If you think oil and food are pricey, just try buying a top-of-the-line Burgundy or Bordeaux. Recent years have brought dizzying price hikes for the most sought-after names, and many wine buffs have been knocked off the luxury ladder as a result. I've certainly slipped a few rungs. Lately I've had to kiss goodbye to some dear old friends (a process hastened, admittedly, by my wife's discovery of a few eye-popping receipts I'd meant to burn). Chave, Raveneau, Mugnier, and Giacosa are all too rich for me now.
A few weeks ago, tired of dwelling on the growing imbalance between my wallet and my palate, I decided to draw up a list of world-class wines still within reach of proles like me. The exact criteria were as follows: The wines had to be among the finest expressions of their grapes, styles, regions, or some combination thereof; had to exhibit the kind of profundity that separates the truly great from the merely very good; had to be underpriced relative to the (very few) wines that could be considered their equals; and had to be affordable enough that nonbillionaires could realistically contemplate splurging on them.
I didn't have an exact price ceiling in mind, but $150 struck me as a reasonable outer limit for a splurge wine. (Not eligible, for example, was the great 1990 Château Haut-Brion, which, at $650 to $900 a bottle, is arguably underpriced relative to the marginally better 1989 Haut-Brion, which sells for $1,200 to $1,500. But the point is purely an academic one for our purposes.) I figured I might identify four or five wines that satisfied my requirements. But I reached five pretty easily, and with additional sober reflection (wine writers are capable of it from time to time), I was able to come up with 10 wines that met my criteria. They also happen to be wines that I personally adore.
Six are white, four are red (and not a red Bordeaux or red Burgundy among them, which speaks to just how much those prices have jumped). For two of the whites, I haven't cited specific wines but have instead named the producers; each of these estates turns out a bevy of great wines, nearly all of which are very attractively priced. Be advised: These wines will almost always improve with aging, and some of them, when first released, need to be put in the cellar for at least a few years.
Herewith, then, a list of head-spinning wines that I'd be stashing away if I weren't observing a marriage-saving moratorium on wine buying:
Domaine Huet. Huet is a hallowed name. Its wines, made of Chenin Blanc, come from the Vouvray appellation in France's Loire Valley and are called Vouvrays. Huet showcases Chenin Blanc in all its protean splendor: dry (sec), off-dry (demi-sec), sweet (moelleux), even sparkling. The three dry bottlings (Clos du Bourg, Le Haut-Lieu, Le Mont) are the most versatile and affordable Huets, ranging in price from $25 to $40—a small tariff to pay for the finest white wines from the Loire and some of the best white wines on the planet.
Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm. Located in the Mosel Valley, Germany's Riesling heartland, Prüm has been crafting paradisiacal Rieslings for nearly a century now, a track record that few wineries anywhere can match. As with Huet, the entire Prüm range is impeccable. These are intricately detailed wines: full of ripe, elegant fruit and with terrific minerality and acidity to balance out the residual sugar they carry. The Kabinetts, Spätleses, and Ausleses (listed here in ascending order of ripeness and price) sell for between $25 to $60, which is pretty astonishing for wines of this quality and pedigree. (Note: Joh. Jos. Prüm, or J.J. Prüm as the winery is usually called, is not to be confused with S.A. Prüm, another Mosel producer.)
Maison F.E. Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile. This is the greatest dry Riesling on the market—apart from its stable mate, the Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune, a rare and very expensive single-vineyard Riesling. The CFE, by contrast, is easy to find and amazingly inexpensive—$35 to $55 per bottle—for the pleasure it offers. I can't think of many white wines—or reds—that are this consistently stellar. The CFE drinks well young and drinks even better old. My advice: Buy a bottle or two for immediate gratification and a few more to lay away.