I can’t remember any point in my life when I wasn’t on a budget, a rather tight one at that. And so when I reached the age when I’d be meeting up with friends for happy hour, I did so without the most sophisticated of tastes. Generally, my wine knowledge at that point in my life was limited to “house white” or “house red” – not necessarily because it was the best wine or my preferred varietal, but because it was the cheapest option.
As I grew older and my career took me in a direction of wine and cocktail writing, my palate did develop. Unfortunately, my budget did not, and I continued to look for the least expensive wines I could…except now I wanted them to be good wines that also didn’t cost a lot.
But can we have both? Can a wine be affordable but also be quality? Actually, yes. We just need to know how to search for it. Some factors that typically go into the price point of a wine: the brand value of the producer (i.e. Orin Swift) and the name recognition of the appellation (i.e. Burgundy). While it’s tempting to go for the wine that you’ve seen a million times in retail and restaurant settings, chances are that a larger portion of that producer’s budget is going into marketing and placement than in actual quality winemaking.
Think outside the box
There is great value to be found in lesser-known regions and varietals. “Some of my favorite regions for value are the French regions of Savoie, Provence and the Languedoc, the Greek regions of Nemea, Naoussa, and the Peloponnese, and the Italian regions of Campania, Sicily and Tuscany,” says Kylie Monagan, a sommelier and partner at New York City-based Civetta Hospitality Group which includes Amali in New York City, Bar Marseille in the Rockaways, Juniper in Westbury and Calissa in the Hamptons.
Finding a region known for one style of wine but picking another is a great strategy. “I personally have a sweet spot for Southern French wines, as there’s a lot of value in the white and red wines of regions hyped for their rosé (such as Provence),” said Monagan. White Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc), red Sancerre (Pinot Noir) and white Rhone (typically a blend of grapes such as Marsanne and Roussane) are all great options, and typically well-made wines.
If you prefer to stick with known and loved wine styles, are a few “hacks” when it comes to picking wines from famous regions. “Certain appellations gain huge followings, while their neighbors, with sometimes identical growing conditions and varietals, remain relatively unknown in the states,” said Monagan. According to Monagan, if you like Sancerre, you’ll love Menetou-Salon. If you’re a fan of Aloxe-Corton in Burgundy, try the Burgundian region of Ladoix. “Petit Chablis is a great alternative to Chablis, and climate change has made the former slightly richer than it has historically been,” says Monagan.
If you’re a fan of Bordeaux, try the second or third labels of a producer. “These wines are high quality enough to bear the name of some of the most revered Chateaux in France but are made with grapes that didn’t quite make the cut for their first wines (Chateau Cos d’Estournel, Chateau Angelus, and Chateau Pape-Clement are on the higher end range of these wines, whereas Chateau Lynch-Bages, Chateau Fourcas Hosten and Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse have the most affordable options),” says Monagan.
Turn to the professionals
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Great wine can be had at most price points, but to find a bottle you’re going to love on the cheap requires a little more effort. “Hit up your local independent wine shop and ask for advice!” advises Jermaine Stone, founder of Wine & Hip Hop & Cru Luv Wine. Once you lock in with someone that has a palate that you can trust, always ask for new recommendations. “They taste samples all the time, and their staff will know where the hidden gems are in their shop,” says Stone. When asking, be upfront about your budget, so it’s in their interest to recommend something you’ll like at your price point, as they’ll want you to come back.
Again, this is an opportunity to look for wines made with the same grapes you love or in the same method, but without the price tag that comes with a well known or “premium” region. For example, Champagne tastes but you’re ballin on a budget? “Try something like Cava or another sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne method – same style, way more affordable and usually just as delicious!” says Stone.
This also comes down to finding the right store for what you are looking for. “Find someone in that store who wants to talk to you and listen to your preferences, who wants to understand what sort of wines you like (and don’t like),” says sommelier Doug Frost, a consultant for The Wine Store. “If you’re in a store that just trots out a score from some nameless critic or magazine, you should find a different store,” says Frost.
Frost believes the most effective tactic is to have a relationship with a retailer who can turn you on to wines that you like, based upon other wines that you have bought from him or her. “Don’t be afraid to tell them that you weren’t wild about a particular wine; it helps them understand your tastes,” says Frost. Great retailers will listen to what you like and show you similar wines from other places or producers. They’re there to open up the wide and diverse world of wine to you.
Use an app
Everyone has different preferences when it comes to wine, so it’s important to research which one is right for you.” Smartphone apps like Wine-Searcher or Vivino allow you to scan wine labels to search for details, such as tasting notes and reviews, while you’re shopping in-store,” says Rebecca Gramuglia, consumer expert at TopCashback.com. These apps will also tell you where to find the lowest price of the wine you’re looking for.
Subscribe and save
If you’re a regular wine drinker and don’t mind trying something new, a monthly subscription may be a good option. “Wine clubs from retailers like Winc Wine Club and Gary’s Wine allow you to explore different wines for a lower cost per bottle,” says Gramuglia.
Shop through a cash back site
Coupons for “good” wine are hard to come by. However: “If you shop through a cash back site, like TopCashback.com, you’ll score the highest percentage of your money back on purchases from over 7,000 stores, including Drizly, Macy’s Wine Shop and Total Wine,” says Gramuglia.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that not all wines in a category are at the same level of quality. One trick is to find a high-quality producer and pick their “entry-level” (sommelier code for least expensive) bottle.
“A great example is a Cotes du Rhone produced by a winemaker known for great Chateauneuf du Pape or Cornas — Clos du Mont Olivet and Alain Voges both make amazing Cotes du Rhone,” says Monagan.
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