Best Cheap Red Wines
Who needs a premium red wine when a thoroughly respectable bottle costs $10 or less? Frugal quaffers who know even a little bit about wine and aren't afraid to go with what they like will find many such bottles. There are hundreds of cheap red wines out there -- some barely worth the few dollars you'd pay but many worth drinking. With so many styles, grape varieties, producers, and labels to choose among, shopping can be a challenge. To guide wine drinkers through the thicket, we've focused on inexpensive red wines fit to serve with a meal, bring to a party, or sip over the course of a quiet evening.
Cheap Red Wine Buying Guide
In our continual search for the best cheap red wine, we've consulted wine experts, read online reviews, and sampled some wines in tastings. This year's final determination rested with Cheapism's resident wine expert, Tess Rose Lampert, a New York City-based wine and spirit judge and educator.
|Cheap Red Blends||Cheap Bordeaux|
|Cheap Cabernet||Cheap Malbec|
|Cheap Merlot||Cheap Pinot Noir|
|Cheap Rhône Wines||Cheap Rioja|
|Cheap Syrah||Cheap Zinfandel|
The best overall are Underwood 2013 Pinot Noir from Oregon (starting at $8) and Chono Reserva 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile (starting at $9.50). Two other very good choices are the Cortija Rioja 2013 from Spain (starting at $9) and the Hedges CMS 2012 red blend from the Columbia Valley in Washington state (starting at $9.50).
What do you get for $10 or less? Cheap red wines range in color from deep, purplish red to bright ruby red; in style from full-bodied to light, rustic to elegant; and in taste from fruity to spicy, earthy to tart, dry to sweet. In a blind tasting, many wine drinkers would surely be able to identify the difference between a cheap wine and a top-tier bottle costing $50-plus. But it's often more difficult to tell the difference between a really good budget red and a mid-level wine selling for $10 to $25 or so -- especially for someone who doesn't know the cost of the wine, studies show. So why not go with the bottle that suits your budget?
We'd be remiss if we didn't note differences between entry-level and upmarket red wine. Expensive wines are usually made with meticulously selected grapes from carefully tended vines grown on high-quality land. These grapes are often hand-picked, processed in small batches, and aged slowly -- often in expensive oak casks. High-end red wine demands 24/7 attention at critical times of the year, and the finished product is often smoother and more balanced than cheaper wines, layered with flavors, and imbued with a pleasant, lingering "finish." Wines produced under these conditions are typically available in relatively small quantities; you won't find them at big-box outlets.
By contrast, mass-market producers often buy surplus grapes from many vineyards, use centrifuges to skin them (a process that removes tannins and eliminates the need to age the wine naturally), and sometimes use oak chips (or liquid smoke) to impart a hint of oak flavor. The resulting wines are usually released just days after bottling. Inexpensive red wines are produced all over the world, usually with a blend of grape varieties. Federal regulations require that any particular variety of wine (say, pinot noir) must contain at least 75 percent of that grape, but the rest can be any type of grapes from any vineyard.
For this product category, we've taken an unusual approach and selected many budget options beyond our top picks. This market segment is awash with products that are not sold everywhere, and we wanted to increase the likelihood that consumers will find at least one recommended cheap red wine, either at a local wine shop or through a preferred wine vendor's website. Our expanded list of worthy buys appears below, broken down by varietal. Note that wine prices vary from seller to seller and state to state, so the starting prices are approximations and do not include taxes.
Shoppers can order wine online from retailers such as Wine.com, WineAccess, and even Amazon. This is not a recommended strategy for frugal consumers -- shipping charges can double the price of your order. Alternatively, go to Wine-Searcher to find the nearest brick-and-mortar source offering the best price on the wine you're seeking. For organic wines, browse Organic Wine Find; for kosher wines, try Kosher Wine Rack.
Bear in mind that wine drinking is a very subjective experience. We're offering suggestions for the most popular types of wine and recommend using the list as a jumping-off point -- tasting and determining which ones appeal to you, noting the qualities that underlie that appeal, and making future selections accordingly.
From the Columbia Valley in Washington, for instance, comes the Hedges CMS Red 2012 (starting at $9.50). "CMS" denotes the blend of cabernet, merlot, and syrah that make up this full-bodied, easy drinking red wine. The texture is soft, with flavors of blackberries and pepper spice, making an excellent pairing with grilled meats and cheese plates. Another top value wine is La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux Rogue 2014 (starting at $7.50). A blend of carignan, grenache, cinsault, and syrah creates a very pretty wine with a light body, minerals, and delicate floral notes with flavors of strawberry and red raspberry.
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. 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. Chono Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 from the Maipo Valley of Chile (starting at $9.50) is a delicious, powerful red wine that tastes of blackberries and earthy bell and spicy black peppers. A firm tannic structure makes this wine an ideal match for grilled meats and perfectly cooked steaks.
One cab that doesn't pass the taste test is Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon (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 the wine was so sweet that sugar crystals would appear in a glass left out overnight.
The Jelu Malbec 2011 from Mendoza, Argentina, is consistently delicious and consistently priced around $9. It is full and rich with flavors of plums, black fruits, and layered sweet spices to create a warming effect with each sip. Another cheap and delicious malbec is the Georges Vigouroux Cahors "Gouleyant" 2013 (starting at $8), which hails from southwest France, the home of malbec. Considerably more delicate than its New World counterparts, this French malbec is full-flavored, interwoven with red and black berries, savory spice, and a touch of leather in a bright medium body.
The Bogle 2013 Merlot from California (starting at $8) is a true expression of merlot -- soft, fruity, and easy to enjoy. It delivers a lot of fruit with background notes of black pepper and hints of smoky tobacco. Franzia Merlot (starting at $13 for 5 liters, the equivalent of $1.95 for a bottle) is a box wine that wins points from some bloggers for staying fresh longer than bottled wines but is widely scorned by enthusiasts. 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 few consumers in reviews on Amazon.
That being said, there are a few examples under $10 that deliver the fruit characteristics of pinot noir in a simple and delicious form. Underwood Pinot Noir from Oregon (starting at $8) is among the best reds for wine drinkers with tight budgets. The flavor evokes juicy red fruits such as plums, cherries, and berries and comes with a tiny spicy kick at the end.
Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel (starting at $7) perennially impresses wine critics, competition judges, and consumers. The bold flavors are dark with smoky plum, silky chocolate, and black fruit. The 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages have been named Wine Enthusiast best buys and accumulated numerous accolades.