The Right Wine At The Right Price

Good value can be found at all levels, says a connoisseur

Should you bring along a $7 or $27 bottle of wine to that holiday party? And no matter what your price range, how can you find the best value? To get an idea, BUSINESS WEEK's Edward Baig spoke with Daniel Johnnes, wine director of New York's Montrachet restaurant and author of Daniel Johnnes's Top 200 Wines: An Expert's Guide To Maximum Enjoyment For Your Dollar ($14.95, Penguin Books).

Q: Your view of value includes expensive wines. Why?

A: Value can be found at all prices. There are really terrific wines in the under-$10 category. But people are willing to spend more given the occasion, and they want to be sure they're getting their money's worth. With expensive wines, it's partly the fantasy and romance of drinking that's giving you pleasure. My point is, you can spend $20 to $40 or higher and find great value.

Between $25 and $40, depending on the region and type, the price has no impact on quality. In that range, you can get, say, a $25 bottle of Spanish wine that will deliver as much complexity and depth of flavor as a $40 Bordeaux. If you were to compare a $15 bottle of wine against a $50 bottle, it gets easier to pick out the difference in quality. At $50, wines should have more concentrated flavors, persistence, and layers of aroma.

Q: What are some hot spots for finding terrific values?

A: The Languedoc-Roussillon region in the South of France is amazing. In the past, the winemakers there have produced for quantity rather than quality. But now a new generation has seen the potential of these vineyards.

Appellations such as the Coteaux de Languedoc, Corbieres, Faugeres, and the Vin de Pays from the Languedoc can be superb. They can range from $10 to $40. At the $40 level, you're getting truly magnificent wine. Good ones include Domaine de la Grange des Peres, Mas de Daumas Gassac, Mas Jullien, and Domaine d'Aupilhac.

The one thing to remember in any region is that you want to buy from the best producers. Vintage is irrelevant. Although the styles will change according to the vintage, with a good producer, the wines are going to be good every year.

An area a lot of people don't look at much is the central coast of California, south of San Francisco. In Santa Barbara county, look at the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, especially for pinot noir and chardonnay. Two other regions I think are great are Oregon, primarily for pinot noir, and Washington State, for cabernet and merlot.

Another country I'm hot on is Spain. Look in the Rioja and Navarra regions. Fine producers include Guelbenzu, Magana, and Vega Sindoa. Many are blends of garnacha and cabernet sauvignon. These are great wines for your money--anywhere from $5 to $20.

Q: How about the more expensive side?

A: Certainly, Ponzi Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley Reserve. That will be about $30 a bottle. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Vergers 1994 from Michel Niellon ($40) is another. This is a white burgundy. You can also try the fuller-bodied Corton Charlemagne 1994 from Louis Latour ($60 to $65).

Bordeaux always makes a good gift, and there's definitely a lot out there. Chateau Gruaud-Larose is one top red for a grand occasion. It costs in the range of $40.

Q: So, how can a novice find value?

A: You have to be cautious when you go to a store. Instead of buying a case, buy one bottle and try it. See what your taste is. If you find a producer you like, go back and continue experimenting. Develop a relationship with a wine merchant who recommended a bottle you liked. If you go to restaurants, it's an opportunity to taste wines by the glass and discover things. Finally, follow your own palate. There's no better guide.

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