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. However, most people who can afford incredibly expensive bottles – like this 2005 Petrus Pomerol that goes for $8,997 at some Total Wine locations – probably aren’t too worried about the cost of their homes.
Total Wine explains the tasting notes, which may be delightful or offensive depending on your appreciation of the words chewy and supercaressing mouthfeel: “Full-bodied, with ultrafine tannins and a supercaressing mouthfeel. Coffee, dark chocolate and berry. Chewy yet balanced. Very long in the mouth.”
But there is something to all of this wine knowledge (chewy just refers to a thicker textured wine) and we’re here to help you find some of the best cheap wines on the market. And by inexpensive we mean less than $15.
We offer suggestions but also ways for you to separate the expensive wines from the best cheap wines when you’re cruising the liquor store aisles. We spoke with some sommeliers to get the tricks of selection and point us to the affordable wine.
The six cheap wines they recommend come from:
- 1 But First, a Word on How Wine Is Priced
- 2 4 Tips for Scoring Good Cheap Wine
- 3 Try These 6 Cheap Wines From Different Regions
But First, a Word on 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 at big-box retailers. Plan to spend at least $30 for a bottle of 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 where to get the best cheap wine.
Don’t Let a Cute Label or Familiar Name Lead You Astray
A large grocery store stocks hundreds of bottles of wine and the prices are usually reasonable. 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 $15 bottle of prosecco perfect for Sunday brunch mimosas.
(Bubbly lesson: The sparkling wine of France is called Champagne. In Italy that’s prosecco, and in Spain it’s 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 wine. 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.
Inexpensive wine is a given at grocery stores and the wine section of Costco, Sam’s Club or Target, but good wine can be harder to pick out among the vast selection.
4 Tips for Scoring Good Cheap Wine
You’ll get more selection guidance at a local wine shop or even a big-box booze store than you at the average grocery store or Costco, 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 affordable wines, says Vincent Anter, founder and host of the 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 Matt Woodburn-Simmonds, a sommelier who runs The Plate Unknown, a website celebrating world food and drinks.
To pick up a bargain, he suggests avoiding the trends.
“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 higher. Yes, you can find an Argentinian malbec for $15 but it’s likely that the $15 cabernet franc will be better.
The same applies to lesser-known Eastern European wine-growing countries like Greece, Slovenia and Hungary, all of which are currently turning out great quality wine at pocket-friendly prices, Woodburn-Simmonds said.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of Unusual Wines
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 ($7 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.”
She has suggestions on finding quality wines at a lower price, based on their region:
- Watch for regions that don’t typically use fertilizer or pesticides in vineyards. Smith says Europe (look for Bordeaux or Chianti), North Africa (cabernet sauvignon or merlot) and the Middle East (chardonnay and sauvignon blanc) fit this description.
- Look for countries where wine is part of daily life. 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.
- Understand where wine is more labor intensive. 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 production costs. 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.
Try These 6 Cheap Wines From Different Regions
This is a starter list of the best cheap wines for wine lovers. Get a taste of them and then start to branch out to other wines from these areas, keeping your wallet in mind all of the time.
Try this wine — Recanati yasmin red
Taste — This is a bold and complex wine from the grape-growing region around the Sea of Galilee in Israel, 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.
Price — $13.99 at Wineloftonline.com
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 wine.
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.
Price — $9.99 at Klwines.com
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. 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 grilled fish or a light meal.
Price — $9.99 at Totalwine.com
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 and is delicious when slightly chilled and is best served with poultry and mild cheeses.
Price — $12.92 at Vivino.com
Try this wine — Bonterra sauvignon blanc
Taste — California has plenty of delicious summer wines priced at less than $10, says Shana Bull, a wine writer in Sonoma County. This refreshing bottle 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.
Price — $10.99 at Totalwine.com
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 specific wine is a $12 bottle made from 35-plus-year-old vines, Schueller says.
Random cool fact: This grape 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.
Price — $11.99 at Westchesterwine.com
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. Senior staff writer Robert Bruce contributed.