Best Cheap Red Wine
Published on By Elizabeth Sheer
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 made top picks based on tastings, ratings, reviews, awards, and expert advice. We've also selected a wide array of other 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. In her experience selling and purchasing for restaurants and stores, and working with Ultimate Beverage Challenge, she has encountered hundreds of wines at a vast range of price points. She settled on about a dozen red wines for $10 or less that command respect.
The best overall are the Bodegas Luzón Verde from Spain ($8) and La Vieille Ferme Rouge from France ($8). Two other very good choices are the Cortijo Rioja from Spain ($9) and the Hedges CMS red blend from the Columbia Valley in Washington state ($10). Vintages are not specified because all these wines are made in a consistent style, with flavors and prices that stay essentially the same year to year. Note that wine prices do vary from seller to seller and state to state, so the prices listed here (for a 750-milliliter bottle) are approximations. They also do not include taxes.
What do you get for $10 or less? Wines that 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. More and more wine professionals agree that great wine doesn't have to be expensive, and that budget-friendly bottles can offer all of the charm of their expensive counterparts.
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 often reflects the care put into the process. 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 wine, either at a local wine shop or online. Our expanded list of worthy buys appears below, broken down by grape variety.
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 bricks-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 are 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 you like and dislike, and making future selections accordingly.
Red Blends.Wines that don't feature one particular grape variety have more flexibility to use the best of the current year's crop, which translates into extra savings for consumers. While differences may be noticeable from vintage to vintage, the house style should remain consistent.
In the Hedges CMS, "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 Big House Red ($10), a full-bodied blend from California that gets its name from a nearby a prison yard and features bold, juicy flavors of red and black berries, a touch of smoky leather, and ripe, luscious plums.
Bordeaux.Wines from Bordeaux, France, are iconic and highly sought after. Although some of the world's most expensive wine comes from this region, great expressions of the terroir can be enjoyed for less than $10 a bottle. The Château Haut Bel-Air Vieilles Vignes ($9.50) is an exemplar of inexpensive Bordeaux. It delivers smooth flavors of plum, blackberries, and currants with hints of soft spice. Drink this all-purpose red on its own or serve with anything meaty, from burgers to filet mignon.
Cabernet.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 blackcurrant, bell pepper, grass, and 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 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.
The Chono Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley of Chile ($10) 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. Another inexpensive option is the Crane Lake Cabernet Sauvignon ($6), a highly drinkable, basic red wine with a medium body and flavors reminiscent of cassis, red raspberries, and a hint of bell pepper.
Malbec.The malbec grape originated in France, in and around the area of Bordeaux. 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. 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.
The Jelu Malbec 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 choice is the Kaleu Malbec ($9), also from Argentina, a spicy wine with a medium to full body that starts off with notes of black plums and finishes herbal.
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 single variety 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 meats and cheeses.
The Bogle Merlot from California ($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 or ignored 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.
Pinot Noir.The pinot noir grape grows in cooler regions worldwide and is among the most popular varieties. The best examples of pinot noir are complex and silky, with subtle cherry flavors, floral notes, and a bit of earth. Pinot noir is a difficult grape to grow and vinify, and it has a reputation for putting a high price on quality.
That being said, there are a few examples for $10 or less that deliver the fruit characteristics of pinot noir in a simple and delicious form. Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir from Chile ($10) is a good find for those who want 100 percent pinot noir on a budget. The light-bodied wine is laden with notes of black cherry and cranberry and finishes with hints of spice and herbs.
Rhône Wines.Red wines from the Rhône region of France are made with a blend of grapes. Any number of 20 varieties, including syrah, grenache, mourvedre, and even viognier (normally a white wine grape), can be mixed and matched. The blends are often sold as Côtes du Rhône and vary in style and quality, largely reflecting choices made by the producer. Some cheap Rhône blends are relatively full-bodied, with undertones of chocolate and ripe black fruit; others are light and spicy with moderate complexity. In one of our top picks, La Vieille Ferme Rouge, 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.
Rioja.The tempranillo grape is the core of rioja wines. Having made its mark in Spain, it now also grows in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. Rioja is a medium-bodied, spicy wine with flavors of berry, plum, tobacco, and herbs. Vanilla undertones are common in the older wines, which are typically aged in American oak. Rioja is not high in alcohol, and despite a distinct flavor, it's not overwhelming. It goes particularly well with hearty food such as meat, pork, and rich cheeses. One of our picks for best cheap red wine is a rioja from Spain. Cortijo Rioja is a silky-smooth wine with flavors of raspberry and hearty herbs, and spice aromas through and through.
Syrah.The syrah grape first emerged in France's Rhône valley but is now the most widely planted wine grape in Australia, where it's known as shiraz. Syrah grapes yield wines that range from dense, elegant, and spicy to smooth and silky to sweet and plush. Syrah typically yields flavors of licorice and mocha, and the wine can be fruity or dry. In terms of taste, expect syrah to be well-balanced, smooth, complex, and earthy. Bogle Petite Sirah ($9), made from syrah cross-pollinated with another grape, is a rich and concentrated wine with fruity and spicy flavors and velvety texture.
Zinfandel.There's a lot of sugar in the zinfandel grape, which translates to a relatively high alcohol content. Zinfandel is currently a hot red wine in the U.S., where its intense fruit/berry flavor, chocolate notes, and earthy aroma have wide appeal. The style can range from simple and light to dense, complex, and smooth. Zinfandel is an everyday wine, usually said to pair well with barbecue, because the tannins can stand up to the fat in charred beef.
Although we didn't find any zinfandel we could vouch for that consistently sells for less than $10, we do recommend a couple that can be found within our price range or just outside. Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin ($9) perennially impresses wine critics, competition judges, and consumers. The bold flavors are dark: smoky plum, silky chocolate, and black fruit. Multiple vintages (including the 2014) have been named Wine Enthusiast best buys and accumulated numerous accolades. Another winner is Bogle Zinfandel ($12). With a rich, velvety body and flavors of plums and black cherry mixed with dried herbs and spice. It leaves a lasting impression after each sip. Consumers may be able to find exclusive deals that drop this wine under $10.