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Cheap Red Wine Buying Guide

We consulted wine experts, read online reviews, and sampled some wines in tastings that we organized. In the end, we settled on four best cheap red wines and identified more than a dozen others that command respect.

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Our top overall choices are Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2012 (starting at $8), which is full and smooth with a smattering of rich, dark cherry and chocolate notes, and Chateau Pesquie "Le Paradou" Grenache 2012 (starting at $9), a very well-reviewed and highly rated red wine. Falling in right behind are good versions of two popular types of wine: Block Nine Pinot Noir 2012 (starting at $10) and Sageland Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (starting at $8). We also identified two cheap red wines that didn't pass the "value buys" test despite their incredibly attractive pricing: Franzia Merlot (starting at $13 for a 5-liter box, equivalent to $1.95 for a 750 ml bottle) and Trader Joe's Charles Shaw Cabernet (starting at $2.49).

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 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 what the wine actually cost, 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 handpicked, 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, and only rarely one grape varietal. 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.

Where to Find Cheap Red Wine

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.

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 you'll find at least one recommended cheap red wine, either at a local wine shop or through your preferred wine vendor's website. Our expanded list of worthy buys appears on the following pages, broken down by varietal. Note that wine prices vary from seller to seller and state to state, so the starting prices we specify are approximations and do not include taxes.

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.

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