Six Simple Tips for Buying Great Affordable Wine
On a budget? Not wanting it to get in the way of a great wine and food pairing? Help is on the way. I was able to convince award winning wine consultant Brad Haskel, of London Lennies restaurant in Queens, New York to share some of his inside industry knowledge. He's also included four of his favorite bargain wine recommendations. Extra bonus? Three of them are under fifteen bucks. Read on.
Shopping for good wine without background knowledge can be intimidating. Everybody wants great flavor and good value, but where do you start? Wandering through the aisles of my friendly wine and spirits store with that “deer in a headlight” look has been my approach in the past. I don't recommend it however, particularly in this economy. Dishing out for a special dinner or dessert wine when pennies are dear can feel like a major investment, and nobody wants to feel let down by an uninformed choice. Here are six simple points of info from Brad himself, followed by four insider recommendations for affordable wine selections.
Search out those hidden gems.
Look for wines from lesser known regions like Argentina, Austria, Greece, South Africa, Israel and Long Island. The world of wine is packed with terrific offerings that are sold at great prices. Some of the best values are not from the uber trendy regions, but the countries and regions that focus on sustainability over commercial wine production. Undiscovered regions produce some of the world’s best wines, inflated price tag not included.
I can personally attest to this one. When we got back to the States from Italy, I discovered Trader Joe's (and their wine selection) for the first time. Cruising one day for a bargain red to take home for pasta night (a Wednesday tradition at our house), I blindly picked up an interesting looking bottle from Chile. Not only did we love it, but it tasted almost identical to a red we remembered getting from one of the wineries in Northern Italy along Lake Garda, where we used to live. When I mentioned this to a friend of ours who knows somewhat more about wine than we do, I was told it was because a fair amount of people from that region of Italy had transplanted themselves to Chile for one reason or another. Who knew? While affordable in Italy, the extra price added by importing them put several of them out of our budget once we were stateside. Needless to say that once I found out I could get some of the fantastic wines I had grown to love at a bargain price by switching country origins without losing quality, I was SO in!
Trick of the Trade?
Read the back label. Wine importers are often listed on the back labels of wine bottles. So seeking out the ones you trust is one simple trick that even the professionals use to make smart selections. Some of the more popular importers that offer great wines at bargain prices are Robert Kacher Selections, Winebow, Kermit Lynch, Michael Skurnik, Terry Theise and Polaner. (Thanks for the importer tips, Brad!)
Know your wine type.
Do some research on your personal tastes. Do you like oaked or unoaked wines? Do you prefer full or medium bodied wines? Do you enjoy off-dry or dry wines? These simple indicators will help your sommelier and/or wine retailer identify great value wines that will suit your tastes and your wallet.
Keep it in the Family.
For many great wine producers, wine making is the family business. Expertise and traditions are passed down for generations, so following a wine producer’s “family tree”, particularly for the new or special labels, is one way to find great value wines that are created in a style that you trust. Bill Arbios, wine maker for Lyeth Vineyards in Sonoma County, is an excellent example. After many years with Lyeth, Bill has branched out with his wife to create two smaller labels: Arbios and Praxis. His knowledge of the Sonoma region and his relationship with superior growers make it a likely bet that his new wines will be as good as his old, only sold for a fraction of the price.
Host a blind tasting featuring wines from a single region. Lining up wines from a specific region, without regard to price, can be an eye opening exercise. Oftentimes, high prices are more an indicator of a winery’s real estate value than the quality of the wine it produces. It pays to explore the wide array of styles and producers that a region has to offer, rather than simply chasing the big names. You are more likely to find your perfect match.
Speaking for myself, I think this would be a fun thing to do with other couples who were interested in possibly starting to stock their own cellar or personal collection. To keep costs down, have everybody kick in a particular portion of the overall exploratory budget. Then, shop together for a variety of wines and prices. Cover the labels during the tasting and take notes on everyone's reaction. Have the “big reveal” when all have been taste-tested, and make note of which popular wines were also super affordable. That's where everyone can put greater amounts of wine shopping money for their own collection.
Grape Gurus Know Best.
Restaurants and retailers that specialize in boutique producers are your best resource for value wine suggestions. Boutique wineries offer some of the best value/quality ratios out there, but these wines are often limited and hard to find. Boutique-savvy wine retailers are never short on suggestions of new wines to try. Simply have a producer, style or region that you like in mind and let the experts pair you with your perfect wine.
- Giesen "Estate" Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (Marlborough, New Zealand) SRP: $13.49 According to Haskel, this is not your typical “grapefruit-in-your-face” Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. It is subtle and balanced, with a price to match its savory sensibility.
- Sakonnet Vidal Blanc 2007 (Little Compton, Rhode Island) SRP: $10.99 Brad describes this one as an oddball wine that most would not think to try. It's his opinion however, that this wine serves as a great value alternative to pricier Reislings. It is a balanced, aromatic white wine that pairs perfectly with an array of holiday treats. And the price? A treat in itself.
- Corte Rugolin Valpolicella 2006 (Veneto, Italy) SRP: $10.32 Italy’s Veneto region has been producing wine for centuries, but its wines do not carry the same hefty price tags as its commercial neighbors in Tuscany and Piedmont. This light, spicy red does the job without draining your wallet.
- Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2005 (Southern Rhone Valley, France) SRP: $25 The Perrin family is famous for their classic Chateauneuf du Pape wines, their Chateau de Beaucastel label, in particular. These wines are often priced over $100 a bottle, but a bit of insider knowledge will lead savvy spenders to a similarly superior wine that can be found right across the street at Coudoulet de Beaucastel. This vineyard is located just outside of the famed Chateauneuf du Pape appellation, and so it cannot command as high a price for its wines as Chateau de Beaucastel, which is located within the appellation itself. Both are owned by Perrin family, however, so you can be confident that you’ll enjoy every drop of this wine’s soft, cherry flavor, at over a 75% savings. Score!
Does this guy rock, or what? Insider tips and affordable recommendations in time for the holidays! Here's hoping I didn't wear out my wine newbie welcome, as I'm dying to pick his brain about some pairing ideas for future foodie posts. Let's keep our fingers crossed, Wise Bread readers. On a related note, wine lovers new to the menu planning game might want to check out this piece on wine pairings for virtually any menu.