Last year I wrote about cheap wine because it can be very good. Now I’m writing about it because it is cheap. For the first time in years, I’m starting to watch every penny, even when it comes to drinking. Early to a dinner the other night, my wife suggested we stop off at a local bar for a glass of Champagne. Not wanting to squelch a breezy, romantic idea, I suggested that we share a glass instead. Mulling a little further, I said, “You know, that glass is probably going to cost $15”—my wife likes real Champagne—”maybe we should just skip it.” Instead of having a drink, we sat on a wall down the street and talked for 15 minutes before going in.
Whether you’re drinking a bottle at home or on a night out, cheaper wines can be as enjoyable for your tongue as for your wallet. The difference between spending $12 and $20 on a bottle you’re going to consume in one night—especially if, like me, you’ve grown accustomed to having wine with every meal—is huge. Heck, the difference between spending $10 and $12 looms large when projected across the span of a year or two.
The challenge when shopping for cheap wine, though, is not feeling forced into buying the industrialized, mass-produced, focus-group-branded, highly manipulated crap, but finding real wine from real places and real people. Good $12 wine is out there; finding it takes a little extra effort.
Giant grocery stores, I’m afraid, don’t cut it. Their shelves are bought and paid for by the big distributors that have obligations to the wine conglomerates. There’s good reason to frequent the wine shop on the corner beyond keeping small businesses intact. For one, the shopkeeper has tasted most of the wines. In fact, he or she has probably purchased most of the wines and has a vested interest in seeing them bought and enjoyed.
You’ll find that good wine deals come from regions outside of the mainstream, not from Burgundy, Piedmont, Napa, Ribera del Duero, etc. Because of the cost of vineyard land in the United States, in fact, I can’t really say that there are a lot of great deals on inexpensive wine here. Rather, I look to the unheralded regions of Europe and to South America.
I put the question of bargain regions to a sommelier, Chris Deegan of San Francisco’s Nopa restaurant. Deegan focuses on small, good-value producers that favor organic or biodynamic practices, no matter the region. First on Deegan’s list of bargain regions is Beaujolais. “They’re not so popular and having trouble selling their wine these days, so there are some amazing values,” he says. Deegan has a biodynamic Beaujolais made from the 60-year-old vines of Domaine Paul Janin on his list, available by the glass for $8. That’s a hard wine to find at retail, but there are many other good Beaujolaises out there. Try ordering the Villages wine from Domaine André Colonge, a gorgeous drink that can be found for $11.
Deegan says that Italy is another place to look for bargains right now. He suggests searching out wines of the Aglianico grape: “If you like big red wines with lots of fruit and tannin, these are for you.” Check out a wine like this one from Cantina di Venosa, which can be found for $12.
Other value regions Deegan mentioned were Rioja and Bierzo in Spain; Sicily; Chile; and Argentina. I would add France’s Loire Valley, which we usually think of for white wines—Sancerre, Vouvray, etc.—but is also an excellent source for cheap red wine. Look for wines from Chinon, Bourgueil, Anjou, and Touraine, like the 100 percent Cab Franc from Château de Fesles.
A slump in the economy doesn’t have to mean a slump in your wine consumption. You can still drink well when you drink cheap, it just takes a little hunting.