How to buy and serve cheap wine that tastes great

wine bottles at a party Photo by Tobin C/Shutterstock

Although wine aficionados might protest, data shows that what tends to influence how much we like a wine isn’t our tastebuds: it’s the price tag. We’re hardwired to think that just because a wine’s expensive, it’s automatically better.

Fortunately, awareness of this “marketing placebo effect” is the first step to realizing the truth: there are great wines at all price points. And at this time of year when we’re giving hostess gifts and entertaining more than usual, isn’t it nice to know that you can impress your guests with a bottle that won’t break the bank? Here’s how to keep your budget under control and still enjoy a nice glass of wine.

Don’t be fooled by the screw cap

How a bottle is sealed isn’t an indication of quality one way or the other and proponents of screw caps would point out that the wine inside isn’t vulnerable to cork taint or leaking. New Zealand and Australia have been leading the way in screw top use, and both countries have a wide variety of delicious, inexpensive wines. (Hello, wonderful Shiraz!) And while we’re on the subject of packaging, decent wine comes in tetra packs, too. The smaller ones are perfect for solo sampling when you don’t want to open a whole bottle for yourself.

Don’t pick wines that need to be aged

These include Cabernet Sauvignon, Amarone or Barolo. These tend to be higher priced for a reason and if they aren‘t, the likelihood is that you could probably find something for the same price that tastes better. Go for a wine that’s meant to be consumed young, like Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris.  

Go for something a little off the beaten path

A vinho verde from Portgual, for example (a light, slightly sparkling white wine), or a full-bodied Nero d’Avola from Sicily are both nice, unusual choices with reasonable price tags. Choosing wines from regions that are still up-and-coming in winemaking will also help ease the strain on your pocketbook: think Argentina, Chile, southern Italy and Portugal before you reach for the pricey bottle of standard French stuff.

Don’t get hung up on Champagne

A celebration isn’t complete without something bubbly, but instead of that ridiculously expensive bottle of Dom, try prosecco from Italy or Cava from Spain: both will give you the celebratory bubbles without the potentially bank-breaking price tag. Incidentally, here’s how to open a bottle of sparkling wine without soaking your walls and carpet in a geyser of bubbly or taking someone’s eye out. (And really, who wants to waste all that sparkly goodness?)

Look for quality certification

In Ontario and BC, the Vintners Quality Alliance sets quality and location standards for wines that carry the VQA designation, indicating that the wine has been produced in a specific region in Ontario according to a strict quality assurance program. Similar designations exist for wines from other areas and countries, the best known being the AOC designation in France. This isn’t to say that wines without a similar designation won’t be enjoyable, or that you’ll enjoy all designated wines, but you’re probably more likely to find one that’s a decent quality at a lower price point if you stick to designated ones.   

If you’re serving a red, give it some air

Yes, this actually makes a difference. Don’t just take the cork out of the bottle, though, actually decanting the wine aerates it, which can help improve the character, especially with young wines. If you don’t have time to let the wine sit for 30-60 minutes, experts recommend pouring the wine back and forth from decanter to bottle several times (use a funnel!) to fully aerate it. Don’t want to fuss with a funnel? Pour your wine into a blender and whiz it for 30 seconds. Seriously, this will aerate it sufficiently and make a cheap wine taste better. DON’T do this with a more expensive wine. Some aren’t meant to be aerated (especially not in a blender), and you’ll spoil the wine by giving it too much air.

Pay attention to food pairings

The old “red wine with meat, white wine with fish and chicken” is pretty outdated, but that doesn’t mean food pairing isn’t important. The food you serve can make your wine taste divine, or dreadful. For example, a chardonnay or riesling/gewürtztraminer blend will go beautifully with brie, but will taste terrible with chocolate (pick port instead) no matter how expensive the wine is. A big-bodied red won’t pair nicely with Thai food (go with a riesling), but will complement a spicy grilled steak wonderfully.

Improve a super cheap-tasting wine with a tiny bit of salt

If you’ve got a wine that’s just not doing it for you, taste-wise, try this as a last resort: add a few grains of salt. This tip comes from none other than Nathan Myhrvold, the author of the multi-volume encyclopedia and guide to contemporary cooking, Modernist Cuisine. Hey, if it’s wine you probably wouldn’t otherwise drink, it’s worth a try. Just go slowly, and add a tiny bit of salt at a time. You may be surprised…


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