9 MIN READ
10 Wines Under $20 You Won’t Be Embarrassed to Bring to the Christmas Party
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.
How to Buy the Best Wine
Here are a few general tips in case none of the good, cheap 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.
The screw cap, however, 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 than, the cost of production.
New World wines generally refer to those from countries other than Europe, though it’s a little more complicated. They also 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.
So instead of more expensive French Bordeaux, try a Bordeaux-style wine out of South Africa or Argentina.
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 their labeled cabernets, merlots and syrahs.
While this kind of leftover wine stew can be yummy, it usually comes at a hefty markup, because it’s so cheap to make — and isn’t snob-friendly.
Tips for Buying Wine at Local Stores
If you live near a Trader Joe’s, you’re in luck: A lot of its bargain “exclusive” wines are actually an incredible value, and the tasting notes it displays in stores are well done.
I once purchased a nice bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc there. It 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. Originally, it 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 much about wine. They might still direct you to something yummy, though!
10 Best Wines Under $20 to Bring to Holiday Parties
Any of these wines would be a great choice for your fancy holiday party. 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 the states involved.
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 by what you find — and love!
1. Mionetto Brut Prosecco Veneto — $10.99
Bubbles are a classic aperitif 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 — $13
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 2015 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. It’ll 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 — $15
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 — $7.99
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 — $7.99
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 — $15.99
If you haven’t heard of viognier, get ready to replace all your chardonnay. This grape has the same weighty mouthfeel, but because 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 — $20
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 — $18.99
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 — $12.99
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!
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) has written for VinePair, SELF, Ms. Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Barclaycard’s Travel Blog, Santander Bank’s Prosper and Thrive and other outlets. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.