Off the beaten track 

Getting the biggest taste bang for your wine buck

It’s that time of the year when many of us find ourselves short of funds. Worse, with the annual Revenue Canada tax deadline looming for most Canadians it’s going to be a while before any of us are likely to reach for the most expensive wines on the shelf.

I’ll admit that disposable wine income is a relative concept but it doesn’t really matter how much or how little money you have to spend on wine because when it comes to paying, no one likes to feel as though he or she has paid too much.

Everyone wants to drink best value wines. The only trick is knowing what a best value is and then ultimately locating one to buy.

Value means getting the most for your money, so don’t be fooled into thinking only inexpensive wine can offer value. Not surprisingly there is wine value at all price points. The trick is to buy wine that over-delivers in flavour and taste for its price. That’s what being wine savvy is all about.

You may find that retailers and restaurateurs will compliment you when you make a savvy wine selection but don’t count on either to help you find too many "great buys," otherwise they would be out of business.

After 30 years of serious wine buying in a heavily controlled government monopoly market, I’ve become a savvy wine buyer as a matter of survival.

A good place to begin the value hunt is off the beaten track among varietal or regional wine – labels that are off the radar of everyday consumers. Instead of heading into the chardonnay or merlot section of California you might want to look for a pinot gris from British Columbia, or viognier from the Pays d’Oc.

In fact, as weird as it sounds, the tougher the name is to pronounce, like the juicy nero d’Avola grape of Sicily, the more likely it will be priced below its true value because so few buyers will reach for it.

Viognier is a great example of delicious wine that has yet to penetrate the mainstream, most likely because few can pronounce the name, vee-OWN-yay. The grape originates in the northern Rhone, but the bargains are not from there. There are, however, three very diverse offerings from the rest of the globe that might pique your interest.

Cono Sur in Chile has done a fabulous job with viognier and it sells for less than $12 across the country. Yalumba and Smoking Loon have set new standard at the $16 to $18 mark with viognier that will scare you they are so good – the former is made in Australia the latter in California.

By nature Canadian wine is expensive, but bargains are out there, such as Calona Artist Series Chardonnay, Quails Gate Limited Release Pinot Noir or the Mission Hill Five Vineyards Riesling.

Juicy New Zealand pinot noir is a wine category that over-delivers for its price, as do inexpensive screw-capped, German rieslings, and many new exciting Spanish reds grown far from established appellations such as Rioja or Penedès. Sauvignon Blanc from the Western Cape (South Africa) is another regional/varietal best buy.

The triple whammy of value is the un-oaked white wine category. Not using oak keeps the cost down. No oak means fresh, clean, hip-tasting white wine. And since white wine is currently unpopular it’s always a dollar or two cheaper than its red varietal cousins.

Stay away from labels that sport words like Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Reserve because they invariably cost more. On the other hand look for solid names capable of producing high-quality, inexpensive, table wine. Wineries and brands that quickly come to mind include Yalumba (Y-Series), or Penfolds (Koonunga Hill) from Australia; Concha y Toro (Casillero del Diablo), Torres (Santa Digna) and Santa Rita (120) out of Chile. Calona, (Artist Series) from B.C. and Talus by Sebastiani in California also meet the grade.

Becoming a savvy wine buyer is akin to becoming a savvy wine taster – it takes time and plenty of practice. But the reward is a lifetime of enjoyment.

A CASE OF BEST BEST BUYS

Serame Viognier 2003, Pays d’Oc, France

This is first class inexpensive viognier with a fresh floral nose and honey/mineral flavours. Quiet, understated introductory Euro-style viognier. $11.40

Flagstone Noon Gun 2004, Western Cape, South Africa

The nose is fresh and cool with a hint of menthol. On the palate it refreshes with limey, fresh fruit flavours. A fun blend of riesling, chenin blanc, chardonnay, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc and sémillon. $13

Mission Hill Five Vineyards Dry Riesling 2003, Okanagan Valley, B.C.

Green apple and peach notes mixed with honey – the kind of riesling we’ve been waiting for and it comes with a screw cap to boot. Load up for summer. $13

Delas Côtes-du-Ventoux 2003 Grenache - Syrah, Rhone Valley, France

Black cherry, smoky, spicy red with orange, licorice flavours and a bit of grip. Well done. $17

A Mano Primitivo 2002, Apulia, Italy

Loads of peppery, spicy, chocolate, savoury fruit streaked with cardamom and black cherry jam and licorice flavours. A full-bodied red for the BBQ. $17.45

Alamos Malbec 2003, Mendoza, Argentina

Rich smoky, peppery, gamey, chocolate, tobacco notes preview its delicious cherry jam, black raspberry, smoky, vanilla flavours. $19

88 Cusumano Nero d'Avola 2003, Sicily, Italy

Attractive spicy, black cherry and strawberry jam nose laced with smoky, peppery, almond, black cherry jam, plum, cardamom and mocha flavours. $18

Smoking Loon Viognier 2003, California

Packed with juicy honeysuckle orange fruit flavours and with flecks of melon, quince and pineapple throughout. $18

Domaine des Blagueurs Sir-Rah Syrah 2002, Languedoc, France

A touch of viognier is in the mix and sure enough it tends to cleave open the syrah revealing its primal meaty, smoky, cassis flavours appropriately streaked with white pepper and a touch of bacon fat. $20

Clos de los Siete 2003, Mendoza, Argentina

Ripe sweet blackberry fruit, supple textures and a long smooth silky finish. Attractive New World flavours but with some European styling. $25

Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Kapellenberg Riesling 2003, Nahe, Germany

Wow! Delicious creamy, green apple skin, mineral, lime, clover aromas with bright green apple, nectarine, mineral, honey, lime and floral flavours. $27

Tommasi Valpolicella Ripasso 2001, Veneto, Italy

Rich, round, supple and dry with tobacco, chocolate, black cherry, prune, licorice flavours and a peppery, savour pudding finish. $30

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com

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