Novellum – Value from the Sunny Side of France

My “Great Wine Values” tastings continue with a Chardonnay from the south of France, specifically the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

This 2017 Novellum Chardonnay cost $12.99 on Wine.Com. It got a 92 score from Jeb Dunnuck (a breakaway critic from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate). That means that the Novellum’s price-per-point is an insanely low $0.14!

When I drink whites from Languedoc-Rousillon, roses from Bandol or whatever from Provence, I’m expecting sun-in-a-glass. Other than that, wine-making styles vary wildly.

Boom! When I swirled this in the glass, I smelled candied pineapple and papaya before I even brought it near my mouth! In terms of flavor, it was very ‘sunny’ – tropical fruits, very limited oak impact, and good acidity with a touch of sweetness.

A Long Way from Burgundy

My wife liked it – though she told me it didn’t taste like a Chardonnay to her at all. “Certainly not a French Chardonnay.”

She thought it was a Riesling! And I can understand why – there was a surprising aromatic quality to the nose that made me think there was some Viognier or Marsanne added to the Chardonnay.

Later, I was chuffed to discover that I was kind of correct: 80% of the Chardonnay was aged in tanks on Viognier lees.

I’m not such a huge fan of this style, to be honest. I like the limited oak, I like the fruit but overall I don’t think I could drink four glasses of this. I don’t think I will include this one in the upcoming WineKnow tasting event. But you might love it! Different strokes for different folks!

WineKnow Facts:

  • The large wine regions of Languedoc-Rousillon and Provence are (in terms of location) very similar. The Rhone River flows into the Mediterranean near Arles, which is bang in the middle of France’s coastline. Just remember Two Ls: Languedoc-Rousillon is to the “Left” (i.e., to the west of Arles and the Rhone, stretching towards Spain) while Provence is to the east of Arles, stretching towards Italy.
  • Vines in the Languedoc get MUCH more sun than in Bordeaux or Burgundy. So you’d expect a Languedoc (or Provencal) Chardonnay to taste a lot ‘sunnier’ down than classic white Burgundy (Chardonnay). And they do. They are generally fruitier, less acidic and less complicated.
  • Languedoc (and further west, Rousillon) is a great area for value wines in France. The reds tend to be GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) blends like in the Rhone Valley, while the whites are a mix of aromatic Rhone varieties like Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne or international crowd-pleasers like Chardonnay.
  • Stylistically, these wines are all over the place. Some are overtly copying the “New World” model of super-plush or heavily-oaked wines. Others are as restrained as they can be given the climate. You just have to try them until you find a few you like. Good news is, they’re cheap!

Icario Rosso Toscana – Value Vino

With this $15 Tuscan red blend, I’ve initiated the research program for our upcoming 7th WineKnow event on the “World’s Greatest Wine Values.”

The UK’s premier wine magazine, Decanter, awarded this wine a stunning 93 point score. (In fact, they gave it a 18.5 score – out of 20 – but most wine retailers just multiply that score by five to make it comparable to everyone else’s 100-point scale.)

With a 93-point Score, Icario is Flying Pretty Close to the Tuscan Sun!

That means that this wine cost $0.16 per point – one of the lowest prices-per-point I’ve seen. In other words, this wine offers incredible value compared to other high-scoring wines.

Decanter wrote that the Icario boasts a “classic Sangiovese nose of red cherries and earthy notes. Rich and juicy mouth-feel, with velvety tannins and fresh acidity.”

I agree. It’s easy, true to its appellation, balanced and delicious! This one is definitely going into the next WineKnow lineup!

Tonight I happened to make spaghetti with marinara sauce and crumbled Italian-style sausage, which just cried out for a local wine like this.

BTW: I much prefer Decanter’s easy-to-understand reviews compared to the often ridiculous comparisons (Meyer Lemon? Damson Plum?) and fanciful allusions (a sighing odalisque?) in US wine mags.

WineKnow Facts:

  • This is an IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wine from Toscana that is a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 20% Teroldego and 10% Merlot.
  • In Italy, the quality pyramid goes DOCG –> DOC –> IGT.
  • With so much Sangiovese, why isn’t it labeled Chianti? They could charge a lot more money, right?
  • One reason is the Merlot. By regulation, this ‘foreign’ grape is not allowed in Chianti wines.
  • Another reason is likely the location or locations where the grapes were sourced. If they were all sourced from Chianti Classico or any of the famous sub-regions, they would shout this out on the label.
  • Instead, this is likely a blend that includes grapes grown in non-Chianti areas of Tuscany. (I later learned that the winery is based in Montepulciano, and also produces Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano! The modern winery looks like a great place to visit!)
  • In any cases, the inclusions of the Merlot means that they couldn’t label the wine as Chianti Classico even if ALL the grapes were grown in the Chianti Classico region!

What is a ‘Value’ Wine?

My quest to explore little-known wine countries and regions is motivated both by wanderlust and miserliness. I love finding excellent, cheap wines. That doesn’t mean that I’m hitting the Jacob’s Creek or the Hogue. But it does mean that I’m unlikely to spend US$80 on a Paso Robles GSM when I know that I can get the real thing from a storied producer in the Rhone Valley for cheaper.

Knowledge is the key here. That’s why I call my events “WineKnow.” American and other wine producers take advantage of both our lack of knowledge and our susceptibility of luxury-brand marketing.

Last night, I went through the back pages of the latest issue of Wine Enthusiast. Just for fun, I set up a spreadsheet that tracked the price per rating point.

For wines that scored 93-95, the range of the price per point was $0.34 (Obsidian Ridge Cab Sauv) to $3.11 (Stag’s Leap Cab Sauv). For wines that scored 89-92, the range of the price per point was $0.16 (J. Lohr South Ridge Syrah) to $1.30 (Bouchard Aine Le Porusot.)

A few thoughts on this:

  • Unlike a dollar, a “point” is a subjective score by a single person on a single wine at a single point in time. That means that point scores cannot be directly compared.
  • Even at the same magazine, wines are rated by different people who have different specialties. The Oregon Pinot taster has a different scale than the the Burgundy Pinot taster.
  • Land prices and marketing costs are a huge part of the total retail cost of a wine. Land in Mendocino is a lot cheaper than it is in Napa. In contrast, land prices for old multi-generation wine families across Europe isn’t even part of the cost base.
  • People are willing to pay more per point for reds than whites, and will pay more per point for global celebrities like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay than less know wines like Tannat or Assyrtiko.
  • In my head, a 100-point wine is more than just 2% better than a 98-point wine. I think most people would agree that their minds process point scores this way.
  • Still, I found the price per point measurement both simple and instructive – which is all you really want from a statistic.
  • You have to realize that massive producers with industrial wine-making facilities have the ability to produce wines with a lot lower price per point. But these will tend to be less complex, homogeneous wines.

I’m going to continue tracking this, with plans to host a WineKnow event on “Value Wines” early in 2020. How you measure wine value? What are your favorite value wines?