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.
Domaine Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Les Preuses. A grand cru Chablis and as pure and delicious a chardonnay (the Chablis region's signature grape) as you can find. Dauvissat is, along with Domaine François Raveneau, one of two leading Chablis producers. (This being viticultural France, the Dauvissats and Raveneaus are cousins, naturally.) Prices for Raveneau have exploded in recent years, and Dauvissat's other grand cru, the more famous Les Clos, is showing signs of the same. But the Preuses, which I think is as good as the Clos and sometimes better, has stayed remarkably affordable, if not exactly cheap, for a white Burgundy of this caliber: Around $80-$100 per bottle. (Note: Vincent Dauvissat's wines are available in some places under the label Dauvissat-Camus. Further note: Domaine Vincent Dauvissat is not to be confused with Domaine Jean et Sébastian Dauvissat, whose wines are also sold in the United States but are not as good.)
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs. An elegant all-chardonnay bubbly that for half a century has represented the apotheosis of champagne. It is a wine that inhabits the same rarified space as Krug, Salon, Roederer Cristal, and Dom Pérignon, and it generally sells for substantially less money. The blindingly good 1996 Comtes, for instance, can still be found for less than $150, a steal compared to the '96 Krug, Cristal, Salon, and Dom, all of which are pushing, or have topped, $300 a bottle.
Domaine Pierre Matrot Meursault-Perrières. This is a "sleeper" pick: The Matrot is not as well-known as these other wines, and some critics don't seem to like it quite as much as I do. It is a white Burgundy from a premier cru vineyard in the village of Meursault, Les Perrières, that many aficionados believe yields grand cru-quality wines. Matrot's Perrières is overshadowed by the versions from Coche-Dury, Lafon, and Roulot, Meursault's most celebrated producers. But the Matrot Perrières can hold its own against those wines, and it trades at such a deep discount to them—$65 for the 2005 versus more than $1,500 for the Coche, $500 or more for the Lafon, and at least $300 for the Roulot—that I decided to include it here.
Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape. An atypical Châteaneuf-du-Pape, in that it contains a hefty amount of Mourvèdre, but also one of the best. The Châteauneuf appellation is overrun these days with prestige cuvées, wines produced in small quantities that often sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle. Beaucastel makes one, the Hommage à Jacques Perrin, which goes for prices ranging from $350 to $500. But, in my opinion, those wines have nothing on the regular Beaucastel Châteauneuf, which can be found for $75 to $100 and offers lots of sun-splashed pleasure but also all the complexity and verve of a great Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port. Taylor is a name that is virtually synonymous with Port. The list of legendary Taylor vintages is epic: 1896, 1912, 1927, 1935, 1945, 1948, 1963 … you get the idea. No vintage port—not even the mythical Quinta do Noval Nacional, which will set you back at least $500—has hit the bull's-eye more often. The Taylor currently sells for $75 to $100 a bottle—not bad for a (fortified) wine that rolls with the likes of Haut-Brion, Yquem, and Romanée-Conti.
Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello CabernetSauvignon. The iconic American wine, produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley, and the one California cabernet that can unquestionably hold its own against the best of Bordeaux and has proved it time and again in blind tastings. Depending on the vintage and the store, the Monte Bello sells for between $90 and $150 a bottle, compared with more than $1,000 for the Bordeaux First Growths (the 2005s, anyway, save Mouton Rothschild) and upward of $500 for some Napa Valley cabernets that don't come close to matching the Monte Bello's track record. Sooner or later, the market is going to realize there is something wrong with this picture. My advice: Buy now.
Giuseppe e Figlio Mascarello Barolo Monprivato. For the quality it offers and the price it fetches, this is arguably the greatest high-end wine value in the world. The Monprivato vineyard, owned exclusively by Mauro Mascarello, is a legendary site in Italy's Piedmont region, and it yields a consistently wondrous Barolo that is all the more appealing for being so cheap: It sells for $70 to $90 a bottle, which is easily half the price that the top wines from Giacosa and Gaja, two other Piedmont heavyweights, now command. Here, too, for reasons that are inexplicable, the market is giving us a gift.
For an idea of what you can expect from these wines, here are some tasting notes. And where can you buy them? If you consult Wine-searcher.com, you can find locations for both current vintages and older ones. Just one favor to ask: Leave a few bottles for me.