Despite unhelpful exchange rates, there’s still value to be had in Europe, providing you know where to look. Anne Krebiehl MW asks some top somms where to go for A-list wines at B-list prices
Post-Brexit everything, it seems, is up in the air, with currency jitters, question marks over regulatory policy and a huge influx of visitors attracted by a historically low sterling. But even if so much is still undecided, one thing, at least, is clear: value for money is more important than ever – for both your clients and your business.
Pound to Euro exchange rates might not be helping, but there is still value to be found in Europe, provided you know where to look. To prove it, we've teamed up with some savvy somms to hunt down the best-value wines in some of Europe’s classic regions.
Like it or not, when it comes to classics France still is the lodestar. Even without currency fluctuation the prices for red and white Burgundy have been eye-watering for a while. But Maxwell Allwood, head sommelier at one-Michelin-starred Alimentum in Cambridge has done his homework. 'If you know where to look, high-quality wines in a variety of styles can be found outside the most famous, expensive appellations,' he says.
I sell the [Givry] for £70. If it said Vosne-Romanée on the label, I’d have to charge £170
His focus is on good producers in the lesser-known villages such as Rully and Givry. 'The Jaeger-Defaix Rully 1er Cru Clos du Chapitre has been a consistently pretty wine: scented, supple, with a clear expression of red fruit and subtle oak. The wine appeals to Pinotphiles, and there's little worry of it being backward in its first few years. That's ideal as we don't have the facilities to lay down wines before selling them.'
He's also a fan of Francois Lumpp’s Givry 1er Cru Clos du Cras Long which he describes as 'consistently superb'. 'I have yet to find anyone that has been disappointed by it,' says Allwood. 'It is a bit more expensive than other Givry wines, but it is much, much cheaper than anything of equivalent quality in the Côte de Nuits, and has none of the rusticity people might associate with Châlonnais reds. I sell the wine for £70 – but if it said Vosne-Romanée on the label I'd have to charge £170.'
Finding these producers, Allwood reports, is a matter of reading and visiting the region: 'I didn't set out to find a Rully and Givry specifically. I just look for quality and something people will buy and enjoy.' His other tips for great-value red Burgundy are Mercurey, as long as it’s not too rustic, and Santenay.
At Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, head sommelier Laurent Richet MS uses his knowledge and an innovative list layout to get the best value for his diners. 'I'm always looking for alternatives. We're not in London and sometimes selling a bottle of wine above £60 can be difficult,' he confesses. 'Having less well-known appellations gives us the opportunity to surprise our guests. It opens their eyes to regions where some of the big names are becoming prohibitively expensive.'
White Burgundy is a case in point: 'Although a St-Véran or Pouilly-Fuissé may not be as big as a Meursault variant, depending on the producer, these wines come close to a fuller-style Chardonnay,' says Richet. 'It's really just a matter of explaining to our guests what to expect with the wines.
'These wines are a bit like the underdogs of each region. I think they deserve more appreciation,' he says. 'Sometimes a Petit Chablis can be more enjoyable than a standard Chablis.'
Back in London, Yves Desmaris MS, sommelier at Lutyens, agrees that Burgundy's B-List offers good alternatives at the moment: 'Petit Chablis, St-Véran, Viré-Clessé, Marsannay and Pernand-Vergelesses are among our favourites in Burgundy right now, especially at lunch time. We sell quite a lot of them.'
When it comes to the Loire, Richet is also shopping around within the region. 'Sancerre is king. For a while, Pouilly-Fumé was a good alternative but has now become expensive, too. So looking at appellations such as Reuilly, Quincy and Menetou-Salon gives us an amazing array of choice, for a similar quality at better value. I actually don’t list white Sancerre any more. When someone looks for one I suggest Cheverny – another lesser-known but great alternative.'
No surprise that our sommeliers are happy to search through Bordeaux’s lesser regions in search of value for money. When it comes to this ultimate classic, La Trompette’s Tanguy Martin MS is at the top of his game. 'It makes sense to offer the smaller appellations from Bordeaux: identical grapes, same region, same climate, similar terroirs,' he says.
For restaurants, there's a second benefit, too, beyond that of price. 'They can give a lot of satisfaction at an early stage of their maturity,' he explains. 'Where a Cru Classé 2005 can be too young and closed, a Moulis 2005 can be splendid. The 2005 Côte de Blaye, for instance, has reached full maturity now.'
Martin's only caveat is that sommeliers need to tread carefully when selling. 'A fan will never change his idol: if he likes Pauillac, it must be Pauillac. But when we feel there's an opportunity for discovery we go for it. We always speak about the similarity of climate, terroirs, technique of wine making, ageing, and try to make these appellations transparent. The selection of vintage is important too. We try to explain it simply and honestly.’
According to Martin, customers are mostly surprised after they've finished the bottle and paid the bill. His current alternative picks are from Moulis-en-Médoc, Lussac-St-Émilion and Côtes de Francs but he also suggests looking in Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, Côtes de Duras and Côtes du Marmandais.
Another firm wine list favourite is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And Sam Pearman, co-owner of The Lucky Onion Group of hotels, restaurants and country pubs in the Cotswolds makes sure that his venues always have alternatives.
‘We’ve had success in the Rhône Valley because it has a variety of styles and, crucially in this economic climate, is good value,’ Pearman states. ‘We’re on a journey of exploration ourselves, seeking out where quality and price find a happy balance.’ Again, for him, honesty and transparency are both important aspects.
‘Côtes-du-Rhone, Village and Cru wines all have interesting and different styles. I think it is best to clarify what style of Rhône our guests like and select something appropriate that works well with their wallet. Generally these wines are crowd pleasers.’ His own personal favourite? ‘I do feel a good Rasteau is a joy, and still slightly under the radar.’
I don’t list white Sancerre anymore. When someone looks for one I suggest Cheverny
In Italy, the prestigious appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco have lesser-known but equally historic counterparts. Adriana Valentini, head sommelier at Massimo Restaurant in London knows all about these Nebbiolo-based wines. ‘Lessona typically produces robust, brooding wines with pronounced tannins.
They are less well known but great value and well worth exploring. Carema also offers a unique interpretation of Nebbiolo, at cheaper prices. Narrow Valtellina in Lombardy makes great Sforzato or Valtellina Superiore with a distinctly alpine character. They age well and their high acidity can be perceived as lightness in comparison to Barolo. All of them are very good value.’
She also thinks they score well for versatility. ‘Their high acidity presents a great opportunity for pairings with high-acid or salty foods and vinegar-based sauces. Even though Nebbiolo is traditionally paired with Italian foods, it has been well-received with Asian cuisines,’ she says.
Valentini wants her customers to be able to experience the ‘elegance, florality, red fruit, rose and leather’ aromas, but without the eye-watering prices associated with Barolo, and she’s already eyeing the Ghemme, Gattinara and Colline Novaresi appellations.
‘The wines from northern Piedmont have a much lighter taste profile, more like red Burgundy, floral, with high acidity, delicate red fruits and earthy soil notes,’ she says. ‘They are worthy of being tasted, trust me!’
At Trullo in London, bar manager Pasquale Matarrelli has never paid too much attention to blockbuster wines anyway. ‘While Tuscany with its Brunello and Super Tuscans is well-known,’ he says, ‘there are many Italian regions that share the same quality approach but have less international renown. Marche and Umbria are an example of that – quality has increased dramatically over the past years.
‘The wines are true and authentic: you can taste a Montepulciano from Marche or a Sagrantino and they will transport you to the land where they are grown,’ explains Matarrelli.‘We explain the reason behind our choices and we let the customer try it.’
The good news is that the wines are out there. Finding them, Xavier Rousset MS says, is about keeping your ear to the ground and cultivating good relationships.
‘If your importers know your taste and what you are looking for, they tend to bring you things that you are going to be pleased with,’ he says. ‘But I have to be open-minded all the time. I guess it’s about tasting, talking to friends, fellow sommeliers and importers. They are the ones who help me find these wines.’
He is also clear about selling and placing the wines on the list. ‘Some customers won’t even talk to the sommelier, but if they are willing to start a conversation you need to know how to engage. It’s not necessarily about telling people all about unusual grapes. You have to be on hand without being patronising. It’s about smiling as you approach the table, about not putting someone on the spot or making people feel small. Think in a different way.
Hot hints from the hunters
Yuri Gualeni, Clos Maggiore
A fan of Austrian appellations, Gualeni advises that in good vintages in the Wachau, you can settle for Federspiel rather than Smaragd wines. 'They still showcase the great aromatics of the grape itself,
being balanced and a good food companion. They can age a few years in bottle to develop into beautifully scented yet rich medium-bodied whites.'
Xavier Rousset MS, Blandford Comptoir
'I am trying things from Italy that nobody’s ever heard of and I just like the drinkability of these wines, their acidity. Then I find things like Timorasso, it was sold to me as a kind of Chablis…'
Laurent Richet MS, Sat Bains
'Looking at other European countries with great wine regions less known by the general public gives us great opportunities to present wines with lots of style and character. We have a great wine from Hungary for example, made for the Ezerjó grape. We often suggest it as an alternative to Chablis. Savoie can deliver refreshing white wines as good alternatives to Loire Sauvignons and Muscadets, with the lovely Altesse or Jacquère grape varieties. In the same way, we haven’t listed Beaujolais for a while. Instead we are selling Côtes du Forez, which is also based on Gamay.'