Two tricks Europeans use to find great, everyday wines for cheap

Many Americans are just now catching on to something Europeans have known for centuries: Wine can be a regular part of your evening meal and not just a “special occasion” drink.

A good “food friendly” wine not only complements your meal, but can be part of an evening ritual where you relax over dinner and transition into a little down time after a hard day of work.

But wine can get expensive … quickly. And that’s especially true if you’re steering clear of overly manipulated, ultra mass-market wines (I’m looking at you, Two Buck Chuck and Yellowtail!)

Luckily, there are two tricks that Europeans have known for generations that can help you find good everyday wines that won’t break the bank.

Trick #1: Buy “vertically” from a really good wine producer.

The most complex, sophisticated wines require low-yield grape harvests with long ageing times in expensive barrels. Winemakers (often by law) can take no shortcuts in producing these top-end wines.

All this expense gets passed on to the consumer. But what do these top tier winemakers do with the juice that doesn’t make the cut? They produce really good (but not as great) wine that sells at a significantly lower price. If they are going to put their name on the bottle, they are going to make sure it is a well-made wine. This is where you have an opportunity for a great weeknight bottle.

Two truly great Northern Italian wines types are Barolo and Barbaresco. These wines come from very specific areas in Piedmont (northwestern Italy) that produce near-perfect harvests of the Nebbiolo grape. For me, they are special-occasion wines brought out for a great meal, and not something I would typically haul out on pizza or burrito night.

PiedmontGetty Images/DEA/C. SAPPAThe Piedmont region of Italy.

But these wines have inexpensive siblings that regularly make it to my weeknight dinner table. Often, these wines are grown in a field a few kilometers from their more expensive counterparts! These wines won’t receive the same kind of exquisite care and ageing that their more expensive neighbours get, but they’re still pretty terrific.

For instance, one of my favourite Barolo/Barbaresco producers is Vietti. On the high end, a bottle of Vietti Barolo can go for between $US40 and $US85, depending on its vintage. A bottle of Vietti Barbaresco can average $US55 to $US90.

On the other hand, these bottles’ lower end siblings Vietti Barbera d’Alba and Vietti Nebbiolo go for around $US13 and $US12, respectively.

Other great makers from the Piedmont region include La Spinetta, Sordo, Massolino, and Travaligni.

Here are some other vertical swaps to look for on your next trip to the wine store:

Brunello ($US30 — $US250 a bottle) to Rosso di Montalcino ($US15 — $US40) to Rosso Toscana ($US8 — $US14)

Winemakers to look for: Castello di Banfi, Uccelliera, Sesti, Fonterenza, and Biondi Santi.

Chateauneuf de Pape or Gigandas ($US25 — $US250+) to Cote de Rhone Village ($US20 — $US40) to Cote de Rhone ($US9 — $US25.)

Winemakers to look for: E. Guigal, Paul Jaboulet, and Jean Louis Cheve.

Burgundy Premiere Cru ($US40 — $US1,000) to Burgundy Village Cru ($US20 to $US50) to Borgone Rouge or Blanc ($US10 — $US25.)

Winemakers to look for: Bernard Moreau, Prudhon, Louis Jadot, and Domaine Leflaive.

Where possible, stick with a top name producer (your wine store will help if you can’t find the producers named above.) Great wine can’t happen without great grapes, but a top-notch wine producer minimizes the shortcuts to get the most out of the juice. Are the more expensive wines worth it? That’s up to you, but they typically are more complex, able to age and evolve for a long time — we’re talking 50+ years for a good vintage — and are generally thought of as better wines.

Trick #2: Switch from Reserve/Riserva wines to standard ones.

The phrase Reserve*, or Riserva in Spain, Argentina, and Italy, legally means different things in different parts of the world. But typically, ageing requirements and sometimes crop yield requirements must be met to label a wine “reserve.” And that designation can add a hefty sum to the price.

For example, one of my favourite Argentinean Malbec producers is Bodega Catena Zapata. The average price for a bottle of Bodega Catena Zapata Reservada is $US130. Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec, on the other hand, retails for $US11.

Is the $US130 wine better? You bet. But if you’re having a nice dinner and looking for a bold, everyday weeknight red, the $US11 provides great bang for the buck.

Look for Chianti Classico or Ruffino, Riojas, and Malbec to try this trick.

[*Note: the term “Reserve” has no real meaning for wine made in the US. Confusing, I know.]

There are some other ways to reduce the cost of your wine.

  • Buy wine by the case, which often yields a significant discount (15% — 20%, typically).
  • Buy from good flash sale sites to find great wines at significant discounts. My favourites are Wines ’til Sold Out and Cinderella Wine, but there are many good sites that will have incredible bargains on wines if you know what you’re looking for.
  • Buy large-format bottles (1.5 litres or larger) or a good boxed wine (yes, they do exist).

Have a glass over a weeknight dinner, and you will see why there are so many happy Europeans. And, when you find a low-cost wine that you really enjoy, reverse the process for that special occasion and you’re almost sure to find a winner.

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