At a recent dinner gathering, someone told me – sotto voce – that he only bought wine that cost less than $10 a bottle. There’s nothing wrong with that, I replied. Good wine can be had for under a sawbuck.
Yeah, he countered, but how do you know what’s good?
Unless you’ve had the wine before, there’s no foolproof method – but you can improve your odds. Here’s how.
First off, look for the unusual. Grapes such as Grenache or Verdeho that don’t have strong market share or aren’t well known are likely to be better made at a lower price simply because they’re not chasing ratings or drafting on the popularity of a more common grape.
Second, look for wines from lesser-known regions. A Napa Cabernet has something to live up to; a Spanish Tempranillo doesn’t face the same expectations. So, again for marketing and economic reasons, the Spanish wine is likely to offer better quality for less money than the Napa Cab.
Thirdly, combine these two and look for uncommon grapes from a common region. An Australian Pinot Noir at $10 will again offer better quality and value than a $10 Aussie Shiraz for one simple reason. The best Shiraz grapes are going into the best Shiraz wines. However, not so much Pinot grows in Australia, so better grapes can be made into less costly wine.
Following these three guidelines isn’t a guarantee – but hey, at least you’ll have fun exploring!
And speaking of exploring, here are some suggestions to start your quest for those elusive, tasty under $10 bottles:
~ My all-time summer favorite wine is Vinho Verde, a very light white wine (well, green-tinted, hence the name) from Portugal. Slightly fizzy and low in alcohol, it’s hard to find a bottle of this wine that’s over $10!
~ Spanish wines overall tend to offer good value, and that’s largely a function of demand. Look for wines from the Jumilla or Catalunya regions, or from the Monastrell or Grenache grapes.
~ Look for everything-but-the-kitchen-sink blends, particularly for white wines. One good example is D’Arenburg’s Riesling-Marsanne-Sauvignon Blanc. On the other end of the spectrum is Big House White, a combination of 11 varietals, ranging from Malvasia Bianca and Gruner Veltliner to Viognier, Albarino and Pinot Gris.
~ Seek out similar alternatives. For example, Italy’s Primitivo and California’s Zinfandel are made from the same grape – but the former is likely to offer a better quality-value ratio. Along the same vein, if you love a good Chianti, try a Sangiovese from Umbria. Same grape, similar regions, vastly different name recognition.
~ While it’s often worth springing for Champagne for a celebration, sometimes it isn’t. For those occasions – or just when you want bubbly on a budget – look for Cava from Spain. It offers a similar flavor profile at a fraction of the cost.
Of course, it’s equally important to know what not to buy. Read the shelf talkers or tasting notes, or listen to how the sales clerk describes the wine. If the words are generic, along the lines of “very inexpensive and extremely popular,” walk away. (The quote is from a web site’s description of a nationally known white Bordeaux.)
Another phrase to beware of is “crowd pleaser.” Finally, avoid wines with too-cutesy names, critter labels (think Yellow Tail) or any brands that advertise.
A little knowledge is a good thing. Take these tips and consider yourself armed and ready to find something new and yummy that won’t bust the budget.