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The Guy's Guide to Affordable, Upscale Wine

Great wines from surprising places are turning the affordable wine market upside down. Here's how to spot the latest must-have vintages.
Affordable, tasty and quality wine

The global wine market has never felt so wholly disrupted as it does right now. “A huge discrepancy has emerged between the price and real value of well-known classics, which are often bought on name alone,” says veteran wine dealer Patrick Emerson, based in Charleston, SC. But there is a flip side to that. “The reality is, there are so many outsider alternatives around that not only taste better but also cost a fraction of the price.” So, instead of traditionally popular go-tos such as Bordeaux, Emerson recommends reds from the Italian region of Taurasi, made from the lesser-known aglianico grape. “In the American market, it’s $30 a bottle and easily the equivalent of a $300 bottle from somewhere better known.” 

Welcome to the always shapeshifting world of wine, a high end commodity governed by variables ranging from stock markets and currency exchange rates to climate change and crummy weather. Thanks to enhanced technology and a multiplying number of vineyards, excellent-quality vino is being produced nearly everywhere, and not just France, Italy, or Napa Valley. Meet some delicious bargains from places you never knew to look.

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THE HARSH REALITY
Let’s get this out of the way first: The best wine deals in the world usually follow in the wake of terrible economic calamity. It’s sad but very true. Did you ever wonder why wines produced from the once-obscure malbec grape exploded to such prominence in recent years? Malbec hails from Argentina, a country that weathered a depression 10 years ago and more recently saw its currency take an ugly plunge. Malbec prices have recovered of late, so Emerson suggests shopping for the less-expensive bonarda—a fruity red-wine analogue that was once widely planted and is now rising in popularity as the “next malbec.” 

During Greece’s first 30 years in the European Union, the E.U. plowed a sizable investment into helping the country reboot its ancient wine industry. No sooner had that effort begun to pay off than the global financial crisis arrived in 2008, cratering Greece’s economy and paving the way to a sovereign debt crisis and a grim state of austerity. At the same time, Greece’s upscale new wine supply overwhelmed demand and prices plummeted.

The winemakers unloaded the barrels, and the prices remain low—especially in American stores. According to Emerson, if you’re buying Greek, keep an eye out for wines made from the widely planted assyrtiko grape. The same economic lopsidedness applies to bottles hailing from Spain, another country wracked by debt  and high unemployment. If you encounter a bottle produced in and around an area called La Mancha, snap it up. In brighter economic times, it would cost more.

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THE "OTHER 47" STATES
According to Richard Betts, author of The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert, “When American wine gets expensive”—as popular vintages from Napa Valley, Oregon, and Washington have—“the smart drinker goes looking for the cool shit somewhere else. But instead of going abroad, I suggest going weird.” 

Popular wine blogger Melanie Ofenloch singles out the wineries of New Mexico, where Gruet (gruetwinery.com) is churning out a sparkling white for less than $20 that she says is “a damn good expression of the chardonnay grape that’s usually used for expensive sparklings.” Texas, she adds, is also a hotbed of winemaking (seriously). In Dallas, the Calais Winery (calaiswinery.com) has received high marks for its red wine produced from the obscure black tempranillo grape. 

And in California’s Central Valley—south of Napa—you’ll find several well-priced, good-quality wines, most of them produced on vines planted by Italian immigrants more than a century ago. For a terrific table wine, seek out Turley (turley winecellars.com), known for its excellent zinfandels and petite sirahs. Act fast because word is spreading. The domestic industry’s Drink Local Wine Conference recently launched a PR offensive called “The Other 47” to raise awareness about lesser-known wines in the United States. 

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