Overrating the Underrated

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The “underrated” wines post has to be one of the most staid in the genre of wine writing – so much so that a witty recent piece on the world’s most overrated wines was recently awarded a Born digital wine writing award.

A recent piece of drivel from the Wine Spectator has equated “underrated” with “underpriced”, in a feeble attempt to separate scores from price. I suppose writer Matt Kramer thought it convincing to ignore the consistent phenomenon of increasing prices correlating with increasing scores from the major publications. A 100 point score from Parker or the Spectator nearly always at least doubles a wine’s price. That said, clearly price is a, if not the, fundamental component in wine purchase decision, though clearly price alone is not a sufficient indicator of what is “underrated”.

Why do we care if a wine is “underrated” or “overrated”? The most obvious answer is that those in the know can seek and find value in their wine. Why pay $80 for a Napa Cabernet when you can get killer $20 Cab Franc from the Loire? Of course, those wines aren’t really comparable and so I find is the case with many of the so-called “underrated” wines. Gruner from Austria? Well, it’s really not like anything else (and I don’t buy the approximation with Sauv Blanc). How about Beaujolais Cru or Chenin Blanc? Both can be tremendously good – but they aren’t really substitutes for those high priced wines from great regions. Some may prefer their relatively low prices (though I think Domaine Huet’s Cuvee du Constance is up in the stratosphere), but it’s not as if the higher priced wines aren’t unique in themselves.

The idea that Burgundy or Bordeaux is overrated seems farcical to me. Perhaps sometimes they are overpriced – that much I acknowledge. But overrated? No other wines even closely approximate what the best in those regions accomplish. Conversely, it is more often the previously “underrated” wines that receive 100 point scores that, to me, are overrated. Overextracted alcohol bombs (a far more accurate description than fruit bomb) from Spain, Washington and California? Check. That prices explode into the stratosphere on these wines surely makes them the most overrated underrated wines of the bunch.

But I suppose I have to acknowledge that the fascination with underrated wines doesn’t just stem from getting a leg up on the next big thing but rather from the spirit of discovery that imbues the most passionate and important wine consumers. These consumers care about “underrated” only because it means something new and different, and often, something accessible. Wines with character, personality and a sense of place are always underrated because they take more time and effort to appreciate. Sometimes they are expensive (such as the beautiful single vineyard Rieslings of Hermann Donnhoff or the red Burgundies of Armand Rousseau) and sometimes they are mind bogglingly cheap (queue the Muscadets of Domaine l’Ecu or Sean Thackrey’s Pleaides). Whatever they are, they are sitting out there, sometimes appreciated and sometimes not. It is not their level of appreciation that matters, but rather what they are, what they represent, and their ability to be something effluent and emotional as well as delicious. Let’s not mix what matters with what makes money, at least not this once.

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