How to Find the Best Value Wines

Who doesn’t like a deal, especially if it involves wine? 

Value is the thing I am most often asked about by consumers, and, frankly, it may be the toughest question to address. To say we all have different views about what is and what isn’t expensive is an understatement.

We wine writers love to use the terms “best buy” and “best value” to make sure you pay attention to our reviews, but what does best value really mean when you open that bottle?

"Wine Access" International Value Wine Awards

Each year in June, our sister publication, "Wine Access," goes searching for the best wine values in the country, looking for bottles that cost $25 or less. Two dozen of Canada’s most-talented wine tasters come to Calgary to spend a week tasting close to 1,200 wines once, twice and sometimes three times. The results of the International Value Wine Awards appear in the October/November issue of "Wine Access," which is now considered the bible on the best value wine (selling for $25 or less) in the Canadian wine market.

What does "best value" really mean when comparing wines?

But if price is seldom a measure of quality, can it possibly be a measure of value? I have never considered “best value” to be strictly about price. Value is all about exceeding expectations or, as the marketers like to say, over-delivering in the glass, and there is no better accolade one could give a wine than that. Value also means getting the most for your money, so don’t be fooled into thinking only inexpensive wine can offer value. 

For example, why can’t an outstanding $100 Chilean red blend that costs anywhere from $500 to $1,500 less than a highly ranked Bordeaux be great value? In fact, one could argue it is great value, provided your budget allows you to choose between classified-growth Bordeaux and top Chilean bottles.

It is my experience that value falls into three broad categories — high-end for wines $75 and well beyond that, low-end for less than $25 and perhaps the most significant mid-range of $25 to $75.

Pay attention to the mid-range wines when looking for value

Why is the mid-range so important? Well, if we agree there is a fixed minimum cost in growing grapes and making wine, it is hard to imagine encountering too many best buys under $10, mainly because most of that $10 is eaten up by production and shipping costs and, across most of this country, a healthy whack of taxes. On the other hand, if it only costs $10 or $15 per bottle to make the finest wine in the world, how can you justify calling a $95 wine good value?

That leaves a $50 sweet spot of wines. It is here the battle rages as producers frantically vie for your attention, in many cases over-delivering in quality and price as they fight to get the recognition they need to eventually raise their prices even higher. If you catch those wines on the rise (and even better, hold on to them), you’ve done well in the value department.

Compare the best wines from an emerging region

One of the best value tips I can give you is to compare the best wines of a young or emerging region with those of an old venerable district and taste them blind (paper bags will do the trick). If you can’t tell the difference between an expensive Napa Valley icon label and a red blend from the Okanagan, save yourself $40 to $100 and buy locally. The best cabernet blends of Chile or the finest malbecs in Argentina, when compared to the best of California or France, are usually, by comparison, always excellent value.

Europe isn’t normally associated with being the home of value wine, but it should be considered a player. Most of the Rhône Valley offers better value than you will find in the Okanagan Valley or Niagara Peninsula and there are many French, Spanish and Italian labels coming from non-traditional areas that are turning heads for a fraction of the price of their classified kin. 

If there is one caveat in this discussion, it may well be that today’s best values might not be so affordable in the coming years. The rising level of interest in wine and the ease of accessing information via the Internet means there are more and more buyers for less and less wine. That’s another kind of value — scarcity — and that kind of value works best when the wine is already in your cellar. 

In the end, it comes down to what’s in the glass and having enough experience to draw upon when you consider what the same money will buy in the marketplace. It doesn’t matter if your budget is big or small because, when it comes to paying, no one likes to feel as if he or she paid too much.

For the moment, let’s share with you some of the winning picks from the 2012 "Wine Access" International Value Wine Awards, where an enormous amount of time and work went into seeking the best value wines sold for less than $25 in this country. For complete results, pick up the October/November issue of "Wine Access" on newsstands.

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