By Lettie Teague
July 21, 2022
SOME WINES SEEM to get more expensive with every passing day (see: grand cru Burgundy), while others seem frozen in time, their prices unchanged from one year to the next.
I’m thinking of whites like Soave, Muscadet, Albariño and Sauvignon Blanc. Even quality examples of these wines made by well-regarded producers rarely attract the sort of attention from critics or drinkers that can drive prices up. They’re often made in large, unglamorous quantities—there’s nothing “boutique” about a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. And yet a good Sauvignon or Muscadet or Soave can be one of the best bargains around.
No wine may be more readily (and unreasonably) maligned than Muscadet, the white wine from the Loire Valley of France. Made from the confusingly monikered Melon de Bourgogne grape, Muscadet is a dry, lively, not particularly melon-y white that in the right hands can be quite complex and long lived, with a precise minerality closely akin to that of Chablis. But its many industrial iterations have kept Muscadet’s image—and price—depressed.
Muscadet is always one of the cheapest wines on a restaurant list; even a bottling from a top producer like Domaine de la Pépière costs less than $20. When Kevin McKenna, partner at Louis/Dressner Selections, the New York-based importer of Domaine de la Pépière, told me the wholesale price of basic Muscadet has only risen 8.5% in the past 7 years, I wasn’t surprised. The 2021 Domaine de la Pépière La Pépie Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, a bright saline white from a difficult (very small) harvest, goes for $17 a bottle.
Similarly, the price of Albariño, the white wine of Galicia in northwestern Spain, never seems to increase, or at least not by much.
When I observed as much to wine importer David Bowler, he said the red wines of Spain have always been more famous than its whites. “The wines of Albariño have never been super popular in America, despite their intrinsic quality, and that keeps their price moderate,” Mr. Bowler noted in an email.
Mr. Bowler imports an Albariño I have always found to be a very good value: the Benito Santos Igrexario de Saiar Albariño, made by one of the region’s top producers. I paid a mere $14 for a 2021 bottle of this bright, tangy white—about the same price I paid for it a year prior.
Maria Fernandez Fandiño, commercial manager and part owner of Benito Santos, said the winery actually produces a large amount of wine (130,000 bottles) compared to its local peers, and this helps keep the price low. You also have to consider the wine in its context: “Buying a bottle for $15 is not cheap, as in Spain you can find not-that-bad wines for 1 or 2 euros,” Ms. Fernandez Fandiño added in an email.
Of course I was looking for wines a bit better than not-that-bad, and another one I’d consistently rank above that category is South African Chenin Blanc. Although Chenin Blanc is native to the Loire Valley of France, South African winemakers produce a considerable amount, to great effect. It’s the most-planted grape in that country.
One of the most reasonably priced and reliably good South African Chenins comes from A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines of Malmesbury. Secateurs is the winery’s entry-level label, and Chenin Blanc is its flagship white grape. The 2021 Badenhorst Family Wines Secateurs Chenin Blanc ($16), a tropical-scented white with just the right ratio of fruit to acidity, is on my list of perennial good buys. Winemaker Adi Badenhorst told me his production costs are relatively low and production numbers are relatively high (25,000 cases annually). “Our most expensive winery equipment is our espresso machine!” he quipped in an email.
While Chenin Blanc has some name recognition, Soave, the white wine from Italy’s Veneto region, has never possessed much global prestige. That may be partly thanks to the wine’s less-than-illustrious past, when vats of industrial plonk such as Bolla Soave were produced. Bolla remains the only name in Soave many Americans know thanks to television commercials in heavy rotation in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s.
Those commercials are long gone, and the Bolla wines, along with Soaves overall, are much improved. Still, prices remain largely depressed. “There’s not enough market demand to allow [producers] to raise their prices,” said Scott Ades, president of Dalla Terra Winery Direct, the importer of Inama, one of the top names in Soave. As a Soave fan and regular buyer of Inama, I was pleased to find that the 2021 Inama Soave Classico ($13) was even better than some earlier vintages—a fact Mr. Ades attributed to additional investments in the vineyards. “They’re constantly improving quality and grape selection,” he said.
Sauvignon Blanc suffers from its own perception problem according to Ted Henry, director of winegrowing for Napa-based Groth Vineyards & Winery. “There’s this weird sort of glass ceiling with Sauvignon Blanc, its price and critical ratings,” Mr. Henry told me in a recent phone call. The 2021 Groth Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($21) is one of the best Napa Sauvignons I’ve tasted in a while and a downright steal compared to the price of a Napa Cabernet. There was a $2 price hike last year, but it was the first in many years, noted Mr. Henry. Given the rising cost of production—everything from glass bottles to shipping cartons and labels costs more now than it did a few years ago—Mr. Henry said he couldn’t promise the price wouldn’t increase again.
Given their excellent price-quality ratio, I’d be willing to spend more on the wines cited here. But it looks like I won’t have to—at least not for now.
OENOFILE / Perpetually good values in white wine
1. 2021 Domaine de la Pépière La Pépie Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, $17. “Pépie” means “thirst,” and this crisp, fresh and floral white is the basic bottling from a legendary producer. Even with a huge crop loss in this vintage, the price remained low.
2. 2021 Benito Santos Igrexario de Saiar Albariño, $14. Benito Santos was an early producer of modern Albariño, working in his family’s vineyards almost 100 years ago. The estate produces multiple bottlings today, including the crisp, almost saline Saiar.
3. 2021 Badenhorst Family Wines Secateurs Chenin Blanc, $16. Produced partly from vineyards planted over 50 years ago, this is a minerally but lush, medium-bodied white with appealing notes of melon and tropical fruit. (“Secateurs” is the word for pruning shears.)
4. 2021 Inama Soave Classico, $13. In the 1960s, estate founder Giuseppe Inama began buying vineyards in the hilly Soave Classico zone of Italy’s Veneto. The estate now produces a range of wines, including this entry-level one, a dry but fruity white with floral and spicy notes.
5. 2021 Groth Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, $21. Based in the heart of Napa Valley, Groth produces sought-after Cabernet Sauvignons, but the quality of the winery’s Sauvignon Blancs is just as noteworthy. This bright, juicy white with notes of citrus is beautifully balanced.
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