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In Praise of Cheap Wine

Clive Coates MW  | GOOD TASTE 2011
Wine in the 1960's was a far more rudimentary product than it is today and at the bottom end of the scale quality left much to be desired. For those whose budgets did not stretch to a decent wine, beer was preferable to the rot-gut Bordeaux Rouge available at the low end of the vinous range. That said, if you could afford to spend a little extra, you could purchase 'class growth' wine from the famous 1855 Classification. Maybe not Lafite, but you could certainly stretch to a Leoville-Barton or Palmer. In those days, while the gap between a good wine and a bad wine was vast, costwise they were not that many miles apart. Today, it's the other way round, the difference in quality between expensive and cheap wines has narrowed while the parices of top quality wines have skyrocketed: if you were to consider purchasing one of these better quality wines, you would be looking at spending several hundred dollars. The expectional 2009 vintage Cháteaux Lafite is currently being offered at CI$1,250 per bottle while it is still in the barrel (en primeur) and it will not be bottled and released until 2011. That wine will need to mature in its bottle until at least 2025 when it will reach its prime. Needless to say, this puts fine wines well out of the reach of all but the very wealthy.

Fortunately, this does not mean that those of us on smaller budgets have to make do with cheap, bad wine. Advances in winemaking knowledge and control mean there is no excuse for not producing wine which is at the very least enjoyable, fresh and balanced, whatever the price. Anyone who offers anything less should not be making or selling wine. So even on a limited budget there is plenty of good wine around.

The demand for wine, particularly since the turn of the century, has been phenomenal. And as that famous law of economics states, where there is demand, supply will follow. As international communications, transport and distribution networks have improved across the globe, the choice of available wines has increased dramatically. In fact, there has never been such a variety of good wines available in the CI$20-30 range.

So what should those of us on smaller budgets but with a taste for nice wine be looking for? I could suggest you invest in some French 2009 crus bourgeois for less than $30 a bottle, and it'll be splendid in a few years time. But really, this could apply to many, many wines. The point is to explore the world of wines and find out what you like. It doesn't really matter which wine you choose to spend your hard earned dollars on, as long as you enjoy it.

Dividing the wine universe into Old World and New World is over-simplistic, but the differences will help you identify what you enjoy drinking, as well as your taste and the occasion. Old World wines are exemplified by France, Italy and Spain. They will be a little austere when they are young; the reds will have more pronounced tannins at this period; they will have higher acidity and will be less sweet; and they are likely to be less obviously oaky - so not as immediately attractive. But, argue these wine lovers, more rewarding in the long term, for there will be more depth, better balance and greater elegance. And they are more food friendly. New World wines will be quite different: riper and richer; fatter and more oaky; more exotic in fruit flavour; softer and sweeter; less acidic; easier to immediately enjoy. And probably ready for drinking sooner.

Knowledge about wine,  which used to be considered quite esoteric, is now freely available on the internet and from the many books and periodicals written on the subject. Half of the pleasures in drinking wine is discovering your personal preferences and favourites. There is no right or wrong, no black and white. Often, you will find that the occasion or the food pairings dictate whether you would enjoy white rather than red, or vice versa, or Old World rather than New. Most people would drink quite a different wine at a barbecue or a picnic than at a dinner party. Above all, what you need to examine is your own personal taste.

The most enjoyable way to do this, I would suggest, is to join a group - six or eight is ideal - and meet on a regular basis for an informal tasting. Cultivate a friendly neighbourhood wine merchant. This person is essential. He or she can offer advice, make recommendations and lead you to discover all sorts of delicious and individual wines you might otherwise not know existed. There can be many different themes for wine tastings: different grape varieties, vintages (vertical and horizontal), regional comparisons, tutored by one of the group or as blind tastings - particularly interesting when everyone brings a bottle to the evening and serves it to the others. Whatever the chosen theme, there should be an agreed price limit. Then all you have to do is sit back and relax and learn and enjoy. When you come across a wine you really like, go back to your wine merchant and add a case to your collection. It won't cost you a fortune. And you can drink to the joys of cheap wine.

Multi-award winning wine writer Clive Coates lives in Burgundy. He is a Master of Wine and author of 'The Wines of Burgundy', published by the University of California Press in May 2008. His website is clive-coates.com. Clive Coates is a consultant to Vino Veritas.