Those who know me well know wine is one of my favorite things, no matter the time of year. I even have a few special wines on my list for Santa.
Wine is also a great option — or obligation — to bring to a party if the host has dinner covered. But if you’ve been invited to a more formal holiday party and need to impress, the supermarket aisles may seem stacked against you.
Luckily, we’ve compiled some insider info and choices to help you pick a bottle like a pro — without breaking the bank.
Wine Buying Tips
Here are a few general tips in case none of the best wine options below show up on your local shop’s shelves.
Pay Attention to Packaging
This goes without saying — skip big bottles and boxed wines. Although good wines can come in those packages, the odds aren’t in your favor.
That said, the screw cap isn’t the end of the world.
In fact, many wine experts agree the screw cap is a superior wine closure. Especially for young, dinner-party-friendly wines not meant to age — screw caps keep wines fresher more reliably than corks.
So if you pick up a bottle with a screw cap, you won’t look cheap or ignorant — and if someone thinks so, just tell them NPR covered the issue.
Visit the New World
When you buy a bottle of true Bordeaux, you’re paying for the name and history as much as, if not more so, the cost of production.
New World wines generally refer to those from countries other than Europe, though it’s a little more complicated, and lack the prestige price tag.
Plus, their winemakers started later in the game and usually use more up-to-date, technologically advanced processes to create great wines for lower production costs.
My favorite place to try this trick is Total Wine. If you walk up to one of their associates and ask for a New World Bordeaux or Burgundy under $15, they’ll set you up.
Steer Clear of Blends
Before you get all up in arms about your tried-and-true red blend, hear me out.
Lots of blends are tasty wines — and yes, most high-end foreign wines are blends.
But you stand a lower chance of scoring a real bargain when you buy a red or white blend without varietal (that is, type of grape) labeling.
These anonymous blends tend to be made of whatever varietal wines are left over after the winemaker produces her labeled cabernets, merlots and syrahs.
While this kind of leftover wine stew can be yummy, it usually comes at a hefty markup since it’s so cheap to make — and isn’t very snob-friendly.
Tips for Buying Wine at Local Stores
If you live near a Trader Joe’s, you’re in luck: A lot of their bargain “exclusive” wines are actually an incredible value, and the tasting notes they put up in stores are well done.
I once purchased a really nice bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc there. It really exhibited the signature stylistic notes of grass and minerality — for just $7.99.
At ABC Liquors, look for wines with a rating from Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast — surprising wines sometimes go deeply on sale!
I got a bottle of 2010 Château Haut Pommarede Graves Rouge — a pretty decent imported Bordeaux — for just $12.99. It originally was almost $20.
Publix, my favorite chain in the south, uses a set of picture graphics to confer characteristics like body and sweetness. You can always ask the store specialist, though your mileage may vary. Some of these folks are just regular grocery store employees who don’t actually know very much about wine. They might still direct you to something yummy, though!
10 Great Wines Under $15 to Bring to Holiday Parties
Any of these wines would be a great choice. Feel free to use this as a rough guideline when you head to the store — not every bottle will be available at your local vendor.
Prices may vary based on your location — but you can get them online if shipping alcohol is legal in your state.
You’ll notice that cabernet and chardonnay do not appear on this list. They’re so popular it’s really easy to find an iffy one — and hard to pick out real bargains.
If one of these varietals is your go-to, more power to you. But, if you branch out a little, you might be surprised what you find — and love!
1. Mionetto Brut Prosecco Veneto — $10.99
Bubbles are a classic apéritif whose dinner party presence is well-warranted. But just looking at cheap champagne gives me a headache — and it’s hard to find a nice bottle for less than $40.
If you have yet to try Italy’s sparkling wine, Prosecco, consider it this year.
It’s got all the bubbly goodness of, well, bubbly. But it undergoes a shorter (cheaper!) fermentation method for a fruitier profile with less of the bready, biscuity flavor of French champagne.
It’s affordable — and much better than that $8 magnum you’re eyeing. Your head will thank me tomorrow.
2. Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2015 — $11.95
Beaujolais is a light and fruity red wine with very little tannin — it drinks well, even for those who “don’t like reds.”
It’s had moments as a trendy wine for critics to hate on, but it pairs especially well with traditional holiday foods, like turkey with cranberry sauce. Plus, it’s an affordable French import — c’est bon!
The “Villages” version of Duboeuf’s newest release is a step up from the regular $8 bottle you can find in drug stores. The additional word corresponds to a rarer wine from a smaller set of vineyards, and will make you look that much savvier.
Note: Because Beaujolais is the first wine released of any given vintage — and because it lacks the structure tannin gives bigger reds — it’s meant to be drunk immediately.
Make sure you give the date a glance. You want this year’s bottle, if possible.
3. Hahn Pinot Noir — $14
Because it’s a moody grape prone to low yields, good, affordable pinot is so hard to find — but it pays off so well.
Well-made pinot noir is a light but complex red and goes well with a variety of foods. Hahn makes one of the nicest sub-$20 bottles I’ve ever enjoyed.
Honorable mention: Mayhall Tibbs, 2013 — $10.99 at Trader Joe’s. A little less subtle than Hahn, but if you want cherry-tasting wine, this guy is the bomb. The cherry bomb.
4. Warre’s Heritage Ruby Port — $11.99
Although it’s not for sipping all night (unless you want to feel really rotten tomorrow morning), a sweet wine like port, sweet riesling or even sweet bubbles like Italy’s Asti wine can be really good — even at affordable prices.
The powerful flavor of the extra residual sugar means you won’t miss the fine complexity of the higher end versions, more obvious in dry wines.
Plus, some fortified wines last quite a while after uncorking. They’re dosed with extra alcohol and meant to be consumed in moderate, dessert amounts. Even if you don’t pop the bottle after dinner, it makes a great holiday gift!
5. Aveleda Vinho Verde 2014 — $8.99
That’s right — green wine!
Although the color sometimes matches, the name uses “green” to mean “new” or “inexperienced.” So, Vinho Verde is a young Portuguese wine not allowed to age, whether red, white or rosé.
It’s very slightly effervescent and can exhibit exciting fruit flavors ranging from lemon to fig. It’s not as aggressively bubbly as your favorite champagne, but still fizzy.
It’s also a wine you don’t see every day, making it extremely not-embarrassing.
6. Vega Sindoa Tempranillo — $7.48
Remember what I said about Old World wines being consistently more expensive and carrying less value per dollar? Spain’s kind of an exception.
Tempranillo is one of my favorite grape varietals, with big, juicy, red fruit flavors like berry and plum, balanced with smoky, spicy flavors like tobacco and vanilla. It’s a great food wine — and you don’t have to pay much for it.
7. Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier Blend — $12.99
If you haven’t heard of viognier, get ready to replace all your chardonnay. This grape has the same weighty mouthfeel, but since it’s not usually aged in oak, it retains tropical fruit flavors like peach and pear, even floral notes of violet.
Paired with the neutral chenin blanc in this blend, you wind up with a well-balanced wine, free of the sweet, heavy character viognier can take on by itself.
8. Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc — $12.97
Sauvignon blanc is a fantastic food wine because of its high acid level, which cuts through fatty cheeses and meats. Marlborough, New Zealand is one of the premier regions for this varietal, and Kim Crawford’s bottle is likely to be on your local shelves.
Just like Beaujolais, sauvignon blanc is another wine that’s meant to be drunk young — so look for the most recent vintage when you go hunting.
9. Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo — $14.99
Italian wine means a lot more than $3 chianti in the straw basket, so you’re in for a treat.
This Italian bottle is a big red with notes of blackberry and earth — with lots of tannin and relatively low acid. It’s a wine worth contemplating, and a great value for the price point.
10. The Stump Jump Shiraz — $9.99
If you like cabernet, jump over to shiraz (which is what happens when Aussies try to say “syrah,” apparently).
This is a nice bottle to try, with a low price point. Because shiraz is also a thick-skinned dark grape variety, you’ll notice many of the same blue, black and cooked fruit flavors from your favorite cabernet — but with the exotic twist of pepper or even chocolate.
Need More Wine Help?
Remember: don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you go to any actual wine shop — as opposed to a grocery store — you’ll be in good hands.
And if worst comes to worst… bring some eggnog and a bottle of spiced rum to the party!
Your Turn: Which of these affordable wines will you bring to your upcoming holiday soirée?
Jamie Cattanach is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder and holds a Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from WSET. She reviews awesome — and affordable — wines most Wednesdays at www.jamiecattanach.com.