Recently, I had a close friend give me a personal wine tasting.
He and his wife are the epitome of what I would consider wine people: They can pull out the flavors in wine in a heartbeat, and they’re familiar with their personal tastes. They can tell you all sorts of interesting facts about the different varietals and regions. They even have a wine cellar built into their home! I always imagine them collecting bottles worth hundreds of dollars, only sipping on the highest quality grapes possible.
That’s why I was shocked when my friend informed me that, not only did every one of the 10 delicious wines we sampled that day cost less than $20, but that he and his wife refuse to purchase a bottle above that price—ever. And yet, it seemed like they were always enjoying fantastic wines.
I had to know how it was done. So I sat down with him to learn some techniques that any of us can use to always enjoy delicious wine on a budget.
Have a Little Background Knowledge
One of the hardest things about buying wine—inexpensive or otherwise—is knowing where to start when you’re staring at the wall of bottles. Having even a little background knowledge about regions and varietals can help you distinguish what will be good from what will probably be a flop. And while learning all of this can take years of studying (and drinking) wine, my friend shared a few tips to get us started.
First, pay close attention to where the wine is from. For example, by law, a wine marked as being from Sonoma County must only be made of grapes grown in that county, whereas a generic California wine can include grapes from anywhere in the state—including places where not-so-good grapes grow. To that end, when considering your budget bottle, look for wines coming from a specific location, as they are more likely to be good: Sonoma instead of California, Hunter Valley instead of Australia, Marlborough instead New Zealand.
Second, understanding a little bit about the nature of different varietals can help you out. For example, Pinot Noirs are really difficult to grow, so you’ll be hard pressed to find a good bottle for less. (Syrahs and Malbecs, or lesser known varietals like Grenache or Rioja, are a better bet.) Starting to pick up tips like this can be a great way to find cheap wine that will actually be delicious.
Know Where to Go for the Best Price
Often, the best way to get good wine at a better price is to buy more expensive wine at a discount. If you aren’t sure what you like already, wholesale or flash sale sites can be a great way to get steep discounts on pricier bottles.
One great option is a flash sale site called WTSO (Wines Til Sold Out). The site’s model is simple—it sells one wine at a time until that wine sells out. And each bottle is 30-70% off, making what would usually be a $40 pick easily affordable.
If you already know a couple of good bottles you really love, buying them in bulk will often earn you a discount. Many grocery stores will cut the price per bottle down if you buy six or more, or talk to the clerk at the wine store about pricing for a case.
Serve it Right
Buying the right wine is only half the battle—how you serve your wine can also enhance the flavor of a less expensive wine (or any wine, for that matter).
For starters, make sure you’re serving your wine at the correct temperature to best bring out the flavors. In general, people tend to serve white wines a little cooler than they should and red wines a little warmer. You can get into the specifics of exactly what temperature each varietal should be served at, but there’s a quick trick that will usually get you close: Just throw your red wine in the fridge or take your white wine out of the fridge about half an hour before you want to drink it.
Decanting your wine is another quick way to make it taste better. Pouring wine from the bottle into a container with a wider opening and then letting it sit for 20 minutes or so before drinking allows it to mix with oxygen (or aerate), which gives the flavors a chance to come out. It’s a quick and dirty way to make a younger, less expensive wine taste older and more developed.
While this trick typically works better on red varietals, some whites can also benefit—and it certainly can’t hurt to try! You can pick up a relatively inexpensive decanter at many home good stores, or even just pour a glass and let it sit for a bit before you start sipping.
Aging is often thought to be reserved for the most expensive, high-bar wines, but it can actually improve the quality of some of your under $20 set as well. When you allow a young wine to sit for a few years before enjoying, the compounds in the wine have more time to react and can ultimately help correct any flavor imbalances present in the wine.
That being said, most wines at this price point are not meant to age for long periods of time—much more than two years sitting, and there’s a good chance it’s going downhill.
If you have the patience to try this, make sure you have the right conditions in your home. Wine that’s sitting needs to be kept in a dark, not-too-dry place and should stay at a pretty constant temperature—always under 63ºF. A basement can be great for this, or if you’re really serious, you can try investing in a small wine fridge. Also, you should always store wine on its side to keep the cork from drying out and ruining the bottle.
Ultimately, it will take time to really develop an understanding of what will be good and what won’t—and you’ll probably taste some bad bottles along the way. But these tips should get you started. And in the end, you’ll still have a glass of wine in your hand.