When you tell someone that you write about wine for a living, the first question they ask is: Are you drunk, like, all the time? (Answer: Of course, because that makes for the best copyediting.) The second question they always ask is: What are the best wines you can buy on a budget? Do you have a secret to finding good wine deals? The answer isn't always exactly what they want to hear.
While there are certainly still some steals to be found in the world of wine, randomly choosing bottles for $10 or less is likely going to result in disappointment. While you might happen upon a few cheap wines that outperform the price, too many are heavy and sweet or oddly bitter, with an edge of straight ethanol or an aftertaste of nail polish remover.
At under $10, it's a case of getting what you pay for...or, more accurately, not getting what you're not paying for. Grapes cost money, land costs money, labor costs money, winemaking equipment costs money, bottles and corks or caps cost money, shipping and distribution costs money, and marketing costs money. If those last three—the package, the shipping (and any taxes or import fees), and the marketing—add up to, say, $6.99 per bottle, and your bottle cost you $7.50, that doesn't leave a ton of extra cash for quality grapes grown in quality land, pruned and picked and sorted by hand.
Choosing to spend a little more on wine is a bit like choosing to spend a little more on, say, handmade country loaves from the best baker in your town instead of buying the bagged, pre-sliced stuff. Personally, I'd rather have something delicious—even if I can't afford to have it quite as often. But if you can kick your budget up to $15 or so per bottle, you can start drinking quite well if you shop wisely.
Are there any tricks to choosing the best not-too-pricey bottles? Sure:
- Taste as much wine as you can. Get a sense of regions and grapes you like, so you can stock up on favorites and communicate with shopkeepers about what you're looking for.
- Be adventurous: Retailers can mark up familiar brands; plenty of folks will still buy those bottles. But a cheaper price can help sell hard-to-pronounce grapes like Blaufränkisch, so you may find good deals among the shelves stocked with wines from lesser-known grapes and regions.
- Find a good store—one with friendly, knowledgeable staff—and try our wine-shopping tricks.
- Take this list with you. Your shopkeeper might not have the exact same bottles, but they might have something similar.
- Skip the oak: In many cases, oak barrels drive up the price of wine. Unless you're really craving toasty flavors, consider an unoaked wine.
- Buy a mixed case: If you have space to store wine safely, buy a 12-pack of assorted wines at a store you trust. You'll often get at least a 10% discount for buying in bulk, and then you won't be caught buying wine last-minute at the pricey corner store. Considering stocking up your wine fridge? Here's our recommended plan of attack.
- Peek online: sites like Winesearcher can give you a preview of what's in your local shop, or the opportunity to purchase online (if your state allows shipping.)
Ready to get down to the nitty-gritty? We tasted dozens of wines under $20 over the past few months in order to select favorites for our updated Serious Eats Budget Wine Hall of Fame. Here are 24 bottles—two full cases—that we love, plus tips for food to serve alongside them.
Best White Wines Under $20
Muscadet can often offer terrific value, and we consider it a summer essential: always refreshing, always delicious, always encouraging you to order another round of oysters. We always buy the excellent wines from Domaine de la Pépière, Luneau-Papin, and Domaine de L'Écu. But we recently stumbled upon another good deal: Domaine Vinet Domaine de la Quilla 2012 Muscadet Sevre & Maine, which sells for under 13 bucks. It's a vibrant, zingy white that pops with fresh seafood and summer salads.
Picpoul is another go-to when it comes to easy-drinking budget-friendly wines for hot weather days. If you like Sauvignon Blanc and Vinho Verde, this grape should be on your shopping list. Chateau Font-Mars Picpoul de Pinet ($12) is as tart as the lime in your seltzer: refreshing, light, and tangy. It's perfect summer party wine and even better summer-party-on-a-boat wine.
Looking for affordable Chardonnay? For $12 it's hard to do better than Charles Smith Wines 'Eve' 2012 Chardonnay. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in neutral French oak, this tangy Chardonnay from a cooler vintage in Washington's Columbia Valley tastes like tart apples and lemon curd, without any of the wood-chip flavors that tend to mask the fruit in many affordable Chardonnays. Drink it with fish tacos.
If you're curious about white Burgundy but not ready to empty your wallet, start with Henri Perrusset 2012 Macon-Villages ($18). Seductively scented with honeysuckle and smoke, this wine seriously over-delivers for the price. Intense lemony fruit and a texture that weaves creamy silkiness with licking-limestone minerality: this is your roast chicken wine, your lobster roll wine, and your 'impress the guests' wine. We adore it.
For food-friendly wine, it's hard to beat Riesling, and Zum 2012 Mosel Riesling is a steal around $12. It's fruity and off-dry but not heavy, with a shimmer of the fennel flavor you look for in Mosel riesling and a nice tartness that keeps you ducking back into your glass. Keep this on hand for serving with Chinese dishes that have a touch of sweetness.
If you start getting really into Riesling, you'll find many more quality wines around $20. We can never seem to have enough of Peter Lauer 2012 Barrel X Riesling ($20) around the house: we just keep drinking it all. This gorgeous wine offers bright, tangy acidity, lovely fennel flavors, and a bit of the licking-rocks character that makes wine geeks go gaga over this grape. It's lip-smackingly delicious and just off-dry, awesome with a cheese and charcuterie plate or pretty much any food you throw at it.
We head to Northeastern Italy for Elena Walch 2012 Pinot Bianco ($16), a tangy, mineral white wine that's ideal for sipping as a starter with or a cool seafood salad or through a meal of pasta with herbs and steamed clams. The wine is made without oak, but has quite a bit of richness from resting with the spent yeast.
All too often, Sauvignon Blanc under $20 can be acidic to the point of harshness, but Domaine des Cabotières 2012 Touraine Sauvignon Blanc ($17) is an easy-drinker, balancing tangy lime character with limestoney minerality and a soft, almost creamy texture. This is your oyster wine.
Like your Sauvignon Blanc with a little more tangy power? I have another for you: Domaine des Corbillières 2012 Touraine Sauvignon ($16). This one has a focused punch of tart fruit. Think of it as the citrus you squeeze on your fish tacos or fried calamari, and you'll know just how to pair this Sauvignon Blanc.
We love Chenin Blanc from the Loire valley, and we're finding more and more delicious homegrown options. We were thrilled to hear about Portland, OR's Division Winemaking's new lineup of sub-$20 table wines. Their Division-Villages L'Isle Verte 2013 Chenin Blanc ($17) from the Yakima Valley in Washington state really delivers. It's juicy and fresh, with enough richness to pair with chicken or pork, a wallop of puckering tartness, and a fantastic clarity and minerality that'll please lovers of Vouvray. This is a great candidate for your house white: it's food friendly and refreshing, fun, a little unusual, and totally tasty.
Best Rosé Under $20
If you're looking for a crowd-pleasing pale pink rosé to pair with a well-made lobster roll, this is the one: Chateau du Rouët 2013 Reservée Tradition Rosé ($14). It's soft and delicate, made of a blend of Grenache and Syrah in Provence and sold in an hourglass shaped bottle. (You could also serve it with a plate of prosciutto or shrimp salad.)
Mas Carlot 2013 Cuvée Tradition Rosé ($14) is a deeper rosy color, and it pops with deliciously tart fresh strawberry flavor. Made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre in the Rhone Valley near the city of Nîmes, this tangy wine can handle grilled salmon or bratwurst, herb-rubbed pork chops, or a BLT.
Pineau d'Aunis often reminds us of tangy pink grapefruit and cracked black peppercorns: it tends to appeal to those with adventurous taste. Both of those characteristics shine in rosé form in this Loire bottling: Domaine Courtault-Tardieux 2012 Touraine Pineau d'Aunis ($13) is bright and tart. Its juicy side is balanced by an herbal punch; this is the stuff to pair with lavender-and-rosemary rubbed pork or a thyme-laced fish preparation. Or go with a cheese plate that includes goat cheese and some aged options.
Best Red Wines Under $20
Sometimes you want a wine that you know everyone will like, and Tire Pé Diem 2012 ($14) is just that, and organically grown to boot. This easy-drinking Merlot from Bordeaux is hand-harvested and aged in concrete tanks. It has everything you need in a house red: crowd-pleasing rich fruit, just enough acidity to stay balanced, and no oak to stand in the way. Stock up for family dinners: it'll go with grilled burgers or pork chops, Italian sausage or meat loaf. This'll work at Thanksgiving with turkey and stuffing, in case you still have some around come fall.
Quite a few of our favorite budget wines these days hail from Italy. We can't get enough of Santa Tresa 2011 Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG ($12), a Sicilian wine made with a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato. It's packed full of dark pie-cherry fruit, juicy and round and easy-drinking, with a touch of violets and cocoa for interest. At dinner parties, we love to serve this juicy wine slightly chilled.
Another Italian favorite: Grifalco 'Gricos' Aglianico del Vulture ($15), from the volcanic soils of Basilicata (a Southern spot around the arch of Italy's boot). With flavors of smoke and charred meat, this wine is totally ready for your grill, offering spicy rosemary and violets to complement your grilled lamb chops or steak, with plenty of tannin and acid to cut through the richness.
We recently traveled in Piedmont, land of lauded Barbaresco and Barolo. But we'll let you in on a little secret: to be honest, the most delicious wines to drink at restaurants there were the entry-level Nebbiolos; the lighter, simpler table wines that aren't dressed up in lots of fancy (read: expensive) barrel-aging. Case in point: Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo is a wine we buy year after year for around $20. This 100% Nebbiolo, mostly made from grapes grown on younger vines, is fermented in stainless steel and aged for six months in huge casks. It's a little rustic, but it shows off Nebbiolo's pretty herbal and dried-cherry side, with a lovely wash of eucalyptus. (Pour it in a decanter or pitcher 30 minutes before dinner for best results.)
But of course we're drinking domestic wines, too. Tendu Red ($20-21 for 1L), produced by star winemaker Steve Matthiasson, shows off how beautifully Italian grapes can perform in California. Early-harvested Aglianico, Montepulciano, and Barbera are fermented in stainless steel, aged in neutral barrels, and bottled without filtration or sulfur. The alcohol level is just 12.5 % ABV, and the wine ends up fruity and fresh, like tart cranberries with a touch of star anise. All that freshness makes it food-friendly, whether you're eating sliders or tacos or pizza on the grill. This wine comes in a liter bottle, so you get a third more wine in a party-friendly package.
Luke Bass of Russian River's acclaimed Porter-Bass says he's making his table wines, called Poco a Poco, using "the best affordable organic grapes I can find." He doesn't add commercial yeast or filter the wines, and ages them in used oak barrels. Seek out the Poco a Poco 2012 Russian River Zinfandel ($18) which is delightfully peppery and juicy with refreshingly tart acidity. It's perfect for drinking with pre-dinner olives or a spice-rubbed lamb chop..
If we had to pick just one, we'd crown Division-Villages 2013 Methode Carbonique Pinot Noir ($19) as the truly perfect summer red. It's the juicy, fresh wine you want to drink with hamburgers on the grill. It reminds us of just-picked raspberries, and it's a great one to stick in the fridge for a bit before serving, which will emphasize its brightness and help keep everyone cool.
Best Sparkling Wine Under $20
We'll splurge for Champagne without too much of an excuse, but it's always fun to find sparkling wine that doesn't cause a sigh at the cash register. Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut ($14) is just the thing to make a weeknight gathering feel special. It'll zing you with green-apple tartness backed up by a hint of marzipan: pair it with fried chicken and you'll wish you had a second bottle around.
Sommariva Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut ($14) is delicate and floral, reminiscent of white peaches, white tea, and a splash of elderflower cordial, but with enough brightness and acidity to keep things fresh. Serve this fragrant wine with a cheese plate, before or after dinner, or go for the egg rolls and a few glasses of this stuff.
Martin Soler Rosé Brut Cava ($16) This isn't a pale pink wallflower: it's magenta hued and crammed full of flavor, like a cup full of sorbet made from perfectly ripe strawberries. It's fun, delicious stuff that's just as comfortable with a fancy salmon feast or sipped in front of the TV with Thai delivery. The wine is produced from 100% Trepat grapes, a red-skinned variety that's mostly grown in Northeast Spain. It goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle (like Champagne) and is aged 15 months.
Antech Emotion Crémant de Limoux 2010 ($15) has a cheesy name, but it's serious wine: one of the best affordable sparklers we know. It's a pale pink blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with a bit of Mauzac and Pinot Noir, with fine, delicate bubbles produced by the traditional Champagne method. The wine is all about juicy cranberry and tart lemon flavors. Pour it with goat cheeses or pretty much any sort of seafood.
Note: Wines provided as tasting samples for review consideration with the exception of Domaine Courtault-Tardieux Pineau d'Aunis, Tire Pé Diem, and Grifalco 'Gricos' Aglianico del Vulture.