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Champagne tastes, Pepsi budgets

What’s the difference between cheap and expensive wines?

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Danny co-owns Innovative Beverages, is an importer of fine wines and is a CAPSAC-certified sommelier. Photo: Tammy Fancy

Danny co-owns Innovative Beverages, is an importer of fine wines and is a CAPSAC-certified sommelier. Photo: Tammy Fancy

I’m always looking for the best inexpensive wines. I even limit my regular reviews to under $25 retail. Halifax isn’t always an easy place to find great cheap wine, as the government markup is one of the highest in Canada. You can find great values here, but you need to understand the differences between cheap and expensive wines.

It all depends on the vineyard. If a winery overplants and uses lots of pesticides, it’s going to produce a watery, less flavourful wine. Vintners can try fixing it with sugar and oak, but it’s hard to hide bad wine. Low yielding vines that are carefully nurtured and forced to work hard to allow their roots to go deep into the earth and find the water and minerals lead to the best wines. The best vines are hand pruned and the grapes hand picked. Machine harvesting is much more economical and faster, but the quality of the resulting wine suffers.

There are vineyards located with ideal terroir in many wine-producing nations but costs greatly vary. In Napa, California an acre of vineyard land might cost $250,000 or more, whereas in Argentina, an equivalent plot might be less that $10,000.

A smart vineyard manager will let newly planted vines grow for five to seven years before the first harvest, whereas the bulk producer will start harvesting grapes that are lower quality in two or three years. Older vines also produce fewer grapes, but those grapes have rich flavours. High quality demands a large investment. There is a saying to make multimillionaires into millionaires, just sell them vineyards. Many have lost fortunes in the wine business.

But you don’t need a fortune to enjoy great wine. I like to spend under $20 if possible, for everyday wines. A tasty wine under $20 is always a great value. Between $20 and $30, it becomes much easier to find nice wines, but the price starts to add up.

Wines between $30 and $50 are the best wines for the price. Most people can’t tell the difference between a $100 wine and a $40 wine, so why pay more? There are differences (in most cases) but unless you’re a trained professional, you probably won’t notice them.

To find delicious and cheap wines, avoid regions that are expensive for grape growing or are home to bit brand names that drive prices up. New World regions like Chile and Argentina and less-popular Old World regions like Languedoc, France are good places to start.

If you’re prepared to spend more, make sure you get good value by looking to popular regions but avoiding the most famous names, buying instead from neighbouring wineries. Or get your iconic wines from less popular years. Prices will be lower but quality will still be high.

For an exercise in understanding pricing/value, host a tasting. Put six wines of your favourite varietal in brown paper bags. Choose two of these wines under $20, two under $30, and two wines under $40. Try the bottles in random order of price while keeping each wine and price a secret. Several in your group will likely prefer the affordable wines over than the more expensive. It’s an eye-opener when you reveal the labels.

The under-$25 wine review

Laboure-Roi Maximum Bourgogne Chardonnay 2013
France, NSLC, $21.99

Who makes the best Chardonnay in the world? Most wine lovers agree that it’s France’s Burgundy region. It’s also the world’s most expensive Chardonnay. So here’s one for those of us with champagne tastes and Pepsi budgets. Mango, peach and apricot notes; some lovely minerality. A nice bit of toastiness on the finish. Great balance of fruit and acidity; subtle oak. Only 12.5 per cent ABV. Great intro to Burgundy. Enjoy on a warm spring evening with grilled chicken and ceasar salad. 90/100

Entwine California Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
U.S.A., NSLC, $18.99

Good California Cabernet Sauvignon is rare for under $20. Subtle aromas of black cherry versus the usual vanilla cedar notes, indicating a more gentle use of oak. Flavours of dark cherry and cassis. One of the softest Cabernets I’ve had lately. It doesn’t the backbone to stand up to, say, a grilled steak but is a very flavourful wine that would do well at happy hour. More like a Merlot than a Cabernet. Pair with tomato-based baked pasta. 89/100

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