Lately we have read and seen what the weakening dollar has done to the prices of European wines. In May of 2006, the Euro was worth $1.27, in May 2007, $1.37 and in May of 2008, $1.57. This means our dollar does not buy as much in Euros as it did last year, or the year before. Despite this dire progression, I believe there are still great values to be had in European wines-if you dig a little deeper. To confirm my hunch, I consulted three people who have been consistent, impassioned supporters of European wines for years in New Mexico at the wholesale level.
Wholesalers are uniquely positioned to offer advice because of the way that the wine industry is set up in our state. The wine industry consists of three tiers of businesses that move the wine from the winery to your table, whether at home or in a restaurant. In a sense the importer is a supplier-the first tier-the source for much of the imported wine we drink. He or she locates the growers and producers, buys their wines and brings it to the United States. The importer then finds wholesalers in each state-the second tier-to warehouse, sell, and help market the wine. The wholesaler needs to be in touch with "big picture economics" and make informed purchases from the importer that will excite his customers-the third tier-restaurateurs, hotel managers, and retailers. Every successful wholesaler has European wines as part of their portfolio and answers to their suppliers and trade customers. He or she becomes an important local market specialist, constantly trying to find wines from Europe that appeal ultimately to the consumer. This is what my three wholesale representatives had to say:
Dan Murray, Managing Partner of Boutique Wines, points out that it is not only the exchange rate but the cost of fuel that adds to the eventual cost of wine. Even so, 2005 across the board in France was exceptional, so "buy what you wouldn't buy" normally from that vintage. And in terms of overall quality, "most European wines are still the better match for food than New World wines because of their acidity and their tendency to use less oak." His best wine recommendations:
Almira "Los Dos' 2006 (90% Grenache & 10% Syrah).
This lush mouthful from Spain's Campo de Borja region comes from 80 year old vines and is one of the best values out there at about $10.99 retail. It is loaded with ripe red and black fruits.
Tariquet "Classic" Gascogne Blanc (France) 2006 (Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc), $9.99.
This bright citrus-driven wine has a nose like a fresh spring day and a crisp clean palate that beckons you back for another sip.
Tasca d'Almerita Regaleali Nero d'Avola (Italy) 2006, $14.99.
Regarded as one of the best from Sicily, this wine packs a lot of bang for the buck. Ripe cherry and berry fruit is complemented by hints of vanilla and supple yet firm tannins.
Steve Begg, Vice President of Fiasco Fine Wine and a wholesale veteran in New Mexico, put it succinctly: "With the dollar at a near low against the Euro, the U.S. wine consumer may not be seeing the incredible values of a few years back, but value can still be part of the equation. With very good recent vintages, due somewhat to global warming, the American consumer is benefiting with some of the highest quality wines to come out of Europe in some time." His recommendations:
Mönchhof Estate Riesling (Germany) 2006, $17.99.
Crisp, loaded with peach, pear and mint flavors. Delicious.
Aveleda Vinho Verde (Portugal) 2006, $9.99.
Wonderfully refreshing white with a bit of spritz on the palate.
Fontanafredda Barbera "Briccotondo" (Italy) 2006, $14.99.
Full-bodied, soft and succulent, with a long, long finish.
John Grimm, a Northern New Mexico Sales Manager with the Bacchus division of Southern Wine & Spirits, acknowledges that it has become more challenging "but you just have to dig a little deeper." You can admire a wine for several vintages and then a superb vintage like 2005 comes along, resulting in a wine of even better value. He also advises you "to get to know your wine retailer and have him or her get to know your tastes." He points out that there are simple everyday wines "from regions that you love" that provide great enjoyment when compared to similarly priced wines from California. "Even the values from Australia are not what they used to be." Here are his recommendations with approximate retail prices:
Renzo Masi Poggerisi Bianco Toscana (Italy) 2006 (Trebbiano and Chardonnay), $ 7.99.
Summertime white wine that has the acidity to works with lighter dishes. Great for sipping as well. A refreshing, everyday wine.
Delas Côtes du Ventoux (France) 2006 (80% Grenache, 20 % Syrah), $11.99.
Young, fresh, reminiscent of red berries. The region is adjacent to Côtes du Rhône but is an alternative that reflects similar characteristics of the terroir.
Château Lagrange Clinet, Premieres Côtes de Bordeaux (France) 2005, $14.99.
Fleshy, round, ready to drink, Merlot-based (60 %), with a "sense of place" as opposed to California wine. A little more structure and a lot more complexity than most Merlots at this price.
To summarize and add an additional thought or two:
Learning about European wines can be daunting, and when faced with the bewildering array of wines named after a multitude of towns (not grapes), educating yourself about the vagaries of quality differences due to vintage, and now watching prices escalate, one is tempted to give up and buy beer, or ice tea, or an Australian wine. But the search is worth it. I have done enough restaurant staff training and consumer wine tastings to know that time and again, that excitement always occurs when someone tastes a good wine from Europe for the first time. It is unique. It goes with food. It has subtlety, finesse, and staying power. People have seen me dance with excitement when I taste an exceptional wine. Nine times out of ten, the wine that does that for me comes from Europe.