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Drinking well on a budget: what are the wine worldís best value bottles?

I reckon most people arenít at all surprised by the notion that wine can cost a lot. Almost everyone I know is familiar with the idea that the best wines are going to be expensive. We gasp a bit when we think of someone paying a few hundred pounds for a bottle Ė it seems a bit expensive for what is just a drink, after all Ė but we arenít all that shocked to open a restaurant wine list and see bottles priced in the hundreds, and we donít bat an eyelid when we see £30 bottles on the shelves of supermarkets, even though as a nation our average spend on a bottle of wine is under £4.

Whatís my point? Simply that we are used to treating wine differently from other drinks. Can you imagine paying £5 a bottle for a beer Ė even a really good one Ė or £3 on a carton of fruit juice Ė even a gourmet hand-squeezed organic one? Yet with wine, £6 isnít seen as expensive for a bottle, although in the context of other foods we buy, this is quite a lot of money. Indeed, in the wine trade, a sub-£10 bottle is though of as a cheap one. Letís face it: wine is quite an expensive habit if you drink decent stuff regularly.

Most wine nuts are in the fortunate position of having plenty of disposable income, and so they can afford to spend a reasonable chunk of this on their wine habit. But there are people who enjoy and appreciate wine who arenít wealthy; or have a cash flow problem; or are a bit tight. This article is for them, to help them find satisfying bottles without spending a fortune.

The French are lucky. Pick up a copy of the Guide Hachette (a famous French wine-buyerís guide) and youíll find hundreds of small producers listed, all of whom are doing good work, from dozens of regions. You can visit them (or, if you canít manage this, phone them up) and buy their wines directly. Steer clear of the most famous names in the classic regions, and you could fill your cellar very nicely with really smart wines at around 10-15 Euros a bottleóor even less if the region is really unfashionable or your requirements are more modest.

If you shop in France you can certainly buy very drinkable, interesting wines with a sense of place for as little as 5 Euros. If these wines reach the shelves of retailers in the UK at all (many donít because the production is too small) then the price jumps massively, with the addition of UK duty (just over a pound a bottle) and the retailers margin (up to 40% with some), then VAT on the lot.

Itís a shame, but France is still a happy hunting ground for bargain hunters, as long as you skip the most famous names. Finding good cheap Bordeaux is almost impossible, but drinkable Vin de Pays from the Langeudoc abound. Steer clear of Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay; instead look for Shiraz, Grenache, Carignan, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Rolle, Roussanne, Marsanne and Sauvignon. Sticking with the Languedoc, AOC wines such as Minervois, St Chinian, CorbiŤres and Fitou can be great, although the better examples are creeping up in price. The Southwest of France is another place to have fun without much of a budget: Iím a fan of Cahors, Coteaux du Quercy, Gaillac, Marcillac, Irouleguy (sadly not so cheap but almost always brilliant), Jurancon and Madiran. Really lovely, authentic flavours and usually brilliant bargains. Other less fashionable regions across France can do well in the value stakes, but you have to work hard tracking some of the wines down. Look out for wines from the Jura and the Loire (but not Pouilly Fumť and Sancerre Ė too pricey), and check out Macon whites (but not Pouilly Fuissť Ė too pricey because itís famous).

Sticking in Europe, Spain is emerging as a value star. Spain has enormous tracts of vineyard land, with loads of old vine Garnacha (aka Grenache) and Tempranillo. Away from star areas (Rioja and Priorat) there are some increasingly impressive inexpensive reds emerging, which are now a whole lot better since producers realized that they are nicer if they havenít been stored for ages in crummy old American oak barrels. Spain even does some cracking, affordable whitesóin particular, look out for those from Rueda. PenedŤs also does well for affordable whites. Spain could well establish itself as the premier destination for tasty, affordable red wines over the coming decade.

Italy is a complicated wine country, producing a bewildering diversity of wines, most of which arenít well known in the UK. Itís a shame, because at their best, Italian wines are fantastic. Value for money can be had, but not always that easily. Lots of branded Italian wines disappoint, as do cheap versions of pricier wines such as Barolo, Chianti or Brunello. Itís tough to pinpoint the bargains from a country with as diverse a wine output as Italy, but if pushed Iíd say that the best value is to be had from wines in the north east (Friuli for whites, Valpolicella for reds) or the far south (Puglia and Sicily). Quality can be patchy, though, so be warned. ĎCould do betterí, is Italyís report card.

Portuguese wines really interest me. Winemaking has improved in the last decade, and marketing and packaging are beginning to catch up. From its wonderful range of indigenous grape varieties, Portuguese winemakers are putting out some smart wines: the best, reds from the Douro and Alentejo regions, are quite pricey because of fierce domestic demand. But the Ribatejo, Estremadura, D„o and Minho are putting out tasty affordable wines that actually have a sense of Portugueseness to them.

Moving to the vinous new world from the old, Chileís a popular destination for skint wine lovers. Thereís no debating that Chilean wines offer great value for money at around the £5 price mark: reds, in particular, are popular, with their trademark pure, ripe black fruits, with a touch of herbal character in the background. A good bet. But what about at the £6 or £10 mark? Thereís the rub. You just get the same sweet, pure fruit flavours, but with a bit more concentration, and perhaps a bit of spicy oak, too. Chileís problem is that it is a bit of a one-trick pony. Good value, but you end up getting a bit bored. Letís hope this changes. Shiraz shows great promise, and Iíve enjoyed some pretty smart Sauvignons and Viogniers.

Australia has been a value star for ages, offering ripe, tasty wines with the sorts of flavours people want. Iíve got the impression that Aussie branded wines at around a fiver have run out of steam a bit recently. Theyíre OK, but a bit dull. Australia really begins to clean up at around the £8Ė12 mark, where the wines from the diverse premium wine regions (as opposed to the large, mechanized, Murray-irrigated, high-yielding industrial vineyards of northern Victoria and New South Wales) begin to make their mark. Thereís a fair bit of regional diversity in Australia if you look for it.

South Africa
South Africa is one of the newest new world wine-producing countries. While wines have been made here since the 17th century, the modern wine industry only really started in the early 1990s. It has been dragged kicking and screaming into the global marketplace and in a short space of time a reasonably number of very smart commercial wines have emerged. Thereís been loads of progress in just the last two or three years, and if youíve just got £6 in your pocket, a South African wine could represent a shrewd use of this money. Iím not all that keen on Pinotage, South Africaís own red grape variety and an acquired taste, but Shiraz and the more established Cabernet and Merlot do pretty well. For whites, there are some attractive oaked Chardonnays, some fresh zippy Sauvignons and, best of all, some lovely Chenin Blancs.

Argentina makes more wine than its neighbour, Chile, and while cheap Argentinean wine isnít always great, itís often good value. I donít know why Argentinean wine hasnít caught on as much as Chilean in the UK Ė perhaps the industry is less dynamic. But I reckon it has more potential. Malbec seems to be the best bet here, although there are some smart Shiraz wines emerging. Whites arenít usually up to much.

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