Is $20 too much to spend on a bottle of Chardonnay for a weeknight dinner? How about $100 for a bottle of top-rated Cabernet or Bordeaux to drink on your birthday? Of course, there's no one right answer here. One thing, however, we probably all agree on: There's nothing like finding a good wine at a bargain basement price.
To find out whether such wines are available on a regular basis, I tasted 70 wines in two categories: jug wines (inexpensive generic blends) and just plain inexpensive wines. The jug wines came in 1.5-liter bottles and ranged in price from $5.99 to $11.99. The others were in regular 750-milliliter bottles and cost $4 to $8 each ― my personal definition of inexpensive. Here's what I found out.
1. Very good, very cheap wines do exist, but they are definitely in the minority on the inexpensive-wine shelves. Most of the wines I tasted had weak, washed-out flavors, and many were downright dank.
2. Color doesn't matter. Inexpensive white wines aren't any better than rosés or reds, and vice versa.
3. No single state or country seems to have a lock on producing good cheap wines. I tasted wines from California, Washington, France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Chile, and even one from Morocco; no country did better or worse than any other.
4. You also can't rely completely on a particular brand. Just because a producer's inexpensive Chardonnay is pretty good doesn't mean its inexpensive Merlot will be too. (Conversely, you shouldn't write a brand off after tasting just one of its wines; another variety might be much better.)
5. At very low prices, don't expect unique varietal flavors. Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon don't taste that different from one another; they taste like basic red wine. Similarly, Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays taste like basic white wine.
6. If you're looking for real personality, concentration, and varietal flavor, you generally have to spend a little more. For the sake of comparison, I tasted Fetzer Vineyard's 1997 Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon and Beaulieu Vineyard's 1997 Coastal Zinfandel, at $19.99 for a 1.5-liter bottle and $10 for a 750-milliliter bottle, respectively. The extra few dollars were well worth the higher quality both wines offered.
In the end, there's no good-cheap-wine magic. The producer's goal when making superinexpensive wines is to minimize cost. The top vineyards, best equipment, and most talented winemakers may not be part of the picture. Still, by choosing carefully, you can find some dependable wines for times when meatloaf and a video will do just fine. As they say, life's too short to drink bad wine.
For each wine, I've noted the size of bottle I bought, but you may be able to find them in different sizes.
WHITES AND ROSÉS
Columbia "Cellarmaster's Reserve" Riesling 1999 (Columbia Valley, WA), $7 (750 ml.). Apricots, honey, oranges, and cream ― a delicious Riesling with just a bit of sweetness.
Inglenook Chablis nonvintage (California), $6.99 (1.5 l.). Fresh and melony ― delightful and stunningly well priced.
Inglenook French Colombard nonvintage (California), $7.99 (1.5 l.). Dry, crisp, and slightly spicy, with thirst-quenching herbal notes. A real bargain.
Pepperwood Grove Viognier 1999 (California), $7 (750 ml.). On par with Viogniers that go for three times the price. Very floral and loaded with honeysuckle, melon, and litchi flavors.
Sutter Home Chardonnay 1999 (California), $5.99 (750 ml.). Simple, with light apple notes and good body.
Sutter Home White Zinfandel 1999 (California), $5 (750 ml.). Slightly sweet, but good acidity provides a refreshing counterpoint. Pleasant spicy strawberry flavors.
Glen Ellen Reserve Merlot 1997 (California), $6.99 (750 ml.). Juicy and soft, with a touch of vanilla.
Heritage Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 (California), $11.99 (1.5 l. Very dry, with basic red berry flavors and a hint of vanilla.
Nathanson Creek Zinfandel nonvintage (California), $4.29 (750 ml.). A simple, juicy wine at a price that's hard to pass up.
Rosemount Grenache-Shiraz 2000 (Southeastern Australia), $7.99 (750 ml.). Packed with juicy boysenberry fruit. A real steal at the price.
Santa Rita 120 Merlot 1999 (Lontue Valley, Chile), $6.29 (750 ml.). Smoky and sharp, with bold eucalyptus-like flavors.
Vendange Zinfandel nonvintage (California), $4.49 (750 ml.). Simple but good, with ripe cherrylike flavors and a nice, soft mouth-feel.