Being a frugal shopper can sometimes make you appear to be cheap. It’s especially so in certain key areas of entertaining your family and friends. Like, if you get those tickets for the big sports event and you’re way up in the rafters where there’s just the rumor of a game. Or you make a hot dinner date reservation and it’s for the “early bird” at 4:30 pm. The same can seem to hold true when it comes to buying wine for a special occasion or just for relaxing around the house. Buying a less expensive bottle (aka cheaper) can make you look or feel like you’re cutting corners or even serving something weird right? Nonsense I say. Despite not being a wine expert, I have tasted and shopped for my fair share over the years and have worked with retailers who sell wine from all over the world. Having done that I have formed some very firm opinions on good cheap wines.
Can cheap wines be good wines?
There’s a school of thought out there that says “the more expensive the bottle of wine is, the better it is”! Well that just isn’t necessarily true and let me explain why. First of all, the taste of wine is solely dependent on the taster’s own personal preferences. You can read plenty of wine guides and listen to lots of wine experts, but until you taste and decide for yourself whether you like it, it really doesn’t matter. Thus you can say that the cheaper the wine doesn’t mean the worse it will taste. It’s just like saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (as it applies to wine). It’s an opinion, and what you think in this case is the most important!
So, the first rule to follow is that you should try a wine you think you might like before you serve it to others. If you like it, it’s a good assumption that others may too and price really isn’t all that relevant. The best wines are purchased for the best prices and as we go along I’ll explain how and why this approach is one that will work.
Location, location, location
When shopping for wine that is easy on your budget, you should avoid those from the well-known, highly praised regions of France and California’s Napa Valley. Besides being so praised and thus expensive, it’s fairly common for wine to be somewhat inconsistent in its quality from year to year. A wine that is highly thought of from the harvest of 2010, may have an off year in 2011 due to weather conditions or other factors that you won’t have any knowledge of and thus may be buying strictly on something heard or read about the vineyard or specific label.
Instead, I recommend trying some of the numerous wines from the many countries and regions that are always arriving on the market. These include countries like Spain, Chile, Portugal or Australia and New Zealand. These wines don’t quite have the prestige or renown as European and California wines, and because of that they will cost less and may surprise you with their pleasurable tastes.
The grape varieties from these lesser known regions, such as Nero d’Avola, Petite Sirah, Rioja, and Malbec for example, are very unique and may be well suited to your specific taste. Of course, there are many trusted grapes and their products that are all across the price board like Burgundys, Chardonnays, and Merlots to try as well. Keep a note on the different varieties you try to remember the type, region and price and taste you enjoy best.
Let’s make a deal
To save some money on these or any wines you should consider negotiating the prices on expensive wines or buying in cases to reduce the cost per bottle. Remember, previously I wrote that almost anything can be negotiated and believe it or not, wine falls into this category as well. It is especially true if you are shopping in an independent store (not part of a chain or state run facility) where the owner may be willing to give you a volume discount if that’s what you need or an individual reduction on a bottle to close a sale. It is certainly worth asking and you can’t lose anything for trying.
Some of the tastiest wines you may find (and at the best prices too) may come in cartons and are less costly because they are cheaper to produce, pack, and ship. They’re quite drinkable and along with the discounts mentioned previously can save you 10-25% off regular prices.
What’s in a name
Many of the better wines are also branded for mass markets as a sub-label brand. You may not recognize the specific label brand, but you can easily check the grape used, the region and country of origin, and its recommendation of what to serve it with as a way to compare. The stores themselves may also know its real label and that info can lead to some additional bargains.
Buying a $40-50 bottle of wine will do you no good if you just don’t like the taste. Instead, look for brands like Jackson, Family Estate, and St. Michael’s. These brands are usually all less than $15 and some may be under $10. But you don’t have to spend $15, $10 or even $6 for a tasty wine. Shop a store like Trader Joe’s which is famous for its $3.99 wines or Costco, the country’s largest wine retailer, and trust me if you try them you will find some really fine deals.
Food is good, wine is better
Food matters with your wine choices and the wine can enhance the food choices just as much as the food enhances the wines. Whether dining or simply snacking, pay attention to which wines pair well with certain foods. Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay for fish and chicken, or try Cabernet Sauvignon for red meats. A Riesling will go well with any spicy main course.
Another piece of advice for the budget-minded is to stay away from “organic” wines you find at the stores. Despite their restrictive growing rules and regulations, they have not been rated or approved by experts to taste any better than wines not classified as organic and are much more expensive.
Some people gravitate to wines stopped with corks and assume that makes wines better. More and more wines these days are using screw caps and believe it or not, the screw cap allows you to much more easily store the leftover (if any!) and keeps it fresher for longer. In fact, the cork can actually cause a problem by leaving residue lingering in the bottle and tainting the flavor and taste.
The best wines are the ones we drink with friends
I can suggest a great way to explore the tastes you should try before committing to wines. In many stores there are tastings and that’s a great way to try something new. Or if you’re fortunate enough to live near a winery that offers tastings. But my favorite way is to invite 10 friends over asking each to pick up a bottle of their favorite “cheap” wine (say under $15-20). Then have your own tasting so that everyone gets some of each and you can discuss and decide on your favorites. For the price of 1 bottle, you get to try 10!
Finally, you can now get wine apps for your smartphone that can be used to track and record all the details of the wines you buy, try, and most importantly, like. By scanning the labels, you can find all the details and write comments that will aide in shopping and make for great conversations too. Try Hello Vino, Drync, or Vivino for starters or look online for others. These apps are free and worth downloading if you are a frugal wine connoisseur!
Are you a wine drinker? Do you buy with price in mind? Have you found some inexpensive wines that you love?
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