6 Bottles That Prove Drinking Cheap Wine Doesn’t Have to Mean Drinking Bad Wine
You may have Champagne tastes on a boxed wine budget, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a bottle of wine that tastes like maroon vinegar. Or just plain vinegar.
Wine can run the gamut from Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck all the way to vintages that can cost more than our homes.
You’ve likely read those stories about wines selling for hundreds of thousands but maybe more interesting is the $3,669.97 2015 Petrus Pomeral that Total Wine is selling online. These tasting notes give wine experts their snooty rap: “… touches of anise, lavender, beef drippings and wild thyme plus a waft of crushed rocks.” Crushed rocks.
But there is something to all of this wine knowledge (crushed rocks just means a mineral flavor) and we’re here to help you find some of the best cheap wine on the market. And by inexpensive we mean less than $15. We offer suggestions but also ways for you to separate the pricey from the best cheap wine when you’re cruising the wine aisles.
We spoke with some sommeliers and wine experts to get the tricks of selection and point us to the value wines.
6 Cheap Global Wines to Try
How Wine is Priced
It’s common that buyers equate quality with cost. Surely, a $35 cabernet is better than one that comes in under $15, right? Not necessarily. Wine is priced using several variables.
Pricing reflects the cost of materials and labor, and also volume. A large vintner like Kendall Jackson produces millions of cases of chardonnay annually. Patz & Hall, another Sonoma County, California, winemaker, produces considerably less.
Depending on the year and style, a Kendall Jackson chardonnay can be had for less than $15, sometimes as low as $8 on sale and at big-box retailers. Plan to spend about $45 for a bottle Patz & Hall chardonnay. The boutique winery releases about 15,000 cases of chardonnay a year. Size does matter when it comes to pricing.
Is the 2017 Patz & Hall chardonnay better than the same vintage of Kendall Jackson? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes the pricing can be chalked up to perceived value. But the only perception we are concerned with here is how to get the best cheap wine.
Where You Buy Wine
A large grocery store stocks hundreds of bottles of wines and the prices are good. For many of us, this is our wine store. There are plenty of brands that you recognize: Yellow Tail from Australia; Robert Mondavi out of California and even La Marca from Spain that makes a popular $12 bottle of prosecco perfect for Sunday brunch mimosas. (Bubbly lesson: the sparkling wine of France is called Champagne, in Italy’s that’s prosecco and in Spain its cava. Bring on trivia night.)
Rather than recognizing brands, you might believe that France turns out the best red wines and California the best white. Again, our perceptions on what’s fancy and what’s not helps set the prices.
Then there are just a lot of cool labels and that’s how some of us pick wine. Honestly, how can you resist Michael David’s Petite Petit with its circus-themed label and fun name? The mostly sirah blend can be had for $13 or less on sale. Cheap is a given at grocery stores and the wine section of Costco, Sam’s Club or Target, but good can be harder to pick out among the vast selection.
Tips for Scoring Good Cheap Wine
You’ll get more selection guidance at a boutique wine market or even a big-box booze store than you will at the grocery store or Costco & Co., but our tips will help you bust out on your own and find plenty of good cheap wine priced below $15, heck even around $10.
1. Buy International Wines
The United States — and specifically California — produces a ton of amazing wines, says Vincent Anter, founder and host of V is for Vino wine show, that’s streamed for free on YouTube and various other places.
Because California produces so much wine, he says, it’s more difficult to figure out the good stuff.
However, South American wines tend to be less expensive due to lower labor and land costs with overall good quality. Or, look to Europe, specifically Italy, where costs may be kept lower through several factors, including:
- Government assistance for wine producers, which is available in many wine-growing regions.
- Regulations that control everything from grape yields to where the grapes come from to the use of additives.
- A distribution model that doesn’t vary from state to state and doesn’t include three tiers, with each tier marking up the wines each step of the way.
- The production of more entry-level wine, because most Europeans see wine as part of the meal instead of a luxury item.
2. Stay Away From Trendy Wines
Wine, like all things, goes through trends, according to Mathew Woodburn-Simmonds, a UK-based freelance sommelier who runs The Plate Unknown, a website celebrating world food and drinks.
To pick up a bargain, avoid the trends, he says.
“Rather than a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or Argentinian malbec, look for an Argentinian cabernet franc or New Zealand pinot gris,” he says. They will be the same price, but a higher quality, because popularity isn’t driving the price up.”
So yes, you can find an Argentinian malbec for $15 but it’s likely that the $15 cabernet franc while be better.
The same applies to lesser-known Eastern European wine-growing countries like Greece, Slovenia and Hungary, all of whom are currently turning out great quality wine at pocket-friendly prices, Woodburn-Simmonds said.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of the Unusual
Instead of reaching for a California cabernet sauvignon — because the best cabernet grapes grown there go into the more expensive bottles — look for a cabernet from Argentina. Argentinian wine producers are known for their malbec, not their cabernet, so better quality grapes will likely be in that bottle of cabernet, according to Kathleen Bershad, author of The Wine Lover’s Apprentice and owner of Fine Wine Concierge in New York.
“Along those lines, look for the grape you’ve never heard of,” she said. “While you might love chardonnay, a torrontes can offer a similar feel and flavor, but because it’s not well known, the quality is likely to be better for the price.” You can easily snag a decent bottle of torrontes for about $5 to $10. Try the Mendoza Station Torrontes ($6 at Totalwine.com).
4. Pay Attention to Where the Wine Comes From
Much of what goes into the cost of a bottle has to do with where the wine is grown and produced, says Melissa Smith, founder of Enotrias Elite Sommelier Service in Oakland, California.
“Have you seen the cost of an acre of land in Napa Valley?” she says. “Between that, French oak barrels starting at $800 a piece and a celebrity winemaker, you can see why a bottle of cabernet might cost $100 per bottle.”
To find quality wines at a lower price, Smith seeks out regions that don’t have a culture of using fertilizers or pesticides in their vineyards, such as Europe (look for Bordeaux or Chianti), North Africa (cabernet sauvignon or merlot) and the Middle East (chardonnay and sauvignon blanc).
She also looks for wine from countries where wine is part of their daily meals and where even older children and teenagers are offered a small glass. Such is the case in Greece, Spain, Italy and France. A lot of wine in those countries is made in co-ops, where the grapes have passed certain standards and vineyard practices, and in large quantities, keeping the prices low. In other words, classic table wines.
Another thing to be aware of is that wine production is generally labor intensive but even more so in some parts of the world. For example, machinery can’t be used in vineyards with steep hills or narrow terraces, so those grapes need to be harvested by hand. You’ll know if this was the case if the label says “hand picked grapes” or “hand harvested.”
That wine may not necessarily taste better, but it will increase the cost of the production. As a result, the price of the wine will be higher, according to sommelier Woodburn-Simmonds.
Some of the steepest vineyards in the world are in the Mosel region of Germany. Riesling is the star grape there and it’s not uncommon to see prices of more than $25 a bottle. The Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley riesling out of Washington State can be had for under $10.
6 Inexpensive Global Sips
This is a starter list of cheap good wine. Get a taste of them and then start to branch out to other wines from these areas, always keeping in mind your wallet.
Try this wine: Recanati Yasmin red
Taste: This is a bold and complex wine from the grape-growing region around the Sea of Galilee, says Sneha Saigal, a sommelier in New York who has lived in India and Spain. It is a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. “It pairs really well with meats and BBQs, and plus, it’s kosher,” Saigal says.
Try this wine: Radley & Finch “Alley Pack” chenin blanc
Taste: Chenin blanc grapes have been grown in South Africa since the mid 1600s, and the varietal originated in France, says Gary Schueller, a New York wine buyer. It’s a versatile grape that can make wines of all styles and price points, including sparkling. At the lower price points, chenin blanc is typically a medium-bodied crisp, refreshing wine that’s food friendly, but can easily be enjoyed on its own. It’s noted for flavors of stone fruit, pear, apple and yellow citrus, Schueller says. “Having tasted hundreds of wines at this price point, it certainly is at the top of the pack,” Schueller says.
Try this wine: Riff pinot grigio
Taste: Alicia Ortiz, the strategic communications manager at Sippd, a wine app that matches wine to your budget, recommends this bottle from delle Venezie, Italy, because while the price is right and its fruit is sourced from some of the top growers in northeast Italy. You’ll taste hints of apple and mineral in this light-bodied wine. Pair it with fish or a light meal.
Try this wine: Beaujolais-Villages 2019
Taste: The land-locked Beaujolais region of France produces this deeply flavored gamay. Tasters note hints of raspberries and strawberries in the fruity red. It has low tannin levels, is delicious when slightly chilled and is best served with poultry and mild cheeses.
Try this wine: Bonterra sauvignon blanc
Taste: California has plenty of delicious summer whites priced at less than $10, says Shana Bull, a wine writer in Sonoma County. This one in particular is great with spring vegetables such as asparagus with grated Parmesan cheese, or fish tacos. They also make a canned Bonterra Rose that’s priced under $10 that pairs well with creamy brie cheese and strawberries or melons. Think picnic or beach wine, Bull says.
Try this wine: Casa Julia Reserva carmenere
Taste: Boasting some of the oldest vines in the world, Chile is putting out wines at incredible values that are crowd-pleasing for novices and experienced wine drinkers alike. This wine is a $10 bottle made from 35-plus-year-old vines, Schueller says. Random cool fact: Carmenere was believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Chile in the mid-1990s. “So this is a grape with a lot of history, but really just in recent years is getting its due and is surging in popularity,” Schueller says.
The Penny Hoarder contributor Danielle Braff is a Chicago writer who specializes in consumer goods and shopping on a budget. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Real Simple and more.