The secret to finding good cheap wine is to accept the fact that wine changes every year and great buys transition from region to region depending on the quality of the vintage. In good years, all the wines taste great and in bad years, cheap wines will suffer.
If you’re a lover of new world wines, the last 3 vintages (2015, 2014, 2013) offer excellent value. Here is a summary of great places to look for the best cheap red wines (in the new world). Looking ahead, you’ll find that the 2015 vintage was awesome in Europe (France, Spain, Portugal, Italy), so if you’re an old world wine lover, keep your eyes peeled for 2015 vintage red wines.
The Best Cheap Red Wines? (2016 Edition)
Since 2012, the Australian dollar has been very strong and, because of this, prices for Aussie and Kiwi wines have been high. Since mid-2015 however, the value of the AUD has gone back down, and to make things more exciting, now there are 3 great vintages at play. There are many commercial vineyards in Australia including Riverina, Murray Darling and Riverland so, if you spot wines from Barossa, Coonawarra, Yarra Valley, and Hunter Valley, you’re likely to get higher quality.
- What to Look For: Shiraz, GSM Blends, Cabernet Sauvignon (South Australia and NSW) and Pinot Noir (Victoria)
- Vintages: 2015 (ripe and soft), 2014 (elegant), 2013 (ripe and rich)
Finding great cheap wines start with the realization that in order to produce affordable wine, producers must make them on a massive scale. For this reason, learn about the large producers in each region and try to ignore white label wines.
Every year since the challenging 2011 vintage, Washington State has kicked ass for red wine. The state has grown massively since 2010 and we’ll see more Washington wines because several large producers now dominate wine production in the state (including Gallo, Chateau St. Michelle, and Precept Wine). Not to burst your bubble, but you should know that if you’re buying wine on the cheap, you’re almost always buying a brand from a large commercial winery, so get to know them and choose wisely.
- What to look for: Bordeaux-style Blends, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (if you’re lucky), Rosé
- Vintages: 2015 (ripe, somewhat tannic), 2014 (great, ripe), 2013 (good for Syrah)
Non-Vintage (NV) wines. We’re seeing more and more US bargain wines blending vintages together to make a more consistent product year in and out. Because the last 3 vintages were so solid, many NV wines will offer good value, but be sure to seek out quality producers and not white label wines.
California is suffering an ongoing drought, with one of the worst years on record in 2014. So expect intense, concentrated, ripe red wines. There are a few dry farmed producers making exceptional wines across the state, but you really can’t get into these for under $15 a bottle. As a general rule, try to seek out wines from the overarching AVA’s of Central Coast, Sierra Foothills and North Coast for better quality.
- What to look for: Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah
- Vintages: 2015 (ripe, tannic), 2014 (concentrated small harvest), 2013 (good for Cab, Merlot and Pinot)
As Chile continues to figure itself out (dictatorship ended only 5 presidents ago) we’re going to see more quality wine from more independent producers coming out of Chile. In the meantime, there are 7 major producers (Concha y Toro, San Pedro, Montes, Emiliana, Veramonte, Lapostolle and Santa Rita) that control the vast majority of Chilean wine in the US market. So, definitely if you’re buying value wine, it will almost certainly be from one of these wineries. Get to know them, familiarize yourself with their visions, and choose wisely.
- What to look for: Bordeaux-style Blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère
- Vintages: 2015 (fruit bomb), 2014 (great), 2013 (great)
TIP: Chile is the largest importer of bulk wine into the US.
Argentina has had some pretty mediocre vintages in 2015 and 2014, so if you’re a Malbec-lover start buying up all the 2013 you can find. If you can’t NOT buy Argentina, plan to spend a little bit more for quality producers and their higher end Reserva offerings; these will be great.
- What to look for: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah
- Vintages: 2013
Last Word: On Buying Closeouts
Another way to find great cheap wines is to pay attention to the wine closeout market. Daily deal sites like Cinderella Wine and WinesTillSoldOut drop blowout wines from past vintages for huge savings (but even with big mark downs, most will still be above $20). If I was looking for closeouts in 2016, I’d be looking for 2010 vintage from France and Italy, and 2013 from New World regions. These wines will be perfectly aged and drink well right now. Be sure to pick up a few bottles in case one is corked from improper storage.
- 2010: Italy, France
- 2013: Argentina, Australia, California, Portugal
- 2012: US, Australia, Chile