2012 issue, in which it offered recommendations for triple-digit alternatives to quadruple-digit Bordeaux under the guise of value, which represents its final, spectacular self-immolation. We can now only sit back as the magazine declines into its final decades of adult diapers and spontaneous, compulsive masturbation to Brazilian Butt infomercials and make it as comfortable as possible.

Value!

While I do not want to discourage those who can afford to do so from guzzling the annual per capita GDP of Niger on a routine basis (wealthy Frenchmen are, naturally, in need of our support), I’d like to instead offer my own significantly more sensible and even more delicious alternatives to some of France’s most expensive wines.

Instead of Bordeaux try Meritage Blends from the Santa Cruz Mountains. An under-appreciated region even in its home state of California, the cool, foggy Santa Cruz Mountains AVA produces well-balanced wine that is more in line with Old World traditions than the chocolate-blackberry behemoths out of Napa and Sonoma Counties. Many wineries in this region produce “Meritage” blends, which are California wines made from a blend of the traditional Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and, to a lesser extent, Malbec and Carmenere. These wines can rival their French relatives in quality and complexity at a fraction of the price. Even Ridge Vineyards’ “Monte Bello” blend, widely regarded as one of the best Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends in the world, retails for only around $140, a pittance compared to the price tag commanded by its equivalent in Bordeaux and there are many other excellent options, including other offerings from Ridge, that can be had in the $20-$50 range.

Instead of Burgundy try Rioja. What, you thought I was going to say Cru Beaujolais? Nah, Beaujolais as erstatz-Burgundy is a tired topic, plus the price of Cru Beaujolais has been creeping closer and closer into Burgundy territory each year. Instead, I’d like to present Spain’s historic La Rioja DOCa as a vibrant, sensible, and wallet-friendly alternative to France’s other really-fucking-expensive wine region. Although at first glance Rioja’s Tempranillo-based red wines seem to share more in common with Bordeaux than Burgundy, traditional Rioja wine’s acidity, cherry fruit and spicy, gamey aromas are more analogous to Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon to my palate. Because the Rioja DOCa will not allow wine to be released from winery cellars before it is ready to drink, good-to-go Rioja Crianza with three or four years of bottle age can be had for $15 or less and a Rioja Gran Reserva aged for 10 years or more can be found for under $35 on the retail shelf. And that’s really Rioja’s biggest advantage over Burgundy, where in the rush for cash flow the French producers release their wines way too soon, to the detriment of its brand in our buy-it-and-drink-it wine market.

Instead of Chateauneuf-du-Pape try Alentejo Wine from Portugal. Chateauneuf-du-Pape was itself a long time well-kept secret for delicious, reasonably-priced wine from France until the early 2000s when critic Robert M. Parker Jr. began splooging 95+ point scores all over producers from the Grenache-dominated region. If big, full-bodied and fruit-loaded wine with a judiciously-applied but noticeable amount of new French oak barrel aging is your thing, then the red wine from Portugal’s hot, dry southern region of Alentejo is for you. These wines are mostly blends, dominated by the indigenous grapes Aragones (Tempranillo) and Trincadeira, but augmented by French imports like Alicante Bouschet and Syrah. While Altentejo wine doesn’t quite match the highest octane CdPs in terms of alcohol levels or extraction, they’re more than big enough to stand up to the meatiest, grillingest, baconiest thing that Guy Fieri could ever have a pastrami-fueled fever dream about.

Look, I love French wine, but the prices commanded by top producers from top regions just aren’t worth it when compared to what the wine world has to offer and what the average American wine buyer has access to. Even in France, there are producers from Costieres de Nimes, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Southwest, et al that are doing better, more interesting things than their more established countrymen, many of whom have become prisoners of their own tradition and market forces.

(I’ll still probably end up buying some Lynch-Bages anyway.)

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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