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Drink well on a dime (OK, for $20 or less) with these sommelier tricks.

By Karla Walsh
March 13, 2021
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A lot goes into making a single bottle of wine. From the grapes themselves to the land they're grown on to the people who (or equipment that) pick those grapes, to the vessel that holds them and the cost to ship the wine to store shelves. In short, it can be a pricey process. But contrary to popular belief, you need not shell out your whole paycheck for a delicious bottle.

According to aggregate reviews on millions of bottles of wine, the pros at the wine-rating app Vivino discovered that you can score a really solid bottle between $15 and $30.

So how can you invest in the best bottle for your buck? We asked three sommeliers to spill their secrets.

1. Seek out international wines.

What makes some grapes more expensive than others? The quality of the grapes, the variety of grapes, where they are grown, the amount of aging (wine barrels are expensive) and the marketing are the main factors, explains Raquel Royers, a Napa, California-based wine blogger at Watch Me Sip.

"Grapes are a crop, and they're worth more in some different parts of the world, even just varying between notable or famous vineyards in the same area. Grapes rely so much on terroir [the "taste of a place" or the specific qualities they pick up by being grown in a specific area]. One vineyard just a couple miles down from another can be so different, and entire wine regions even moreso."

A quality bottle of imported wine can often be found under $20, Royers believes. Spain, Argentina, and Chile almost always "over deliver," she says.

Since vineyard land is such a hot commodity, there are essentially no deals to be had in California wine, Brianne Cohen, a Los Angeles-based event producer and certified sommelier.

"The cost of land and labor is just too expensive," she says. Instead, "look into wines from Portugal, Spain, or perhaps southern Italy. Land and labor are much less expensive in those places. Plus, many vineyards and wineries have been in the family for centuries, so those properties are paid off! You can easily find wines under $20 from these regions that will blow our domestic wines out of the water."

2. When in doubt, go south.

While you're looking abroad, stay south for the best deals. Not the Southern Hemisphere, necessarily (although there are some great grapes grown there), but the southern side of European countries, if that's where you're buying wines from.

"When it comes to European wines, some of the best values that you can find are in the southern areas of France, Italy, and Spain. One of the best values you can find that is also the benchmark region for Rosé wine is Provence in southern France — everyone else is trying to make a similar style," says Jon McDaniel, a sommelier and the founder of Second City Soil in Chicago who was named one of Food & Wine's 2018 Sommeliers of the Year. "The white wines of southern Italy, especially in Campania are bright, fresh, and incredible values. And southern Spain, particularly Jumilla where Monastrell is king, is a wonderful region for big, bold red wines."

3. Seek out lesser-known wine regions.

Take note of these slightly under-the-radar regions for deals, Royers suggests.

  • If you like a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, consider an Italian Super Tuscan.
  • Rather than a Châteauneuf-du-Pape red, try a similar-tasting red blend from the Languedoc Roussillon region of France.
  • As a swap for Champagne, snag some Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, or a sparkling wine from South Africa.
  • Instead of a French Burgundy, sip on a Pinot Noir from Oregon.

"Overall, some of the best inexpensive white wines in the world can be found from the Loire Valley in France, Alsace bordering Germany and Switzerland, the Finger Lakes of New York, and the Rias Baixas or Rueda regions in Spain. Some of the best inexpensive red wines can be found in Paso Robles or Lodi in California, all of Washington, the Maipo Valley in Chile, or in the Rioja or Ribera del Duero in Spain," Royers adds.

4. Know your importer and producer.

Once you find a wine that you like, flip the bottle around and look for a sticker that lists the importer. The producer should be named on the label, too.

"Most importers have a particular style and focus, and once you find something that you like, odds are you can trust your next bottle of wine," McDaniel says. Producers tend to stick to a kindred theme within their wine family.

Try it: Find your favorite bottle now, and flip it over to look for the importer sticker and producer.

5. Don't judge a bottle by its label or closure.

Sometimes the bottles that have cute names, shiny labels, or super-fancy wax toppers over the cork are just pretty look at, not to taste, Royers says.

"Take a peek at the back label and see who the real producer is. Try to find something that has an actual appellation or wine region listed, such as Santa Barbara County instead of 'California.' Do so and you'll often get better fruit and a higher quality wine."

Also, note that a screw cap doesn't necessarily mean a wine is "cheap" or poorly produced. A lot of winemakers are moving to this since these closures are resistant to a form of spoilage called "cork taint" that only impacts bottles with a cork. If it helps you rest (or drink) easier, Royers says that most Australian wines do this already — even the bottles that cost over $100.

6. Visit a specialized wine shop.

You'll greatly up your wine game if you skip supermarket or warehouse stores and shop at stores that focus on spirits alone, Cohen advises.

"Mass-produced grocery store glugs, generally what you'll find at major retailers listed under $15, tend to taste the same. It's a sea of unremarkable juice. With that same budget at a wine shop, you can find honest, regional wine that is interesting and exciting. Perhaps a Portuguese or Spanish wine you've never had," she says.

Try it: Swing by your local shop and talk to the staff about what you've loved before and what you should try next.

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