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How to Buy Good Inexpensive Wine

Expect to pay a little more for a good lower-priced bottle of red than you will for white.
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Price doesn't necessarily indicate how good a wine will taste, although there are studies that show you might enjoy a higher-priced wine more. For example, in a blind test conducted at the 2011 Edinburgh International Science Festival, only 50 percent of the 570 test participants could correctly identify which wines were expensive, going for around $50 a bottle, and which were budget wines, priced at about $6.

In 2008, Dr. Antonio Rangel of the California Institute of Technology published the results of a study in which volunteers tasted a $90 bottle of wine and some less expensive wines. They loved the $90 wine! However, when they sampled the same wine believing it cost only $10, their enjoyment level dropped.

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In general, you can get a nice, oak-free white wine for $6 to $21 on the lower end. You'll pay a little more for an average red -- about $10 to $35, due to the more expensive grapes and additional equipment needed for aging.

Read on for some tips on how to find a wine that fits your palate and your pocketbook.

Why does one wine cost $6 and another $60? Many variables go into the price.

Land is one factor. If the land has been handed down for generations or is located in a less expensive region like South America, it won't add much to the price. But, if the grapes are grown on soil in Napa Valley, where land can cost $300,000 an acre, it will make a difference.

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The way in which the grapes are harvested is another factor. Grapes harvested by machine are lower cost than those gathered by hand. Of course, grapes grown by prestigious growers are pricier than those raised in low-overhead areas. The difference can be $6,000 a ton versus $1,000 a ton.

Winemakers use expensive equipment including crushers, forklifts, tanks, pumps and chillers. They all add to the cost. So do new oak barrels, ranging from $400 for an American oak to $1,000 for a French barrel.

Then there are the bottles and closures. A cheap bottle costs 65 cents and a thicker glass about $2. At around 5 cents, synthetic corks are the least expensive closer. The cork-cage-foil combo you find on a Champagne bottle is the most costly, running about $1.

Label design and the label itself add expense. How much depends on the type of paper and design elements like engraving and embossing.

Marketing, transport, taxes and tariffs add cost, as do distributor and retailer markups.

But, what finally determines the cost of a bottle of wine is the price the winery sets. Reviews, collectability, scarcity, fashion and demand all play a part.

There's really no best place to find good, inexpensive wine. Large chains generally offer the best deals on big, international brands. They can buy them in large quantities for all their locations and pass that savings to you.

A local wine shop will often be able to offer you some great bargains. Sign up for the newsletter to see their monthly features and wine news. Building a good relationship with the wine clerk will go a long way. Ask him what he likes personally and try it. Once you build a rapport, the clerk might even start looking for wines with your taste in mind.

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Be sure to shop at the right times. Don't show up the day before Thanksgiving, New Year's or Christmas, or in the hour before dinner. The personnel at your wine shop will be too busy to give you the personal attention you want.

If you spot a good deal, buy it in quantity. Many wine shops offer 5 to 15 percent off when you buy by the case. Some stores will allow you to put together a "mixed case" of different wines and still get the quantity discount.

Before you buy a case of bargain-bin wine, try it first. Ask for a sample or buy one bottle. If you're concerned about missing the closeout sale, keep a wine glass and corkscrew in your car trunk and taste a little before you drive off. You can always go back inside and buy a case if you like it.

Online retailers will do the legwork for you, too, researching vineyards and sampling hundreds of varieties so they can offer you the best deals. Their selection changes often. Before you order wine online, check your state laws. Some states restrict the shipment of wine, and most require a signature of someone over 18 to accept the package.

Maybe you just can't accommodate a case. Don't discount wine boxes. They don't get much respect, but they can actually be a good everyday house wine, and they're better than a lot of bottled wines.

Juice box-type containers, or packaging with a bag inside a box, are actually fine for fresh, young wine. They are easy to tap and inexpensive. A box contains about three liters, or about four bottles, and the price equals about $3.50 to $4.50 a bottle. The key to buying boxed wine is never to buy more than you can drink in the next few months. It will keep in a box for about six months and once opened, will stay fresh for up to six weeks.

Lingering winters that delay the harvest in Burgundy affect the price of wine from the region
Lingering winters that delay the harvest in Burgundy affect the price of wine from the region
Grant Faint/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

For in-depth information on regions, grapes and food compatibility, visit your local bookstore or library. Download "Fool-Proof Wine Values" by Ed Gandia, which provides a list of good inexpensive wines. The "Oxford Companion to Wine" is another good reference.

Magazines such as Wine Spectator and Food and Wine regularly have columns focusing on wine bargains, food pairings, rankings and guides to favorite selections. Pick up a hard copy or visit their Web sites for online versions.

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Look for whatever is less popular. You'll get a better price on wine from a less trendy part of the U.S. or a country where land costs are lower. If you're in the U.S., that my mean looking for wines made in Washington. The state offers the most reliable, inexpensive wines. They're mass-produced and don't have as much prestige as those from California.

Lesser-known regions like South America produce nice under-priced wines, with Chile offering some of the best quality at an affordable price. Australian wines offer a better value than similar wines from France.

In general, warmer climates, where grape yields are dependable every year, produce better inexpensive wine than colder climates, where the harvest could be iffy. For example, Burgundy and Bordeaux wines are usually more expensive because both regions in France are challenged by weather that can delay ripening of the grapes.

Get creative! Throw a party where everyone brings a favorite to share. It will give you the opportunity to explore a variety of wines and makes for a fun evening. Your gathering can focus on a particular grape, a certain region of the world or a particular price point.

In-store tastings let you try before you buy. For a fixed admission price of $20 or so you can taste the offerings of multiple wineries at food and wine festivals. Or you can visit area wineries. Many offer tours and tastings free of charge.

If you know something about wines and like trying different ones on a regular basis, join a wine club. An "expert" chooses a set of wines that are offered to club members at a reduced price. You might want to start your own club if you're just getting interested in wines. Begin by setting a monthly budget. Keep your wines under $20 a bottle. Choose a theme for each month, like California cabernets or wines from Spain. Develop a rating system, and take notes.

Most important, get in touch with your own palate. Figure out what you like, what you can't tolerate and what you can afford. And always remember, when you're looking for a good inexpensive wine, what you like is really all that matters.

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Sources

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