Let’s face it: For most of us, $20 is a lot of money for a bottle of wine. We may love the stuff, but we also have to do things like pay the electric bill and put gas in the car.
Honestly, a lot of wine in that “budget” price range isn’t good for anything but staining your teeth or cooking a tough old chicken. But with a few tips, there are ways to drink like a king on a cheapskate’s wine budget. And the best thing about it: Most of the great “cheapskate” wines are available just about anywhere you can buy wines, including convenience and drug stores.
1. The Island’s Specialty
One wine you can find just about anywhere, and at a reasonable price, is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. And much of it isn’t from just anywhere in New Zealand, but from what may be the best Sauvignon Blanc region in the world, Marlborough, on the northern tip of the country’s south island.
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is what California Sauvs wish they could be. They are laden with tropical fruit character, with that herbal backbone and that edge of acidity that makes them so absolutely perfect with a variety of foods. And you can get a very, very good one for less than $15, and often it’s closer to $10.
2. The Portuguese Secret
Another regional specialty that isn’t nearly as famous as Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is Vinho Verde from Portugal. Vinho Verde, which means “green wine” in Portuguese, isn’t really green, unless you think of “green” as young and fresh. It’s made to be fruity, light, slightly fizzy and slightly sweet – a thoroughly refreshing white and sometimes even pink wine. The grapes they can grow in northern Portugal are ideal for it, and there’s lots of it – for $8 a bottle or less, in most cases.
3. Not Your Mother’s Liebfraumilch
A lot of people make a face about German wines, but it usually can be attributed to truly awful blended wines like Liebfraumilch (literally, “Milk of Our Lady”), a generic and sinfully sweet white. You won’t find a fine German wine in a bargain hunt, but you can use a couple of clues to snatch one that’s much more drinkable than its predecessors. Most importantly, find one that specifically says “Riesling” on the label, since that ensures it was made from that noble grape and not some generic blend. Also look on the label for the word “Qualitatswein.” Qualitatswein is a step up in the country’s strict labeling system from the cheap stuff, which is labeled as Tafelwein. Well-chilled, even a cheap German Riesling can be a delight, busting out of the bottle with fruit flavors and an edge of acidity that sets it apart from the sweet junk out there. How much will it put you back? About $8.
4. A Different Kind of Fizz
During the 19th century, some rather nasty plant epidemics put a lot of French winemakers out of work. A big chunk of the ones from the Champagne region wound up in northeastern Spain, and they brought their knowledge and skills for making bubbly with them. One thing they left behind, though – the high prices. A Spanish Cava, made using the same methods as French Champagne, with much of the same character, can go for $12-$15.
5. Tapas, Anyone?
Another specialty of Spain is Rioja, a lovely middle-weight red wine. It goes particularly well with a lot of Spanish tapas, the finger-food that seems to be everywhere on the Iberian Peninsula. Don’t expect it to be big and Cabernet-like, because it isn’t – especially the lower-priced versions. But buy an inexpensive one and then use your savings on some Manchego cheese, which is made from sheep’s milk around the same parts of Spain as Rioja. Spend $10 on the wine and $5 on the cheese and have a feast.
6. It’s Not Just for Candles Anymore
Our friends in Italy used to export oceans of cheap wines to this country, with much of it not fit to throw in the ocean, much less drink. But the Italians are now the No. 1 wine producers and exporters in the world, and they don’t want you doing a spit-take when you sip the most-famous Italian wine, Chianti. Once again, remember it’s not supposed to be Cabernet. But having a simple Chianti with Tuscan-style Italian food is another cheap-food-and-wine experience that will make your eyes roll back in your head.
7. Oceans of Chardonnay
The oaked Chardonnay fad seems to be fading, but if you still love your Chard with that touch of oak character, you’re in luck – the biggest-selling imported Chardonnay in this country is available just about everywhere liquor is sold. Look for Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay – it’s Australian – the next time you’re buying gasoline, Fritos or Twinkies at the local convenience store, ice house or stop-and-rob. It’s lightly oaky and fruity like a typical Chardonnay, and just ridiculously cheap, sometimes less than $5 a bottle.
8. Chile, Anyone?
In grape-growing circles, Chile is known as one of the places on earth that has never been affected by phylloxera, the root-chewing louse that nearly wiped out world wine production during the 1900s. To drinkers, it’s known as the home of very good – and often well-priced – red wines. Just about any Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Carmenere is going to be drinkable, but if there’s a choice, look for regionally labeled wines, from the Maipo Valley or the Central Valley.
9. Just over the Andes
Across the high mountains from Chile is Argentina, where an orphaned grape from Bordeaux known as Malbec apparently loves the high, dry climate of Argentina’s winegrowing regions. If there’s a choice, the most-notable Argentine Malbecs are from the Mendoza growing region. They’re not as cheap as they used to be, but there still are big, bold, drinakable ones for $12.
10. One Word: France
You have to work pretty hard to find a bad French wine for less than $15. Why? First of all, they know what they’re doing when it comes to wines in France. There’s plenty of expertise, as well as plenty of grapes, to go around. And the French aren’t all that keen on losing any more of their share of the world wine market, so they’re especially dedicated to making really good value-priced wines in gigantic quantities. They may be from the second line of a famous producer, or they may be from the country’s biggest production regions, in the south of the country. But they’ll more than likely be good.
11. Buy Local
If you went to Europe and drank the table wine at a little bistro and came back raving about how good it was, it may be because you were at a scenic little bistro in Europe drinking wine on vacation. More likely, though, is the fact that the wine in that carafe, which probably came from a giant container in the back, was made nearby. Locally made wines, especially in the Old World, often match the local cuisine. They are crafted by people who know how to make wine in their local conditions. Sure, they might never put it in a bottle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
In the United States, that kind of winemaking is growing in popularity every day, albeit without 500 to 1,000 years of winemaking history or the bulk containers (we seem a little freaked out by wine in 100-gallon tanks). More and more often, local wines are matching local foods, and making them affordable, too. From New Mexico to New York, local wines abound, and they’re finding a place next to local foods.
12. Look for Strays
Any wine cheapskate needs to have a sense of adventure. Most big wine retailers will have closeout sections, prime for the hunt. It’s where they sell wines that maybe they bought a few too many cases of, or wines that for one reason or another didn’t sell elsewhere in the store, or wines they picked up from another retailer on closeout. Don’t dismiss it immediately just because it’s $1.99. But do be careful: If a white looks orange or brown, or it’s four years or more past the vintage date on the bottle, move along. Reds can be a little older, but don’t be impressed by a 10-year-old vintage on sale. Even red wine made in this country is designed to take home and drink right away, not be aged.
Also, if there are signs of leakage around the cork, or the bottle leaks when you pick it up, or the display has signs of leakage, put the bottle down and step away.
13. See the Signs
Don’t be afraid to browse, pick up bottles and read the labels. Most of what’s on the back is pure malarkey, but sometimes there’s pertinent info on the front. Wines from a designated region (smaller than a state) can be good values. Most of the less-expensive California wines will simply have “California” as a location of origin in the label, which means it could have come from anywhere in the state. If the bottle has the name of a growing region on it, known as an American Viticultural Area, it’s likely to be a step up from state-designated wines.