Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from author John Hailman’s book ‘The Search for Good Wine’ which will be available for purchase October 2014 from the University of Mississippi Press. This particular chapter was written on June 7, 1989.
If you wanted to write the world’s most popular wine column, a good title every week would be: “Good, Cheap Wine.” Unfortunately, wine is like other areas: really cheap wines are not normally really good wines. The term “You get what you pay for” is as true of wine as of most subjects. But there are exceptions and this column will address some of them.
With summer nearly here, white wines are in order. White wines that go well with seafood are especially in order. One of my favorites for many years has been the Sancerre of Michel Redde of France’s Loire region. For Redde, Sancerre there is no true substitute. It is a wine of almost incomparable finesse and complexity, particularly when paired witha fresh trout or even a self-caught brim. If you have the price, I heartily recommend it. If not, a problem faced the other night, there is a decent alternative, if not a substitute.
There is a California firm, Round Hill, that owns no vineyards and buys all its grapes and even wines – what is called in the trade as a broker or negociant. They produce a wine called Fume Blanc, made in the style of a good Sancerre. I wonder how they do it, but hesitate to ask. Good blending skills, I suppose. When it tastes this good, why question it?
Okay, you may say, you have found a really good, cheap American wine, but you can never find the same bargain in a french wine, especially one to go with seafood. Wrong.
Readers often ask what white wine I would drink if I had all the money in the world, but could only have one wine. My choice now would be a great Burgundy from France, such as Montrachet, which at its best will cost more than an elaborate dinner. Even a fairly mediocre white Burgundy costs more than a good book, but many costs much more. So, why talk about Burgundies at all? Because they is an excellent alternative, a real white Burgundy from France, but there is one catch.
This Burgundy is not made from the famous and expensive Chardonnay grape, but from its country cousin – the Aligote. This grape can never equal the finesse of a $50 chardonnay. On the other hand, if well selected, it will be many a $20 one. The Aligote is the wine I always ordered in those unique institutions, the Chinese restaurants of Paris, many years ago when I was a well-fed and well-wined student there. It stands up better than chardonnay to spicier Chinese dishes. My favorite Aligotes (pronounces “al-ee-gu-tay”), both then and now, come from the great region of Chablis. Aligotes from there are, unfortunately, hard to find in the United States.
Where there is a will, however, there are substitutes – even for substitutes. The other eventing, I found a very good Aligote for $7.50 from a grower-winemaker called Rochebin. His tasted good all by itself, but with shrimp and sea scallops wrapped in bacon from a wild boar (regular bacon will do too), it was outstanding. It was better than what a famous wine expert had served a few days earlier that cost $38 a bottle. Since I was buying, the $7.50 Aligote was plenty good enough.
Aligote, while little known to most U.S. consumers, is not really ahrd to find; all cities have improters who can get it, and most good wine stores have a little on hand for those hwo know to ask for it. It is no miracle, just a real bargain. You only have to know it exists. Alas, once it is discovered, it will probably become as expensive as chardonnay. The same thing happend to real Chablis, a cheap jug wine just a century ago. The time to buy Aligote is therefore now.
John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.