How a Pro Picks Out an Inexpensive Bottle of Wine

Seven gotta-knows for the everyday vino drinker

By Nora O'Malley

How to Buy Inexpensive Wine Like a Pro
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26 April 2016

Unless you’re really lucky (read: thick of wallet), odds are you aren’t enjoying a bottle of Château Margaux every night of the week.

The same holds true for wine professionals. While they love to drink and explore — and regularly — their budgets don't usually allow them to drink like kings on the daily.

Ergo: the very good, very cheap bottle of wine.

If finding the perfect bottle of wine without making your credit card weep has become your White Whale, then follow these tips to avoid duds and shop like a seasoned bet.

Shop Small
The first rule of thumb is head to the smallest local wine shop you can find. Most of the time, (good) small shops won’t risk carrying a sub-par wine, regardless of how cheap it is. It will be much harder to sift through the weeds at a larger wine retailer.

Get Cooking
Once you’ve found your dream wine shop, use the staff for help. Start off with this one magic question, “Can you show me a wine to cook with that I can also drink?” Those “cooking + drinkable” wines are generally under $12 and aren’t necessarily something you’d serve to the Queen of England, but are perfectly respectable to sip while you stir. And pro tip: you don’t actually have to cook something to use this line.

Stay Young
Older wines take more care and are often aged in oak, both of which you’ll pay for at the register. Look for something fresh and young, about 1-3 years off the vine. Good winemakers take pride in their entry-level wines, and just because it’s young doesn’t mean it isn’t drinkable.

Screw Corks
Not really, but kind of. Corks cost money and when you’re talking cheap wine, that quickly becomes a higher percentage of what you’re paying for. Don’t shy away from wine under screw tops: they often cost less and are arguably a better way to keep wine fresh.

Pay Attention to Real Estate
A good rule of thumb is to avoid any “last call” bins on the floor, and stay away from any sales that seem like an insane steal. Most stores, however, will have an “Under $15” table, and that’s not to be ignored. Those are usually well-priced staff favorites and should all be very safe bets.

Get Nice with Portugal
Portugal has the winemaking history and tradition of the Old World without the notoriety, which equals incredible wine for way lower prices than anything you’d find from next-door neighbor Spain. There are a lot of winemaking regions like this in Europe and the U.S., and they’re always more reasonably priced than the more well-known regions. Plus, it’s a great way to discover new wines before any of your friends.

Be Smart About Bubbles
Sure, when a celebration or glass of orange juice rolls around, there’s nothing better than a little bub, but you need to be smart before you pop any bottles. Sparkling wine is an easy place to hide extra sugar and other stuff you don’t want to drink, much less pay for. Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco are generally safe bets for the lower price points.

Besides her extensive writing background, Nora O’Malley is a certified Sommelier and spent years as a manager of New York’s ABC Wine Company. She also opened Lois, an all-tap wine bar.

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