You know how some of those interior-design magazines frequently feature "designer v. knock-off" stories, where one photo boasts a room full of original designs worth thousands of dollars, and another photo shows virtually the same room, but with copycat stuff from Target? Wines can be like that, too. There are very reasonably priced, delicious wines available that aren't much different from their high-priced competitors. (Not that I don't covet some of those pricey monsters, but Mama's palate can't always afford what it wants.) Here are some great examples:
I've always been a big fan of wines from France's northern Rhone region, though usually I can't afford them. Hermitages are made from 100-percent Syrah and are abso-freakin-lutely amazing. These wines are power-packed with ultra-ripe black fruit flavors and spices, and usually display tannin silky enough to enjoy the wines right away, but strong enough for incredible aging potential. My all-time favorite is the Guigal Hermitage, which retails for around $75-$100, depending on the vintage. For the budget-conscious, you can get a similar experience from some of the incredible Shiraz from Australia (which is, in fact Syrah). Run, don't walk, in the direction of the Elderton Shiraz (around $29) from the Barossa Valley. This wine is unbelievably robust, oozing with black and blue fruit character and minty spice. It's ready for action now. (It's also ready for some lamb.)
Chardonnay has gained so much popularity in the last few decades that most people can't imagine paying much more than $15 a bottle. The novice Chardonnay lover may not realize that Chardonnay has many different names: Chablis is Chardonnay, so is Pouilly-Fuisse, and White Burgundy is always Chardonnay. When it's splurge time, a White Burgundy from Montrachet is the way to go. These amazing wines retail from $50 to upward of $300 per bottle, depending on the vintage and the producer. You'll find a wine rich in mineral notes, honey and nuttiness, but with a dry finish. In contrast, one California producer has done a great job of mimicking these intense white wines at affordable prices. Kalin Cellars makes French-inspired wines that are released later than most, giving the wines more time to evolve. (Americans are always accused of bottling wine too young.) This Chardonnay retails for around $36, but drinks as if it were much more expensive.
If you're a dessert wine aficionado, you've doubtlessly gazed longingly at the Sauternes on wine lists, wishing—just wishing—you had an extra grand laying around. The legendary wines of Chateau d'Yquem cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars (again, depending on vintage), but are believed to be some of the finest wines in the world. The complexity, yet delicacy of these wines is something that few can resist, and even fewer can afford. For the rest of us, thank goodness for wines like Elderton Botrytis Semillon (around $18) from Australia. Botrytis is the mold that affects the grapes (the so-called "noble rot"), causing the natural sugars in the fruit to become very, very concentrated. The Elderton is a glorious exhibition of honey, mineral and apricots, begging to be paired with crème bruleé.
Expensive taste and thin wallets can make for frustrated palettes. Thankfully, we broke winos don't have to go without.