When Cheaper Actually Is Better

Please your wallet and your taste buds, simultaneously.

Posted on by Mike Madaio

red wine pizza

Everyone is looking for a deal, no doubt. In the wine world, like many other retail cultures, the idea of “retail price” is laughable. Retail is for suckers. If it’s not discounted in some way or another, it’s overpriced.

Price and wine is a hotly debated topic that can’t be covered quickly. Does price equal quality? Of course it doesn’t. Just like any other product, there are other factors. Marketing. Supply and demand. Historical performance. However, as you drink more wine, you’ll probably start to realize that wines that are $50 often taste better than wines that are $10. Not always, of course, but much of the time.

Sometimes, however, the wine that costs less is actually a better choice. Not wines that are offered at a discount. 50% off. No. Sure, we all feel smart when we find these deals, but that’s not the situation I am referring to. What I mean to say is that, in some cases, the wine that is cheaper at retail price is actually the wine to seek out.

Two Italian wines exist as perfect examples of this phenomenon: Barbera, from Piedmont, and Chianti Classico, from Tuscany. For both, two distinct styles exist in the marketplace. Firstly, a traditional style, which tends to have the following characteristics:

  • Aged in steel or large, old oak casks
  • Medium bodied and thus relatively low in alcohol (~13%)
  • Flavor profile of bright, red fruits
  • Assertive acidity that outranks any tannin
  • Cost $10-18

Then there’s the “Super” style (every Italian seems to have one), or the more modern, new-worldish style. These wines tend to be:

  • Aged in new oak
  • Full bodied and thus higher in alcohol (14+%)
  • Flavor profile of dark fruits and vanilla
  • More tannic than acidic
  • Cost $20+

Some of you, of course, may have read those descriptions and immediately wanted to try the latter wines. There’s nothing wrong with that; there are great wines available in that category. But there’s a time and place for them, and for me, that time in place is less often than those in the former category.

Why? Mainly, because of food. I typically drink wine with food. As such, wines that match well with a wide variety of foods have more appeal. These traditional wines, with their bright flavors, crisp acidity and moderate alcohol, go extremely well with everyday cuisine. The bigger, bolder wines, on the other hand, require food to match.

If you’re chomping on a big-ass bisteca alla fiorintina, or osso bucco alla milanese, by all means open up a monster. But for every other day, the traditional wines will pay higher dividends. Whether you’re eating pasta with tomato sauce or garlic-based sauces like pesto or aglio olio, lean meats like poultry, pork and even fish, or hell, the always difficult to pair Asian cuisine, a cheap Barbera or Chianti Classico is going to match relatively well. And your wallet will thank you.

The PLCB Chairman typically has a decent CC or two on offer, and recently Barbera has also had some moments, however, CS wines are fleeting. Get ‘em when you can. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico (2009 currently available, $16), and Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti (2010, $15), two excellent, traditional-style choices from reliable producers that are typically available on the non-Chairman’s Selection shelves at state-wide PLCB stores (even if they’re a flood-buck or two more expensive than outside the commonwealth).

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About Mike Madaio

One of the co-founders of Pennsylvania Vine Company, Mike is a food & drink writer based in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. His work has appeared in publications such as Main Line Today, Bucks Life, Main Line Dine and Small Food, and he has achieved Core Certification from the National Wine School. Mike is obsessed with exploring Italian wines of all kinds, especially old-world-style bottles that feature savory, funky notes, achieve great balance and work well with food.

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