7 Sommelier Secrets for Buying Affordable Wines That Taste Top-Notch
For starters, be adventurous.
Buying delicious wine doesn't have to break the bank. In fact, there are hundreds of excellent bottles in the $25 and below range. But with so many options, it can be difficult to find the perfect bottle for you. "It's easy to get overwhelmed and select a higher-priced bottle assuming the added cost means better quality," says Christopher Hoel, founder of Harper's Club and Luckysomm, and expert wine curator for Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co. "But if you know what you like, or are willing to learn, there are more than a few wines out there for you—no matter your budget." Here's what you need to know about buying wine on a budget. (Then make sure to read our preservation guide to make sure you're keeping it fresh for as long as possible).
As with most things, a wine’s 'brand' will play a role in how expensive it is. “Where a wine is produced and what type of grape it’s made with will contribute to the price of the wine,” Hoel says. “For instance, even if you’re not an oenophile, you’re probably familiar with California pinot noir. That recognition means those wines can command a higher price.”
For less expensive wines, Hoel recommends avoiding popular regions. “While I love the complex wines that come from Burgundy, France, some of my favorite wine regions are in lesser-known countries like Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.” Instead of California, he suggests trying a pinot noir from Oregon, or a pinot gris from New Zealand. These regions produce delicious wines but don’t have the same prestige as Tuscany or Bordeaux, meaning you can find excellent wines at a much better price.
If you’re not ready to give up your favorite wine country, try one of their lesser-known grape varieties. “Many of our favorite grapes have sisters or cousins that haven’t achieved the same notoriety,” explains Hoel. “A great example is the carménère, a half-sister of sorts of merlot. Often mistaken for each other, carménère offers a similarly robust profile but is usually much more affordable.”
On any budget, it’s important to know what you like and how to look for it. After all, wine is all about personal preferences. Someone who likes sweeter, lighter wines won’t like the deepest, driest red, no matter how expensive the bottle.
But how do you know what a wine will taste like before you buy it? “Wine labels don’t always make it easy,” says Hoel. “A good place to start is taking a look at the ABV (alcohol by volume). It’ll give you a glimpse of what’s inside the bottle. Lighter and sweeter wines tend to have a lower ABV, while richer, drier wines fall on the higher side.” If you know you like light wines, you’ll do well sticking with an ABV under 12.5 percent. For a bolder profile, Hoel recommends opting for 13 percent and above.
Next, consider the occasion. Just like ice cream loses some of its luster in the wintertime, a poorly paired wine can leave you disappointed. For a big dinner with lots of sides, Hoel recommends considering a wine that pairs well with a variety of foods, like the versatile gamay grape. For a wine that pairs well with a movie? “Pop some popcorn, uncork a chardonnay, and watch as the rich butter on the popcorn draws out the chardonnay’s smooth undertones.”
“While there are delicious bottles of wine under $10, I find the $12-$20 range is the sweet spot,” says Hoel. A couple of dollars will go a long way—when you taste the difference, you'll realize it was well worth it.
If you like the wines coming from a certain importer, chances are you’ll enjoy their other bottles. Hoel recommends taking note next time you really love a certain bottle of vino (snapping a photo on your phone always helps) and looking for them on your next purchase.
Wine professionals love sharing their knowledge. “Don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation, even on less expensive wines,” Hoel says.
“My best advice for finding a less expensive—but equally delicious wine—is to be open to the adventure. Wine is about exploration, which means taking risks and trying new bottles is all part of the fun,” Hoel says.
If you know what you like, doing a quick Google search to find similar varietals will go a long way. If you don’t, try wines you’re not as familiar with. Ask your friends what they like to drink. Even join a wine club with a wide variety. Explore new wines, take note of what you like, and continue to keep an open mind. Not only can this land you a less expensive bottle, but you may find a new favorite in the process.