Tasting Expensive Wines at the Consumer Level

Head Wine Chix, Linda Kissam

Linda Kissam

By Linda Kissam, Head Wine Chix

When you’re strolling through the wine store or perusing the wine list at your favorite restaurant, surely you’ve wondered whether an expensive bottle of wine really tastes THAT much better than a bottle of the least expensive wine on the shelf or on the wine menu. Will paying $10-100 extra bucks for a Cab really rock your world? Maybe.  Maybe not. But it’s definitely worth the effort to find out.

For us regular folks, expensive wines start around $40. Selecting wine can be an emotionally driven experience, influenced by various factors: advertising, dazzling labels, recommendations, price points, bottle shape, and even the person standing next to you.  That Three-Buck-Chuck is a no brainer for the wallet, the Sweet Spot Wines ($15-$25) easily go on the credit card without much thought…but you see the $40+ price tag and you need a really good reason to put it in your shopping cart.  This article is not about the collector, it’s about the regular Joe and Jill consumer trying to figure out if an expensive wine is worth the money.

Expensive wines, pretty much by definition, are known entities. They’re made by famous winemakers, come from prestigious vineyards, and generally have excellent press behind them supporting them every step of the way. They are blessed and endorsed by legions of wine groupies. They often repeat their greatness over many vintages.  You should be tasting these wines as often as you can to understand what the benchmark profiles and trustworthy sips are for a particular winery, winemaker, varietal or blend. It is really cool when you can identify a winemaker’s signature on his or her wines on first sip.

Wine Council.  Picture courtesy of Karsten Boone

Wine Council. Picture courtesy of Karsten Boone

I brought the task of “tasting up” to my Occasional Wine Council members.  Heaven knows we’ve been tasting and reviewing all kinds of wines long enough now to have an opinion on wines that consumers often consider expensive. I provided the wines, tasting notes and the winemaker’s opinions. What does drinking more expensive wines bring to the table? Are higher end wines really worth the extra money?

Wine review line up

Wine review line up

Here’s how it went down.  I brought in seven very different wines ranging in price from $40 – $89. Each taster was asked to provide a dish with an assigned wine. All they had to do was sip the wine, take a forkful or two of food, tell me which wines were worth the price point, and which ones ranked in their top three of the night.

Here’s the results.  My personal opinion on higher end wines closes out the article.

Le Cuvier Chardonnay

Le Cuvier Chardonnay

1. Le Cuvier XLB Chardonnay Reserve, $55 – Food pairing by member Todd Montgomery was smoked salmon and caper spread, chopped tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion served on sliced baguette slices. The wine was aged 61.42 months in barrel and bottled in 2011. It is in very limited supply and only sold here:  http://store.pismowineshop.com/le-cuvier-chardonnay-xlb-ultra-reserve.  You really have to be ready for this wine as it is quite unique.  Those that can think outside of the box and not get unnerved by the initial look, may find they are in the presence of a truly interesting wine.  The dark sherry color and full body were a surprise.  This is not a Chardonnay for everyone. The group found itself discussing this wine at length. Scarceness of quantity, length in barrel, and its unique taste profile says $55 is a fair price. Stretching your knowledge of what’s out there besides the normal Chardonnay profiles?  Priceless.

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Wild Mushroom Risotto

2. Masut Vineyard & Winery 2012 Pinot Noir, $40 – Tom Plant paired this with Wild Mushroom Risotto.  Only 2450 cases produced: Dark ruby in color, the Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir opens with raspberries and dark fruit aromas accented with spicy somewhat earthy undertones. The French Oak brings some depth to this wine. It has a silky mouth fee.  Sassy acidity adds to the lingering finish. The wine was aged in French oak (33% new) sur lie for 10 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. Independent thinkers Jake and Ben Fetzer are the creators of this wine.  I liked it a lot, as did most of the group, however for the price point, it did not fully meet our expectations.  That does not mean it was a bad wine. It was a fine  example of how a good Pinot should taste. If I found it on sale at $25, I’d snatch it up.

Sojourn Cellars 2012 Pinot Noir, $54

Sojourn Cellars 2012 Pinot Noir, $54

3. Sojourn Cellars 2012 Pinot Noir, $54 – Karsten Boone paired this number one pick of the night with Truffled Gougeres.  The warm 2012 growing season resulted in complex flavor development and optimal tannin levels. It was blended with a small percentage of Swan clone and traditional blends of clones 115 and 777.  The resulting wine is nicely balanced with lovely aromas of dark cherry, black tea, and earth. Textures are creamy and silky with a luxe levels of elegance and finesse. Worth the money for sure.

Tudal Cab & Stuffed Peppers

Tudal Cab & Stuffed Peppers

4. Tudal Family Winery 2010 Cabernet, $65.  Ginger Giordano brought Bolognese Stuffed Bell Peppers to pair with this wine. Slight splashes of Petite Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec — struck a nice but not necessarily memorable balance. The dark ruby color caught our attention along with the scents of tobacco, light bell pepper, dill, vanilla and black raspberry fruit. Food friendly. Try it with a variety of smoked red meats or Italian dishes.

Sue's Three Meat Meatballs with Ca' Momi 2011 Reserve Cab $65

Sue’s Three Meat Meatballs with Ca’ Momi 2011 Reserve Cab $65

5. Ca’ Momi 2011 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $65 – Sue Montgomery provided one bridge dish for wines five and six.  The dish of veal, pork and ricotta meatballs was a hit. This rich Napa red came in third place by the group.  Its flavors of oak, dried currants, and fresh blackberries showcased a powerful wine that delivered on its promise. Bright herbal notes completed a nice complexity. I would spring for this Cab when having good friends or the boss over and recommend it to someone who wants to experience a varietal specific Cabernet.


Provenance Cabernet $89

Provenance Cabernet $89

6. Provenance Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, $89.  Good fruity (black berry/cherry) juiciness and spicy overtones. The group choose this as their number two wine of the evening. Deep purple in color with dry tannins this wine would be great all alone or with a big rib eye steak.  This is one of those special wines you don’t mind putting your credit card down for and sharing with special friends.

Czech Straw Wine $63 & Hilarie's Triffle

Czech Straw Wine $63 & Hilarie’s Triffle

7.Slámové Vino , Ryzlink rynsky from Marcincak Winery: Czech Straw Wine/ Riesling 2003, $63: The vineyards are situated in prime  locations in the warmest region of the Czech Republic producing some of the best wines in the country. Our resident Sommelier Hillarie Larson really hit a home run with her not too sweet  pairing, a Tropical Fruit Trifle:  This wine is  full, rich, elegant, and velvety, with an extraordinary bouquet of flowers, honey, candied fruit (pear, apple, quince peach, pineapple, mandarin orange), with a taste that combines a honey-like sweetness with refined acidity. Straw wine is made from grapes that have been dried to concentrate their juice. The result is similar to that of the ice wine, but suitable for warmer climates. The classic method dries clusters of grapes on mats of straw in the sun or under cover. It’s a wine that all wine lovers should experience. The group loved it for its restrained elegance and felt the $63 price was reasonable.

Final Thoughts 

In this tasting more than ever before, I found myself looking for emotion and surprise at each sip.  My expectations were high. Having been around the wine block a few times, I expect greatness at this price point. Did these expensive wines deliver? Did they do their region, winemaker and varietal justice? Were they thrilling? On most levels yes, on a few no. Were they enjoyable? Absolutely. Did they teach me something?  Yes. Was that a surprise? Not so much.

So, my personal take away from this tasting is that expensive wines should be explored as part of any Joe or Jill’s normal purchasing regiment. Yes you may have to pass by three other less expensive wines, but then again by spending a bit more on just one wine you may get the best sip ever. The best of them are endlessly surprising…and THAT… is a true deal.

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