The most expensive wines in the world appear to have a very recognizable profile – probably the reason why they have become so iconic. Barolo is synonymous with the long-matured power of the nebbiolo grape. White Burgundy is the perfect marriage between chardonnay and oak. And Bordeaux turns out to be primarily an ode to the way in which cabernet sauvignon and merlot can provide drinking pleasure well into old age.
The appeal and price tag of those icons has inspired winemakers worldwide. Almost everywhere, from Canada to New Zealand, they are working to make wine with the same grapes and the same methods in the same style as, for example, white Burgundy and red Bordeaux.
How can we find bottles from that immense pool of wine that provide as much drinking pleasure as a Meursault, one of the most famous appellations for white Burgundy? Or where is that bottle that can be compared with Château Lynch-Bages, a red highlight from Pauillac, near Bordeaux?
We could try that search game for alternatives to iconic wines via apps like Wine-Searcher and Vivino. For example, after a few clicks, Wine-Searcher indicates that a cabernet sauvignon for 44 euros from Stellenbosch in South Africa is a good choice for those who like Bordeaux-like red wines. Wine comparator Vivino has a similar function.
But everything can be better. Many apps quickly show their limitations: for example, Wine-Searcher apparently thinks that Italian sangiovese grapes produce similar wines to American cabernet sauvignon, an opinion that few connoisseurs will share.
So we prefer to look for alternatives with real sommeliers – an exercise in which, in addition to Pareit, three of his colleagues also appear to be very adept.
Same style, different region
How do you choose a bottle made in the same style as the great icons? A tip: follow the grape.
The interaction between the chardonnay grape and (usually) new oak produces white wine that is buttery and complex, with flavors of yellow fruit (such as peach and apricot), as well as almond, toasted bread and vanilla. Look for relatively cool chardonnay areas where winemakers also use new oak to add complexity to the wine. This can be found in abundance in South Africa, but also in Canada, New Zealand and California, although American oak usually gives a different result than French oak.
For a bottle of fine Pinot Noir, it is good to look at regions where the grape can grow in the same relatively cool conditions: in Germany and New Zealand, for example, but also in parts of South Africa, Oregon and Canada.
The three red grapes – cabernet sauvigon, merlot and cabernet franc – that have brought Bordeaux fame are planted worldwide. Maturation in wood is also common. In California or on the Tuscan coast, this combination has become so successful that the wines are at least as expensive as in Bordeaux itself. Good alternatives can be found in South Africa, Chile and in the Argentinian wine region of Mendoza.
Nebbiolo, which produces intense wines with a long lifespan in Barolo, Italy, is a grape that is hardly planted outside the north of Italy. However, good nebbiolos can also be found in the wider Langhe area. The recent revival of Alto Piemonte, a long-neglected region north of Turin, also shows how great nebbiolo can be outside Barolo.
Tastes like white Burgundy
For example, what does the Convento sommelier suggest to someone looking for an alternative to white Burgundy – that typical balance between full and fresh of oak-aged chardonnay? A wine from South Africa, as it turns out. ‘Chardonnay is one of the most planted grapes in the world, but you prefer a wine with chardonnay from a cooler climate, such as Burgundy. Elgin, not far from Cape Town, is one of the coolest regions of South Africa due to its higher location and the influence of the sea. This results in wines with finesse and freshness.
- ‘The domain Paul Clüver has kept the wood aging very measured, so that in his Estate Chardonnay (19.95 euros at Convento) you can taste those typical Burgundy notes of butter, almond and toasted bread, but also fresh citrus. Not a plump wine, but a bottle with a lot of balance.’
- Maria Moll, manager and sommelier of restaurant Béus in Passendale, is also a fan of South Africa. In 2019, she even worked as an assistant winemaker in Elgin. ‘The Family Vineyards Chardonnay from Newton Johnson (25 euros, Arnim Wines) can be perfectly placed among beautiful Burgundy wines. It has been in Burgundy barrels for a year and has the same creamy, soft taste. The domain is located in Hemel en Aarde, a wine-growing region on the coast 100 kilometers southeast of Cape Town.’
- Gianluca Di Taranto, the sommelier of Le Grand Verre in Durbuy, recommends the Chardonnay from Kumeu, a cool climate domain from New Zealand. Just above Auckland, the Brajkovich family makes wines that deserve their place next to great Burgundies during blind tastings. The very best of these – from selected vineyards on the estate – are no longer really a bargain with prices from 50 euros, but the Estate Chardonnay 2021 – buttery and complex – offers a lot of pleasure at 30 euros per bottle (at Vinesse), says Di Taranto. ‘It is a very pure wine with a lot of class.’
Red burgundy from Baden and the Palatinate
From white to red burgundy. The delicate Pinot Noir can also be found worldwide, although it rarely produces the finesse of Burgundy. Once again, a relatively cool climate and many wine-growing skills prove to be necessary conditions.
- Olivier Pareit likes to look for that in Germany. Such as in southern Baden, the most important wine-growing region for Spätburgunder (the German name for Pinot Noir). Silke and Hans-Bert Espe appear to have a talent for making layered, rich wine that even convinces Burgundy purists. Because they started their winery in a former air force bunker, they named their domain Shelter Winery datum. Shelter’s top cuvee costs 63 euros, but their complex pinot noir (30 euros, Vinikus & Lazarus) with its cherry-to-cedar aroma is a good example of how this region can be a worthy alternative to Burgundy, says Pareit.
- Also Karsten Peter from the Palatinate is one of the best German Pinot Noir producers for the sommelier. ‘He mainly makes mineral Riesling, but his Spätburgunder is also top, very elegant and silky soft.’ Critic James Suckling praises the subtle maturation – partly in new wood, partly in mature barrels (26.4 euros for the 2020 at Crombé Wines) of the cuvee Charme and its aromas of flowers, beetroot, cherry and flint.
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Bordeaux inspiration in Chile and South Africa
Its powerful red wines in particular have made Bordeaux an iconic wine region. The Holy Trinity of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot has become a worldwide concept: winemakers talk about a Bordeaux blend when they use a combination of those grape varieties. They have been doing this very well for Deborah Hellburg, sommelier of Sensum in Ghent, in South Africa for years. ‘Many estates use exactly that blend for what they call their ‘full style’ and also mature the wine in new French oak, which gives you results that are very close to Bordeaux wines.’
- The sommelier recommends Die Boskind, a cuvée from the domain Roodekrantz in the Heaven and Earth Valley. Hellburg believes that this blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot – with dark fruit, cedar wood and softly melted tannins – works well with poultry such as partridge. (16.25 euros for the 2020 at Ad Bibendum).
- Also the Cabernet Sauvignon Grillos Cantores from the Chilean collective Clos des Fous reminds the Ghent sommelier of Bordeaux. ‘Clos des Fous is a project of four winemakers who search throughout Chile for the terroirs that are best suited to the grapes they want to grow.’ In Alto Cachapoal, at the beginning of the Andes mountains south of Santiago, they bought a vineyard with cabernet sauvignon. Due to the poor soil and the altitude, the vines have a low yield, but they also produce concentrated wines. With its dark cherries, pepper and soft tannins, the cabernet sauvignon is at its best, says Hellburg. (18.95 euros for the 2020 vintage at Ad Bibendum).
Nebbiolo remains Italian
Wine based on cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay, sommeliers can easily name good examples of this worldwide. But nebbiolo? That grape with its intoxicating perfume and light color, high acidity and strong tannins appears to be unique. In fact, top wine is only made in Italy, says Gianluca Di Taranto, and that also explains the sky-high prices of barolo and barbaresco, the two most famous nebbiolo wines. ‘There are some plantings in California, Australia and Mexico, but they are more curiosities than really wines you want to buy.’
Moreover, in Italy, nebbiolo only appears to do well in the north, and more specifically in Piedmont, the region around the capital Turin. The only other area where nebbiolo is really worth it is the sommelier’s Valtellina, in northern Lombardy. There, near the Alps, the Nebbiolo grape is called Chiavennasca and produces wines with very fine acidity.
- The Azienda Arturo Pelizzatti Perego, usually abbreviated to Ar.Pe.Pe., is a good example of this with his Sassella Stella Retica (42 euros at La Nebbia). ‘A transparent color, subtle and refined on the nose with a very pronounced minerality and a fine body.’
Do lovers of barolo and barbaresco really have so few alternatives? Fortunately not, says Di Taranto. Nebbiolo with Langhe on the label – the broader area to which Barolo and Barbaresco belong – can also produce fantastic wines, for more attainable prices.
- ‘That’s what makes the domain Oddero a good Langhe Nebbiolo that is definitely worth it. They are known as a producer of barolo, but with this ‘simple’ langhe they prove their status.’ The 2021, with aromas of violets, red fruit but also earth tones, costs 24.9 euros (at Crombé Wines), a pittance of the price of ‘real’ barolo.
But the sommelier especially recommends the Alto Piemonte wine-growing region, north of Turin. Before the region started to become massively impoverished at the end of the 19th century, there were 40,000 hectares of vineyards, today only 700. ‘Great wine used to be made here from nebbiolo – although they call it spanna here. A new generation is now proving that this is possible again. There are fantastic terroirs, such as the granite of the region around Carema or the volcanic soil of the Boca appellation. Many of those wines can easily age for 30, 40 years, like a barolo.
- ‘That is proven by Swiss winemaker Christoph Künzli, who was one of the first to put Boca back on the map. Are Le Piane 2017 (71 euros at Leuvin) is one of Alto Piemonte’s most acclaimed wines, which can also age effortlessly.’