The fashion and design worlds have a concept style mavens call "high/low." It's the savvy shopper's secret, a way to achieve a posh look on a student's part-time salary. You carefully shop the bargain bins for items that either eerily look like the latest overpriced designer wear or that match well with the latter in a yin-yang sort of way. Say, an $8 Jockey T-shirt from Winners worn with $700 Christian Louboutin heels from Holt's.
You can do the same with wine. Many premium styles have what I would describe as more affordable analogues that don't carry the usurious built-in brand premiums. As with style and design, finding a good knockoff takes a modicum of knowledge as well as healthy confidence and creative imagination.
"People are afraid of tasking risks with wine," says Stéphane Castera, director of food and beverage for Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver. "You buy Prada because you know it's going to be exclusive," Mr. Castera adds, riffing on the fashion analogy. "But you can buy something which looks really good, which is well made, and it can satisfy your needs."
A perfect example, he agrees, is California red zinfandel (high) compared with Italian primitivo (low). Decent versions of California's signature grape start at about $20, while top-quality zinfandels sell for upward of $35. Full-bodied and jammy, red zinfandel often is recommended in cookbooks as the ideal pairing for sweet-spicy barbecued meats as well as zesty burgers and game-day snacks such as chicken wings and chili. Yet many zin fans don't know that primitivo, made mostly on the south-Italian peninsula of Puglia and usually costing $10 to $15, is made from the same grape and shares the basic flavour profile of its California cousin.
"The structure of the wine is going to be the same," Mr. Castera says. "Now, is the wine going to have the richness of a Ridge [a top California zinfandel producer] No. But it's a good wine at a good price. It's not mass produced. It's not a boxed wine."
Allow me (and a couple of sommeliers) to offer a few other stylistic high/low counterparts.
Red Bordeaux (high)/Chilean cabernet sauvignon (low)
Not all wine geeks would agree. Chile's main wine-growing regions are sunny, yielding riper, more opulent fruit flavours than generally is the case in Bordeaux. But if you want good cabernet sauvignon or merlot and can't afford the $60-plus of a classified red Bordeaux, I'd recommend going with a $10 to $20 Chilean. It will likely beat the pants off any other sub-$20 cabernet, including those inexpensive big brands from Bordeaux itself. For his part, Mr. Castera prefers a Spanish red from the Ribera del Duero region (often a blend of tempranillo with cabernet or merlot) or the Penedes region.
Red Burgundy (high)/Cru Beaujolais (low)
I was heartened when Mr. Castera endorsed my choice here. Great red Burgundy, perhaps the most recherché wine category of all, is made from pinot noir. Good ones tend to be made in small quantities by tiny producers with spotty distribution and run about $40. In recent years, Burgundy addicts have increasingly experimented with alternative sources of pinot noir from such copycat regions as Oregon, Carneros and Russian River in California and, most recently, New Zealand. As a money-saving strategy, though, it has become all but fruitless. Those "alternative" regions often now charge just as much or more for decent pinot. The key here is to think laterally. Stylistically, the best alternative to good red Burgundy, for my money, is quality Beaujolais.
It's made from gamay instead of pinot noir, but when it's good, it's way more satisfying than bargain pinot noir. I speak here of quality Beaujolais specifically from the 10 best hillside towns of the Beaujolais region. These so-called cru Beaujolais (which carry such place names as Chénas, Brouilly, Juliénas and Morgon rather than Beaujolais) can pass for good pinot noir in professional blind tastings. I've seen it happen.
"I'd do a Chénas [as a substitute for red Burgundy]" Mr. Castera says. "I'd be going for that like crazy. The crus are up the hill. They're not on the lower section of Beaujolais. They don't have the juicy fruitiness. They have a bit more body and structure." Part of the reason is that the vines tend to be older and yield less but more concentrated fruit. At about $16-25 per bottle, Cru Beaujolais is the savvy poor man's red Burgundy.
Chianti (high)/Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (low)
I am, again, thinking laterally here. Chianti is a medium-bodied red made from the sangiovese grape in a central Tuscan district. Good examples now almost all cost more than $20, unfortunately. Bright red cherry, firm acidity and an undercurrent of earthiness hinting at mushroom and tobacco are all classic elements of the flavour. You can often find similar nuances and structure in a grape called montepulciano (not to be confused with the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, where they make something called Vino Nobile based on sangiovese). Montepulciano - the grape - is widely grown in the lower-cost region of central Italy called Abruzzo. Drinkable examples are as low as $7, and very good ones can be had for $10 to $15. Sarah McCauley, wine director at CinCin, a fine Italian restaurant in Vancouver, endorses my choice here but favours another affordable Chianti alternative, sangiovese-based reds from Tuscany's neighbouring (and generally less expensive) region of Umbria.
Barolo (high)/Gattinara (low)
The so-called king of Italian reds, Barolo, now costs a king's ransom, roughly $50 and up a bottle. It's made in the Piedmont region from the highly tannic, acidic nebbiolo grape. And, quite frankly, it tastes like no wine produced in any other region in the world. Which is why the best substitute may be Gattinara, a red based mainly or entirely on nebbiolo in a town not far from Barolo in Piedmont. Prices for Gattinara, which tends to have less endurance in the cellar, are about half those of Barolo. "I think you can find some great wines in Gattinara," Ms. McCauley says.
Sancerre (high)/Touraine (low)
A crisp, grassy, iconic white, Sancerre is made from sauvignon blanc in the Sancerre district of France's Loire Valley, where the grape achieves a sublime balance of citrus-like fruitiness, herbal-grassy notes and a sort of stone-like mineral quality. It's the perfect spring tonic, a fine match for lightly dressed salads and vegetable dishes as well as a variety of cheeses (especially goat). Sancerres usually cost between $22 and $32 a bottle, though, which is serious coin for most people. At about half the price you could uncork a lesser known Touraine. Made from the same white grape not far from Sancerre, Touraine wines usually are priced from $10 to $15 and do an impressive Sancerre imitation.
Sauternes (high)/late-harvest Canadian vidal or riesling (low)
The great white dessert wine of Bordeaux, Sauternes, pairs sublimely with a host of foods, from liver pâté to roast pork to just about any cheese. I could drink it with steak, frankly. But it's pricey. Most are north of $40 for a half-bottle. Fred Gamula, sommelier at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., suggests a local alternative that usually runs between $15 and $20, sometimes less. "The bang for your buck is crazy," he says. A current favourite of Mr. Gamula's: Château des Charmes Late Harvest Riesling 2007 ($21.95, Chateaudescharmes.com).
Champagne (high)/cava (low)
Ms. McCauley at CinCin also shares my preference for the dry sparkling wine of northeast Spain as a dirt-cheap substitute for $40-and-up Champagne. Made using the traditional, labour-intensive process perfected in the Champagne region of France (in which the bubbles form naturally inside the bottle with the addition of yeast and sugar), cavas generally cost between $12 and $18. They are a steal compared with today's trendier choice, Prosecco from Italy, which is usually the product of a bulk, industrial fermentation process and delivers more coarse, soda-like bubbles. Ms. McCauley's, and my, top cava choice for budget sipping: Segura Viudas (about $15). "It's the best out there," she says. "I spent a year living in Spain. After looking for smaller growers all over the Penedes (the region where cava is made), Segura Viudas was still one of my favourites." (We're not the only fans: The Canadian Olympic women's hockey team quaffed the cava as part of their on-ice gold medal celebration.)
Wine bling and bubbles on a budget.