Is expensive wine worth it? This simple question is tough to answer
[Pictured: Federico Giuntini Masseti at Selvapiana]
One of the questions most asked of any wine writer is this: “Is expensive wine worth it?” For such a simple question, it really is a tough one to answer.
First off, allow me to say, as someone who has tried wines at a variety of price levels, expensive wine seems to taste really good, but whether that is the price tag talking or the wine is really up for debate. Rumour has it that a wine shop in the UK once had a tasting on a Saturday between expensive wines and cheaper wines (clearly labelled) and the expensive wine won. On the Sunday, they switched the price tags on the bottles and re-did the tasting, and again the wine labelled as the “most expensive” won (mind over matter?). On the other hand, expensive wine should taste better. After all, you basically doubled, tripled or, in some cases, more than quadrupled your usual budget to get that bottle, so it had better taste like chocolate-honey-caramel-nougat wrapped in gold (or whatever your pinnacle of taste is).
So, let’s be totally honest with each other: wine is a subjective beverage, especially when compared to other fruit juices that taste like the fruits they are from. While apple juice tastes like apples, pear nectar tastes like pears and cherry juice tastes as you would expect, vitis vinifera grape juice tastes like all kinds of things — from the mineral and stony qualities in Riesling to peaches and baked buttery apples in Chardonnay to sweet cherry and strawberry in Gamay to the winning combination of plums, chocolate and liquorice in Cabernet Sauvignon, no other juice gets the scrutiny and the volume of descriptors of wine. And what one gets is very much in the eye of the beholder, wine truly follows the old adage: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So, when posed the question of whether expensive wine tastes better, my response should be structured in the form of a Jeopardy answer: Is expensive wine worth it to you?
My other answer comes in the form of a parable. A person coming home to their spouse and friends for a party shares a $15 bottle of wine and, because they are enjoying themselves, that $15 bottle tastes fabulous. On the other hand, if that same person comes homes to an angry spouse after they have lost their job, a $250 bottle of first-growth Bordeaux of the best vintage will taste like a $5 bottle. Ultimately, wine is all about what is going on around you, or at least 80 percent of its enjoyment is.
But if that were the case, I’d be out of a job, right? I’ve always seen my role as one of finding the great bottled values of the world, so that you don’t have to hope and pray that the crapshoot $15 bottle you bought is any good. Sure, paying more than $200 generally means a tasty wine, but can a $20 bottle be made to taste as good as a $200 bottle? Some have done that just by changing the price tag on the bottle (as the above anecdote attests), but others have also done it through what they put in the bottle.
Allow me to turn my tongue towards Tuscany (unless otherwise noted) and some wines that offer great value and an alternative to expensive $50+ wines. I’ll also share some of what my momma refers to as “the more expensive spread” — you’ll notice that the one thing the “big” wines all have in common is that they need time. So maybe, just maybe, what you’re investing with them is your patience.
Rocca di Castagnoli Stielle Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2011 ($45.95)
Lovely fruit with mocha cherry and elegant spice. Very tasty. Call this a mid-range bottle for pseudo-special occasions.
San Felice Chianti Classico 2013 ($19.95)
Sweet dark fruit with a little floral, delicate herbal/spice but always with the fruit front and centre.
Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico 2013 ($21.95)
Raspberry and strawberry with elegant spice on the mid-palate.
Banfi Aska 2013 ($24.95)
Dark fruit, toasty oak, black cherry and blackberry with chocolate and smoky nuances. A real winner, even at $25.
Villa Trasqua Nerento Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2010 ($39.95)
Fruit-forward Chianti, offering balsamic cherries, nice woodsy notes with tannins, good acidity and a smoky finish. Gran Selezione takes Chianti to a whole new level.
Tenute Sette Ponti Crognole 2013 ($29.95)
Vanilla, cassis, white smoke, dark fruit, blueberry and elegant spice. A really pretty wine to sit and sip.
Castello d’Albola Chianti Classico 2012 ($19.95)
Soft, floral and plum notes are followed by mocha and spice.
Selvapiana Chianti Rufina 2013 ($21.95)
Red fruit with pepper, cinnamon and herbal notes.
Borgo Scopeto Borgonero 2013 ($19.95)
Good value in a well-made, easy-drinking Tuscan blend with good structure and dark berries, this is an everyday selection.
Marchesi de Frescobaldi Campo Ai Sassi Rosso di Montalcino 2013 ($21.95)
Red liquorice, herbal and sweet cranberry; simplicity never tasted so good.
Vicchiomaggio Agostino Petri Riserva Chianti Classico 2012 ($27.95)
Red fruit and violets with a touch of leather, earth, smoke and nice grit on the finish. Nice balance to drink now or 2 to 5 years.
Banfi Brunello di Montalcino 2011 ($54.95)
Deep and complex with blackberry, cassis, black raspberry and leather. Drink in 2018 and beyond.
Luce 2013 ($114.95)
A woody character rules the roost for the moment, but there is fruit lying in wait, mostly of the dark variety. Good tannins with an elegant finish, this one needs a few years to come into its own.
Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2013 ($212.95)
This wine has so much going for it, including a longevity factor that could see you drinking it well into the 2030s. Mocha, herbal and spice lead the charge with complex dark fruit ready to get into the mix but time is required for maximum enjoyment.
Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2008, Veneto ($104.95)
Some people believe Valpolicella should be drunk young but Guiseppe Quintarelli is not one of them: he ages his longer in the barrel, giving them complexity you would not otherwise find in this usually “simple” wine. Ready to drink upon release, it can also still age. In this case, tasting is believing.
Antinori Solaia 2012 ($254.95)
Earthy notes lead the charge here along with some black and blue fruits plus exotic spices. It seems a little disjointed at first, as things seem to just swoop in willy-nilly, but give it some time in glass and this one melds beautifully. Lay down until at least 2019.
Tenuta Sette Ponti Oreno 2013 ($79.95)
Might be one of the best Orenos I have tasted over the years. Lively and fresh with dark fruit, it’s a beautiful mix of power and elegance and can easily be enjoyed now or well into, and maybe past, 2025.
Antinori Guado Al Tasso 2013 ($104.95)
Dried fruit meets fresh fruit along with white pepper and herbal characteristics all culminating in a long finish. A wine to drink now if well decanted but another few years will do it even more justice. Don’t rush a good thing.
Antinori Castello della Sala Cervaro della Sala 2014, Umbria ($57.95)
Usually you need to be in Burgundy or California to see a Chardonnay at this price point, but Antinori makes a case for Chardonnay in Umbria. I’m not completely sold on the idea, but in this case, this year, Antinori is onto something, hitting all the right notes for Chardonnay lovers.
Antinori Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino 2011 ($61.95)
Brunello isn’t a cheap wine to begin with, and putting the Antinori name on it means it costs a little more, but it’s worth it — the firm tannins, the herbal quality, the rich texture and the floral elements all combine to make a delightful and delicious wine to be enjoyed in early to mid-2020.