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Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot

Cheap Cabernet.

Cabernet Sauvignon sells more than any variety except Merlot. This popular grape grows in every wine-producing region and has been a boon to second-tier producers such as Bulgaria, Greece, and Hungary.
It also flourishes in California's Napa Valley, Washington state, Chile, and Australia. Cabernet tends to evoke flavors of black currant, bell pepper, grass, a bit of mint. If the grapes aren't harvested at just the right moment, the resulting wine may seem too jammy or vegetal.

Younger (cheaper) Cabernets can be very tannic, but with time they can become smooth and earthy; they need about eight to 10 years to reach full flavor and optimum mellowness. But aging is an expensive proposition that adds significantly to the wine's price. For this reason, cheap Cabernets are often blended with other grapes (usually Syrah and Merlot) to tamp down the tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon is a fairly bold and full-bodied wine that pairs well with red meat and strong cheeses.

Our entries for best cheap Cabernet start with one of our top picks, Sageland Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (starting at $8). Hailing from the Columbia Valley in Washington, this wine earns a thumbs-up from Wine Enthusiast with 85 points. A Las Vegas Review-Journal critic recently chose it as a "Wine of the Week." He portrays it as creamy with rich black fruit notes and good balance. It's a straightforward wine that will hold up for another five or six years, getting better all the while.

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Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (starting at $8) should be ready to drink right about now. Wine critic James Suckling describes a ripe, fruity flavor and awards this Chilean wine 90 points. Another contender, Beringer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Founders' Estate 2012 (starting at $6) has a rich, deep color that comes from aging in French and American oak casks. The flavor is lush for the budget price, according to reviewers, and the wine pairs well with barbecue, duck, or anything meaty. It has won several awards, including three silver medals.

One cab that doesn't pass the taste test is Charles Shaw Cabernet (starting at $2.49), known in the popular vernacular as "Two-Buck Chuck." In a taste test one sommelier compared the aroma of this Trader Joe's exclusive to paint thinner. He said it was so sweet that sugar crystals would appear in the wine if it was left out overnight.

Cheap Malbec.

The Malbec grape originated in France, probably in the eastern region of Burgundy. Its popularity surged after it arrived in Argentina, where the deep red color and intense flavor of Malbec wine complements the country's famous beef. Malbec grapes also grow in Chile, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and the United States.

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This grape is often used in blends but can stand on its own, yielding a medium- to full-bodied wine that's somewhat spicy and tastes of blackberry, plum, pepper, and (yes) leather. Malbec interacts well with spicy cuisine and should be consumed while relatively young, which helps keep prices low. The cheapest Malbec wines are less intense but have some depth.

Our choices for best cheap Malbec all hail from Argentina. Our tasting panel tried the Callia Alta Malbec 2012 (starting at $7.50), which they found to be a good, medium-bodied table wine, and although it lacks great depth and complexity. It has been aged in old French casks and emerged smooth, fresh, and slightly spicy. In 10 reviews on Cellar Tracker at the time of writing, wine enthusiasts give it an average of 85.4 points.

Another hit with our tasters was Trapiche Vineyards Malbec 2013 (starting at $6). Most declared it earthy and smooth, with a hint of spiciness. Dona Paula Los Cardos Malbec 2013 (starting at $5) recently won a "Wine of the Week" recommendation from the Las Vegas Review-Journal critic, who describes it as balanced and peppery with strong fruit flavors of cherry and licorice.

Cheap Merlot.

Merlot is among the best-known and most popular red wines. The Merlot grape is grown all over the world, from California to France to New Zealand, as well as South Africa, Hungary, Argentina, and Canada. It can be vinified as a varietal or used in a blend. Either way, the Merlot grape produces a medium-bodied wine that's relatively fruity and smooth, with hints of plum, tea, and berries. It pairs well with grilled meat and shellfish.

One of the best cheap Merlots we found is our other pick for best cheap red wine overall: Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2012 (starting at $8), which hails from Washington's Columbia Valley. Wine Spectator awards this wine a big 89 points, describing it as rich and velvety with notes of chocolate and dark cherry, and the Reverse Wine Snob lauds its smoothness. Our tasting panel liked the Chilean Carta Vieja Merlot 2012 (starting at $5), which proved to be a very good medium-bodied wine with a nice peppery finish at a true entry-level price.

We also found a low-cost Merlot that falls into the "don't bother" category. Franzia Merlot (starting at $13 for 5 liters, the equivalent of $1.95 for a 750 ml bottle) is a box wine that wins points from some bloggers for staying fresh longer than bottled wines but is widely scorned by enthusiasts, including those we spoke with in a local wine shop. The rap against this wine includes a thin, artificial taste and off bouquet. A food writer makes a case for Franzia Cabernet in a piece for The Atlantic but dismisses the Merlot. It's also dinged by a couple of consumers in reviews on Amazon.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Red Wines
  2. Cheap Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot
  3. Cheap Pinot Noir, Rhone Wines, Rioja, Syrah, and Zinfandel
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