This question comes up often in wine circles, whether it's a congregation of connoisseurs or fearful first-time buyers. Regardless of your level of wine knowledge, two things are certain: first, with December's bills coming due, everyone is looking for great deals on wine—even the wine snobs. And secondly, yes—absolutely, positively—cheap wine can be good.
The keys to finding good value wine—in case you don't already have a tried-and-true table wine—are first, to know where to look, and second, to ask questions. While this may seem like you're setting yourself up to appear like a wine novice or to feel dumb, don't worry. Wine lovers love three things: drinking wine, talking about wine and a great deal.
When it comes to knowing where to look, luckily for you, grape gurus hang out in—you guessed it—specialty wine shops. Quite often, the staff who work there do so because they just love to be around the stuff. Certainly, you can have success finding affordable wines at the larger chain liquor stores, but when it comes to the next step—asking questions—there's a better chance you'll get the answers you're looking for from someone who chooses to peddle Pinot in his or her spare time lovingly at an independent plonk shop. My first job in a boutique wine store was working alongside a retired school bus driver who worked there two days a week, not because he had to, but because he simply loved spending his Saturdays shooting the Shiraz about all things wine.
Secondly, there are affordable wines from every region of the world, and for every taste. But here's a few guidelines to start: Old World wines—those typically from Mediterranean countries like France, Italy or Spain—carry such a strong reputation for quality wines that, to that end, they are able to carry a higher price tag. New World wines from emerging regions like Australia, US and South America are so eager to break into the market that they are more willing to lower their prices to attract new customers. Argentina and Chile are two countries that immediately come to mind when I think of value, as well as California and Washington state. While Canada's wines are becoming more reputable, our short growing season and small yields have yet to result in quality and competitively-priced wines—not to say that you can't find quality, homegrown vino in the $15 – $20 range.
But don't let these guidelines be the rule—anyone who's been to Europe knows how good cheap wine can be. What's more, many of the old chateaus are now spreading their vintages across price ranges (from entry-level to high-end) in order to keep pace with New World ambitions as well as their customers' tastes. Because as the saying goes, "Life's too short to drink bad wine." And no one knows that better than those who do it most often. V