Lifestyle Asia
Home > Dining > Drinks > Affordable alternatives to expensive wines, according to an expert
Affordable alternatives to expensive wines, according to an expert

If you lack deep pockets, fine wine can be stratospherically out of reach. But these affordable alternatives show it’s still possible to drink well without going broke, according to a wine expert.

Richard Hemming knows a little bit about wine. A writer, educator and consultant for more than a decade, Hemming has also been a Master of Wine since 2015, a certification that less than 500 people in the world hold. Hailing from England, he moved to Singapore in 2019 to take up the role of Head of Wine, Asia at the recently opened 67 Pall Mall wine club here.

The private member’s club offers a collection of 5,000 premium wines – the biggest and most diverse list in Southeast Asia. But accessibility is their goal here. There are 1,000 wines available by the glass. Prices are competitive, and the S$50 corkage fee encourages members to share their own bottles. People under 30 years old and those who spring for the lifetime membership are exempt from the S$2,400 joining fee.

Richard Hemming MW (Image credit: 67 Pall Mall)

It’s a retort to the fine wine market, which is rapidly becoming the domain of the super-wealthy. Despite Covid, prices for highly-sought after examples rose across all regions in 2021, with Bordeaux and Burgundy leading the way. Even if you had the money, you might not get first dips.

This is most obvious with Burgundy, where the top Grand Cru might only be a thousand bottles a year of a particular producer’s best wine,” Hemming said. “And there are clearly far more than a thousand people that want to buy that wine. So, it’s sold on allocation, and traded heavily on the secondary market.”

But there is hope. The variety of wine options here is vast, Hemming observed, and he’s confident there’s a bottle for everyone. “I am hugely impressed by the diversity here,” he said. “It’s just as sophisticated as the London market.”

We discuss what regions are getting pricier, affordable alternatives to the top styles, and how the wines we drink might change.

67 Pall Mall Singapore (Image credit: 67 Pall Mall)

Besides Bordeaux and Burgundy, what other regions are getting expensive too? I feel like Loire Valley is one of them. 

It happening to other regions, but not across the whole region. You mentioned the Loire; there are certain cult producers – Didier Dagueneau would be a good example, and his Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé is worth a lot of money, and rightly so. However, that doesn’t mean every Pouilly Fumé is going to go up in value. Most of it is stuck at 50 bucks a bottle.

The interesting thing to predict is where might be next. I think most people see it starting in Barolo and Barbaresco. One of my specialist regions is the Rhône valley. I would hate to see those wines skyrocketing in price, but I see them going up. Any region where there is limited supply, which is most of the classics anyway, could experience it.

Wine is a slow evolving product. You’re tasting generations of improvement, but at the same time you can only make one vintage a year
Richard Hemming MW

With the really expensive bottles of wines – I’m talking thousands of dollars – do the prices reflect their quality?

It’s so difficult to answer with succinct insight. If you compare their prices to whisky, for example, whisky is very often many times higher. Or if you compare it to some other luxury goods, then in many ways wine is still undervalued. On the other hand, is a ten-thousand-dollar bottle of wine a hundred times better than a hundred-dollar bottle of wine? No, because you can’t measure it in that kind of factor. Would it be true that a 70-dollar bottle of wine is as good as the 35-dollar bottle of wine? Yes, it makes sense to that point, but there’s a certain ratio where it becomes illogical. I think there is value to be found, but it’s very much down to the individual’s perception of what they’re getting.

Before we jump into it, let’s establish a benchmark. What is an affordable price for a decent bottle of wine in Singapore?

Let’s talk retail prices. For example, there is a superb Portuguese white available at Cold Storage for 25 dollars. And I always have a bottle in my fridge. So let’s start there! And that illustrates there is such great value to be found. There are very good choices of almost everything between 70 and 100 dollars. You can get good Burgundy at that price, but the really good stuff is unfortunately going to cost you 200 dollars or more. However, I am pretty confident that I could find a good representation of almost everything in the 70-to-100-dollar range.

I would add, incidentally, that those kinds of prices would be relevant to people who are already engaged with wine and understand what they’re looking for. For the casual wine drinker, there’s no need to spend that much.

Bordeaux (Image credit: 67 Pall Mall)

Bordeaux

How would you compare the quality of the different Bordeaux Growths, and what other regions make good examples of a Bordeaux red blend?

I’ll answer the second part of your question first. The best-known alternative region is Napa Valley, but is that value anymore? No. Instead, I would tell people to look at Margaret River in Australia. They are making superb cabernet-merlot blends. There are other countries too. Stellenbosch in South Africa, Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand, and Chile, Argentina and Italy.

Then on to your first part, comparing the Growths. For me, the best First Growths are not necessarily better than Seconds, Thirds, Fourths or Fifths. They certainly have a brand reputation, but they’re not doing anything magic. There are other great wines that are lower down the ranking: Pontet-Canet, that’s a Fifth Growth and one of my favourites. To me, that is absolutely equal to the other red wines of Pauillac, Latour or Lafite. One of the best-value Fifth Growths is called Château Cantemerle. You can get it comfortably under 100 dollars a bottle here, and it offers you a glimpse of what makes Bordeaux so great.

Wines from Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (Image credit: Sotheby’s)

Burgundy

Same question as before: are there any appellations in Burgundy that offer more value over the others, and what other regions outside France make pinot noir of a similar style?

There are some Premier Crus that are as good as Grand Crus, and there are some Grand Crus that don’t turn out with the quality that you would expect, especially with the prices. One of the best known Grand Crus is Clos de Vougeot, which is quite inconsistent between producers. But if you look at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Crus; I would love to say they are all smoke and mirrors, but is something special about those wines.

For other regions, I actually put together a masterclass called The Best Pinot Noirs Outside Burgundy – it was cancelled due to Covid times – and there was one from New Zealand called Bell Hill. There was also Bass Phillip from Gippsland in Victoria, and Domaine de la Côte from the Santa Rita Hills in California. There are also French regions outside Burgundy that make pinot noirs. One or two Alsace pinot noirs are really getting good, there are some from the Jura, and there’s a region called the Auvergne, which has a fantastic cooperative making a really credible pinot noir at a very good price. I wouldn’t say they are as good as the best Burgundies, but they’re doing a really good job.

Champagne (Image credit: 67 Pall Mall)

Champagne

Are there regions outside of Champagne that make good quality, affordable sparkling wine?

England is definitely on that list. But also, Tasmania and some other regions in Australia. Very recently, I tasted Louis Roederer’s Californian sparkling wine called Quartet. That is absolutely outstanding. But I don’t think anybody has yet produced, at least at a consistent level, the sort of experience you get from best luxury cuvées, whether its Dom Pérignon, Krug or Cristal. Those set the absolute standard for sparkling wine, but other regions will get there.

Rhône

Let’s talk about your speciality, Rhône. Is there still value to be found?

Firstly, if we divide it into north and south, for northern Rhone, there’s no value left in Hermitage. It’s almost identical in Cote Rotie. However, Saint-Joseph, Cornas and some Crozes-Hermitage are offering superb value. It’s a similar story in the south. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is too well known in too many markets. You’re not going to find an absolute bargain there. However, I was drinking a 2016 Gigondas by a producer called Montirius. It was super powerful, blockbuster, very typical Chateauneuf style at a fraction of the price. So, the neighbouring appellations are offering superb value.

Barolo and Barbaresco (Image credit: Christie’s)

Barolo and Barbaresco

Earlier, you mentioned Barolo and Barbaresco could be the next home of ultra-expensive wines. Is there still value to be found there?

If you buy a good single vineyard Gaja Barbaresco now, it’s not easy to do that cheaply. But there are a lot of smaller producers that are not well known. Roberto Voerzio, for example, is a producer that we would have represented a lot at the club. Compared to the top names, his wines are much less expensive, but offer you very similar in quality. Michele Chiarlo is one of my favourites. There’s a cooperative in Barbaresco called Produttori del Barbaresco. They are a huge producer compared to most domaines, but they turn out really impressive quality, and they’re a benchmark for the region. So it’s still possible to get some good stuff there. Whereas, it’s very difficult to find nebbiolo elsewhere in the world, especially nebbiolo that tastes like the best Barolo or Barbaresco.

(Image credit: 67 Pall Mall)

Perhaps an antithesis to the entire premise of this story, but wine is very much about a sense of place. Does looking for alternatives take away from that?

I think the concept of terroir includes climate, and that means the prevailing climate at the time. If you taste Bordeaux from the 50, 60s and 70s, when they could barely get the grapes right, everybody thought that was normal at the time. You had these skinny, green wines, some of them are absolutely delicious and well-balanced, but a lot of which were anemic and underpowered. Now they’re overpowered and hefty. So the next thing winemakers might do is either find cooler sub-climates, or replant with different things. Then we’ll say, ‘Well, back in the 21st century, it was all about cabernet and merlot in Bordeaux, but in the 22nd it’s going to be about syrah and grenache.’ Varieties which would have been better suited to warmer climates 50 years ago now have to be planted in more northerly locations because the climate is increasing everywhere.

So, it’s just the sign of the times.

I think so. Wine is a slow evolving product. You’re tasting generations of trial and error, and improvement, but at the same time you can only make one vintage a year. A lot of terroirs are still figuring that out, especially New World terroirs. Take New Zealand as an example. There’s only grape growing there for 50 years, and they’re making these fantastic pinot noirs in Central Otago, but this is just the beginning of their journey. I’m sure we’ll see more of that develop, and it just has to reflect the world is changing, and how our understanding of winemaking is changing.

67 Pall Mall is located at 1 Scotts Rd, 27-01 Shaw Centre, Singapore 228208. Monthly fees range between S$135 to S$200, and a joining fee of S$2,400 applies to all categories with the exception of Under 30 and Life Membership. 

Affordable alternatives to expensive wines, according to an expert

Jethro Kang

Jethro enjoys wine, biking, and climbing, and he's terrible at all three. In between them, he drinks commercial lagers, and eats dumplings and gelati.

Sign up for our newsletters to have the latest stories delivered straight to your inbox every week.

Yes, I agree to the Privacy Policy

Never miss an update

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates.

No Thanks
You’re all set

Thank you for your subscription.