Are you a wine collector or a wine lover? The distinction may seem slight, but to me it’s significant. There are certainly members of the first group who enjoy pulling corks or (more rarely, given the wines they tend to buy) twisting screw caps, but they are comparatively rare. Most collectors like to talk about their bottles or, better still, be photographed leaning on a stack of first growths. Consuming the contents of their cellars is invariably a secondary pleasure.
Collectors are frequently investors, too, constantly checking the value of what they own as if it were a portfolio of stocks and shares. Wine lovers, on the other hand, would rather lose a limb than part with a precious bottle for profit. There’s another big difference between them: collectors tend to be conservative, buying wines with established reputations and/or high scores from wine critics (I’ve met people with entire rooms dedicated to the wines of single châteaux), while wine lovers are more catholic in their tastes, mixing what the French call “petits vins” with more celebrated fare.
I’m a modest collector of fine wine – though not to turn a fast buck – but at heart I’m a wine lover. I get as much pleasure from drinking a Greek assyrtiko as a Corton-Charlemagne, as big a thrill from kekfrankos and nerello mascalese as from cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate classic regions, but I’m always on the hunt for new things. Diversity is part of the thrill of wine, so why restrict yourself to a narrow band of aromas, flavors and wine styles? That’s what the most unimaginative collectors do.
One of the best parts of my job is discovering producers before they become internationally famous. I admit that there’s a selfish element to this: I get to buy their wines at reasonable prices. But I also want to share my finds with fellow wine lovers. The irony of this – and there’s nothing we wine hacks can do about it – is that the more critics write about a given producer, the more likely their prices are to increase, moving them into the collectors’ orbit. Call it Parker’s Law, if you like. Much the same thing happens in the world of fine art.
The key, then, is to be ahead of the curve, rather than stuck behind it with the majority of wine consumers. That’s where wine critics should truly earn their reputations. Anyone can tell you that La Tâche, Harlan Estate, Vega Sicilia, Quinta do Noval Nacional and Latour are great wines, anointing them with 100-point scores in the process. It takes someone with more courage and the opportunity to taste widely to uncover and promote little-known gems.
So, it’s nether regions on the block time. These are 10 of my favorite under-valued producers. Buy their wines before the collectors catch on.
Pascal Agrapart is one of the rising stars of the Côte des Blancs, making (mostly) bone-dry, oak-fermented Blanc de Blancs from old-vine chardonnay. Look out for their Les 7 Crus, a blend of grapes from all seven villages in which the family owns vines.
Alheit Vineyards, South Africa
Chris and Suzaan Alheit have only released two vintages of Cartology, their old-vine chenin/semillon blend, and one of Radio Lazarus, their single-vineyard chenin, but these are already among the best white wines in the Cape.
Altos Las Hormigas, Argentina
Italian consultant Albert Antonini’s winery has long been among the most promising in Mendoza, but with the arrival of terroir specialist Pedro Parra and the release of a series of sub-regional malbecs, it has become world class.
Bell Hill, New Zealand
This small, very high-quality estate, whose vines are in an old limestone quarry in North Canterbury, excels in both pinot noir and chardonnay, producing wines of elegance, refinement and chalky minerality. They age really well, too.
Cascina Luisin, Barbaresco
Luigi and Roberto Minuto’s winery is well-known to nebbiolo fans, but these scented, elegant, deliberately traditional Barbarescos are under-priced by the standards of some Langhe superstars. The Sorì Paolin Barbaresco is amazing.
Domaine Coursodon, Rhône
St Joseph isn’t the sexiest appellation in the northern Rhône, which may explain why Jérôme Coursodon’s wines aren’t mentioned in the same breath as the region’s greatest bottlings. The white and reds are equally spectacular here.
Domaine Duroché, Burgundy
A change of generation and emphasis has worked wonders at this Gevrey-Chambertin estate. The youthful Pierre Duroché is one of the region’s rising stars. The grands crus are great, but look out for premier cru Lavaut-St-Jacques.
Dominio do Bibei, Spain
The Galician region of Ribeira Sacra isn’t as famous as Rías Baixas (the Spanish home of albariño), but it should be, based on the quality of Javier Dominguez’ refreshing wines, made from granite-grown, old-vine godello and mencía.
Haridimos “Harry” Hatzidakis makes some of Greece’s best white wines on the volcanic, tourist-destination island of Santorini,. He uses the native grapes assyrtiko and aidani to produce white wines of stunning individuality.
Gary Mills is a leading example of a new breed of Aussie winemaker, producing Rhône-style whites and reds with lower alcohol, natural acidity, and very little new wood. His Roussanne, and the Beechworth and Garden Gully syrahs are superb.