Is there anything more intimidating than walking into a wine store and not knowing what in the world you should buy? Whether you’re making a nice dinner at home or going to a party, the choices can feel overwhelming—and, potentially, expensive.
The truth is, you don’t have to spend a fortune on a nice bottle of wine, and you don’t have to be an expert either. To help take the guesswork out of the process, we talked to some of the top pros in the field for advice on buying wine on a budget. Here are their tips:
1. The best wine values are in the $20 to $25 range. Look for South African whites, Chilean reds and whites, single-estate/domaine wines from Languedoc Roussillon, Beaujolais, Muscadet, and Valpolicella.
2. Understand what’s in the bottle. Wines are either varietals (made mostly from a single grape variety, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir) or blends. The most famous blended wines are red Bordeaux (known as claret in Great Britain), which is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes with Malbec and/or Petit Verdot sometimes included.
3. Remember the saying "Goes with where it grows." When trying to match wine with food, look at the country/region of origin. Chances are that it will pair perfectly with the cuisine of that region. This works great for cheeses, regional dishes, and sauces.
4. Screw caps are fine. Some very good wine is now stoppered with screw caps because producers became too fed up with taint associated with poorly treated cork.
5. Enjoy it soon. The great majority of wine produced today is designed to be drunk within a year of release.
6. Don't discount sweet wines. There are some fabulous sweet wines, such as Reisling and port, which can be an especially great match with dessert.
7. You’re not breaking a rule if you serve red wine with fish. You just don’t want a heavier red to overpower the food, so stick with lighter reds like Pinot Noir, or try a rosé. And remember that not all fish dishes are alike: Steamed salmon with asparagus is much more delicate than, say, salmon and corn on the grill.
8. Soave is back. Some producers never gave up on it when people dismissed it as ordinary jug wine, but it has gotten better and better. You can get some fine Soave wines for $16 or $17.
9. Try something new. If you're looking for something to bring to your next dinner party, go for a wine that is interesting and a little bit surprising that most people don’t automatically know. Maybe a Greek white wine like Assyrtiko, or an Albariño from Spain, a Grüner Veltliner from Austria, or a Chenin Blanc from California. Dry Creek Vineyards makes some excellent Chenin Blanc, a dry white wine, for about $12.
10. Consider a sparkler. You can never go wrong with real Champagne (a non-vintage Brut is the most affordable). But a less expensive alternative is Prosecco, from Italy. Look for DOCG, which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, which is higher quality (starting at about $20 a bottle).
For specific bottle suggestions, check out our list of 52 wines for less than $25.
Mary Ewing-Mulligan, president of the International Wine Center and co-author of Wine for Dummies.
Brian Freedman, writer (onthefrontvines.com) and restaurant and beverage consultant
David Glancy, Founder, San Francisco Wine School
Jancis Robinson, author of The Oxford Companion to Wine and the World Atlas of Wine
Jaclyn Stuart, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine & Food Pairing
Scott Tracy, Guest Experience Manager at the St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, Napa Valley, Calif.
Kelli White, sommelier at Press in Napa Valley, Calif.