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Are more expensive wines always better?

The Occasional Wine Council met recently to taste some excellent wines from a variety of wineries, including Le Cuvier, Masut Vineyard & Winery, Sojourn Cellars, Tudal Family Winery, Ca' Momi, Provenance Vineyards and Marcincak Winery.
The Occasional Wine Council met recently to taste some excellent wines from a variety of wineries, including Le Cuvier, Masut Vineyard & Winery, Sojourn Cellars, Tudal Family Winery, Ca' Momi, Provenance Vineyards and Marcincak Winery.
Karsten Boone

Our adventuresome Occasional Wine Council, organized by our mentor Linda Kissam, recently enjoyed an upscale wine tasting hosted by gracious Ginger Giordano at a charming, Mediterranean-styled estate in the Temecula Valley Wine Country. The table was beautifully set and, as always, our eager and talented wine tasters brought dishes specifically prepared to match assigned wines. (Our wine tasters are great cooks too!)

The Occasional Wine Council recently tasted a variety of excellent wines paired with some delicious dishes.
The Occasional Wine Council recently tasted a variety of excellent wines paired with some delicious dishes.
Karsten Boone

With prices ranging from $40 to $89 a bottle, I knew these wines would be somewhat more expensive than the usual wines we drink around our house, which are typically more in the $15 to $25 range. My question going into this tasting was: “Are more expensive wines always better?” At the end of this article I’ll try to answer that question.

Todd was assigned the first wine—a Le Cuvier XLB Chardonnay Reserve that typically retails for about $55. Bottled in 2011, this bronze-colored wine had a surprising sherry nose and was somewhat pungent, although it was food friendly. Todd’s nicely matched food pairing was a savory, smoked salmon and caper spread served with pumpernickel bread, chopped tomatoes and thinly sliced red onion. This wine can be purchased at the Pismo Wine Shop in Pismo Beach.

Our next wine was Masut Vineyard & Winery’s 2012 Pinot Noir, a silky, dark ruby wine with raspberry and a hint of chocolate tastes. Although we felt that this Pinot was a nice sipping wine, Tom’s herbaceous, delicious, wild mushroom risotto brought out even more flavors in the wine, which sells for about $40.

Our favorite wine of the evening was Sojourn Cellars’ 2012 Pinot Noir. We all loved this well-balanced, complex wine with its nuanced, Old World, earthy, dark cherry flavors. At $54 we thought this wine was well worth the price. Because the wine was so refined, we felt it would go well with light, elegant cuisine. So Karsten’s truffled Gougeres (cheese puffs with gruyere cheese) were a perfect match.

Ginger prepared absolutely scrumptious Bolognese stuffed bell peppers to accompany a Tudal Family Winery 2010 Cabernet ($65). We felt this dark ruby wine, with rich black raspberry flavors, was a good match for Ginger’s dish and would also go well with red meats.

I provided a “bridge dish” to go with the next two Cabs, one a Ca’ Momi 2011 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), which was a popular wine with our group because of its intense, complex flavors, including blackberry and currants with hints of chocolate. The other Cab, 2010 Provenance Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, was $89, the most expensive wine of the evening and also one of the favorites. It was a big, rich, spicy wine with fruity blackberry and cherry overtones. My veal, pork and ricotta meatballs went well with both wines but were even better with the Pinot Noir we had tasted earlier.

We appropriately concluded our tasting extravaganza with a rich, Czech, straw wine, Slámové Vino, a Ryzlink rynsky from Marcincak Winery. We were first immersed in a fragrant, floral bouquet and then sipped a sweet nectar with elegant honey and fruit tastes. Hilarie had prepared a dessert as elegant as the wine—a tropical fruit trifle made of pineapple, mango and papaya on Marsala-soaked lady fingers. At $65, this dessert wine would be a special and much-appreciated treat at the end of any dinner party.

And so what is the conclusion to the wine drinker’s perennial question posed at the beginning of this article: “Are more expensive wines always better?”

My answer, resulting from this particular wine tasting and from a lifetime of drinking wine (after I was 21 of course), is this: Usually but not always. I felt that five of the seven wines we tasted were much better than their lower-priced counterparts probably would have been. They were richer, more elegant, more nuanced and more balanced. However, I know there are instances when a $15 wine will far surpass a $50 bottle. It depends on the wine of course. (I went to a blind Cab tasting once where the least expensive wine at less than $10 was the winner of the taste test.) So we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about expensive always being better. On the other hand, most wineries know what they are doing when they price their wines and you can usually expect a more expensive bottle to be of high quality. So how is that for a roundabout answer? This is what makes tasting wine so much fun.