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How to Spot a Good, Cheap Bottle of Wine

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Woman looking at wines
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Finding a bottle of wine that is inexpensive but still tastes good can be a difficult task — unless you know what to look for. While it may be tempting to reach for the cheapest bottle on the shelf or the one on sale in the bargain bin, you may wind up with a mass-produced, cheap wine that not only tastes terrible but also contains additives like the controversial "Mega Purple." So whether you're looking for a quality, inexpensive red or a delicious yet affordable white, here are some helpful tips on how to spot a good, cheap bottle of wine. (Wondering what’s available near you? Check out these Great Wines Under $20 from Every State.)

Read the Label With a Critical Eye

Read the label with a critical eye.

Deciphering a wine label can sometimes be a challenge, as flowery marketing language can distract from the information that actually tells you what's in the bottle. "Wineries will put information on the back to try and help you," says Allison Levine, owner of Please the Palate, a boutique agency specializing in marketing and events for the wine and spirits industry. "Take it for what it's worth. Not the ones that are waxing poetic — you can look at what they're telling you to pair it with or how to describe it — but I personally like the labels that give you a little more information about either where the vineyards are or the winemaker's process. I like that transparency."

Know Which Location to Look for on the Label

Know which location to look for on the label.

It can be more confusing to determine where the wine comes from than you might think. Levine recommends identifying where the grapes were actually grown, rather than the location of the winery where the wine was produced. "On the back label, it could say that the winery is in Sonoma, but on the front, it could say 'California,'" which means the grapes may have come from different parts of the state besides Sonoma Valley.

Related: 21 Affordable Wine Clubs That Will Satisfy Even the Snobs

Get as Specific as Possible With Where the Wine Comes From

Get as specific as possible about the wine's origin.

Even with less expensive wines, terroir — a specific region's soil, climate, and terrain — plays a huge role in the taste and quality of the wine you choose. Look for bottles that tell you more than just the country or state of origin; try to find ones that specify a particular geographic region. For instance, with wines that are labeled "Napa," at least 85% of the grapes must come from that region by federal law, so you get a better sense of the quality of wine than you would from a bottle labeled "California." If you can find a particular area known for great wine, like the Spring Mountain District in the Napa Valley, that's even more useful, and better still is if the label identifies the specific vineyard. "When I'm looking for a value wine, I'm still looking for a more specific place so that I can find the terroir," Levine says. "I want to be able to taste the place that it's from. I'm not looking for generic, cheap wines."

Don't Get Stuck Looking At Expensive Wine Regions

Don't get stuck on expensive wine regions.

If you're looking mostly at some of the more coveted, big-name wine regions like California's Napa Valley or Bordeaux, France, you're typically going to run into pricier bottles. Consider expanding your horizons beyond the most popular regions and you're bound to discover some incredible wines for less. "The key is always looking for quality and value, though there are some challenges to that," Levine says. "Domestically, with the cost of grapes and the cost of land, it's hard to keep wines at lower price points. So if there are particular regions of wine that you want, you may have to accept that you're not going to find value wines from it."

Related: Why Americans Drink More Wine Than Any Other Country

Get to Know Wines From Lesser Known Regions
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Get to know wines from lesser-known regions.

You can find excellent, inexpensive wines from regions that aren't as high-profile as the big names. Plus, you're likely to impress everyone at your next dinner party with your extensive wine knowledge. It may just take a bit of homework to familiarize yourself with the alternatives. "In France, look at wines from the Loire Valley or the Languedoc," Levine says. "There are some great values coming from Spain, Chile, New Zealand — all have some great-priced wines, and the quality is amazing. And domestically, I think that Santa Barbara offers great value for quality. You can find some exquisite pinot noirs for $35 that if perhaps they were from another region of more notoriety, it would be harder to find that." She cites California's Lodi region as another that offers really good value.

Consider Alternative Regions for Your Favorites
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Consider alternative regions for your favorites.

If you have a favorite grape variety, such as merlot, chardonnay, or cabernet sauvignon, look for regions that grow those grapes where the wines aren't typically as pricey. "If you want cabernet, stay away from Napa and probably look for cabernets from Italy, Chile, Australia, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles," Levine says. "I would look for other regions that aren't as popular."

Broaden the Scope of Your Search

Broaden the scope of your search.

In addition to looking for alternative regions, sometimes you can find less expensive, world-renowned wines by broadening your scope even to the surrounding region. "If you are a fan of Barolos and Barbarescos, which are pricey wines and need time to age, they're made from the nebbiolo grape, and if you find Langhe nebbiolo — Langhe is the larger region Barolo and Barbaresco are the towns, so if you get Langhe nebbiolo, you can save a ton of money," Levine says. "And a lot of times, they're more ready to drink; they don't necessarily need 10 or 20 years of aging."

Get to Know the Ideal Production Areas for Wines You Like

Get to know ideal production areas for wines you like.

Getting to know the ideal growing conditions and regions for the grape varieties you enjoy will help you find wines from areas that may be underrated and less expensive but still great growing regions for that variety. "In coastal regions, you can get a great Mediterranean climate, great wind blowing through, granite soils, and the proximity to the ocean means that it's the perfect climate for grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir," Levine says for example. "You don't want to know that they're growing pinot noir in Lodi or Paso Robles, because they're hotter areas; that's where grapes like cabernet and syrah can really ripen." She notes that some wine producers put little maps or geographic details on their labels, which can serve as helpful indicators.

Don't Shy Away From Organic Wines

Don't shy away from organic wines.

Many people often assume that when a producer puts an "organic" label on wine (or food), the price will automatically jump up — but organic wines are not necessarily more expensive these days. "More and more that's not the case," Levine says. "When I'm talking to producers who are really passionate about organic or sustainable production, it's a philosophy, not a marketing ploy. And while it is costly — it's a lot cheaper to use a bunch of pesticides — when you're talking to the producers, it's their passion."

Look for Less Expensive Labels From Notable Producers

Look for less expensive labels from notable producers.

Oftentimes, bigger winemakers offer products with a wide range of prices, which means you can typically find a great, affordable option from a producer known for making quality wines. Levine gives the example of Chilean winemaker Veramonte. "More than 500 hectares of their vineyards are certified organic and growing. So, even with an inexpensive wine, it's still falling under the same practices as their higher-end wines," she says. "So the Veramonte Chardonnay 2017 is only $12 and has great tropical fruits and citrus notes. It's crisp; it's got bright acidity; it's mouthwatering. And the note I made was, 'Ridiculously good for the price' — we were all blown away that it could be that good."

Get to Know the Value of Different Types of Wine

Get to know the value of different types of wine.

"If you know you like one wine — say, a pinot noir — and drink it a lot, you get familiar with what price points are reasonable," Levine says. "So if you see a lot of wines for $30 to $50, then you see one for $12, you might hesitate. If you see one for $100, you'll say, 'Hey, I know I can get a better price than that." She advises getting to know the price ranges for different varieties as they can vary depending on what you're looking for. "A value pinot noir might be a $25 pinot noir, whereas a value cabernet could be a $15 one, or a value chardonnay could be $12. It's all in proportion to what the grape is and looking at where it's from."

Consider White Wines

Consider white wines.

Since many white wines aren't aged in oak barrels — saving money on both the barrels and the space required to age them — they can be less expensive. So if you're looking for an excellent bottle of wine that doesn't cost too much, white wines offer plenty of great options. Levine recommends looking at whites from lesser-known regions, which can offer great quality for less. "If you like crisp, refreshing whites, I'd say look at Italian whites. You can get some great wines like vermentino, verdicchio — there are some great white wines coming out of Italy."

Shop Where the Staff Knows Their Wine

Shop where the staff knows their wine.

While convenience often dictates where we grab a bottle of wine when we're rushing to a dinner party, if you have the time to go to a wine shop — or at least a quality liquor store — you'll have a better chance of getting good wine for cheap. "I would suggest going to a wine store, somewhere there is dedicated staff that knows about wine," Levine says. "When you go to a supermarket or a Costco, you need to know what you're looking for. But if you walk into a retail store — from BevMo to whatever's in your neighborhood — there should be staff that knows these wines and can direct you if you can describe what you're looking for and the price point you want to be in."

Try Using an App

Try using an app.

Since you may not always be shopping someplace with knowledgeable staff, consider using an app or website to help you navigate to the quality cheap stuff. Wine-Searcher is used by wine enthusiasts and even industry professionals to locate wines, learn about them, compare prices, and even purchase wine. The Vivino app lets you upload a photo of a wine label (similar to Wine-Searcher) or enter the details to learn more about it, discover the best prices, and keep track your favorite wines. Wine4.me is an app that can help you find wines you might like based on your personal taste profile, and even suggest food pairings for the wine.

Related: Where to Order Beer, Wine, and Liquor Online

Beware of the Bargain Bin

Beware of the bargain bin.

While the shelves, sections, and bins that offer discounted products can often be a great place to score deals on other types of merchandise, finding a good bottle of wine there can be a gamble. "Avoid the bargain bin unless you can ask someone what the deal is with those wines," Levine says. "When it comes to white wines, if you see that it's a sauvignon blanc from 2005 in there, stay away from it. With white wines, this is a general rule — because you can never make a definitive statement in wine — that those white wines that we drink that are crisp and light and refreshing, you want to drink them when they're young. They're not wines that are meant to be aged." If you do try bargain bin whites, keep within about three years for the vintage. "Red wines are harder to tell, because some wines need time to age, and some wines will have peaked. If you see reds in the bargain bin, they may not be selling well or there could be other reasons."

Know Which Sparkling Wines to Avoid ...

Know which sparkling wines to avoid ...

"You will not find inexpensive Champagne," Levine cautions those looking for good, cheap bubbly. "There are two ways to make sparkling wine. The Champagne method, where the second fermentation happens in the bottle, [is] a more time-consuming and costly thing. So anywhere from California to Italy to Chile to Champagne, when they're making wine with the secondary fermentation in the bottle, we're not going to find inexpensive."

Sparkling Wine for Cocktails

... and which sparkling wines to buy.

But all is not lost for those in search of cheap bubbly. "If you want inexpensive sparkling wine, you're looking at the Charmat method. That's where the secondary fermentation — the bubbles — are made in tanks, and that's what prosecco does. So when you see inexpensive sparkling wines, that usually means that's the method they're using. But you can have some amazing proseccos, there's nothing wrong with the Charmat method, don't get me wrong. It can just be more affordable."