I know a good wine when I taste it, but I’ll drink mediocre wine if it’s in front of me, next to some lusty, fatty, protein-rich meal. Food is where I spend my money and do my fussing.
And while decent wine is preferable, I don’t allocate much brain space to keeping track of wine labels, and I am pretty worthless at giving specific recommendations. That said, put me in a wine store and I can find the best cheap wine.
Here are my three top tips for getting the most wine for your buck.
1: The blend is your friend
The word “varietal” means the wine comes from a particular variety of grape, such as cabernet or merlot. Varietals are a recent development in the wine world, and exist primarily in the Western Hemisphere. Back in the Old World, wines were always categorized by the region they come from, such as Bordeaux in France.
Making wines from just one grape variety is a bit nerdy, in a good way. I can see how a wine enthusiast could get off on comparing different wines made from the same variety of grape, and become an expert on, say, pinot noir. You’d get to know that grape intimately, and learn how it does in different regions, in different years.
Still, I resonate with the European model, in which a village would come together around the wine press and stomp all of their grapes together. Throwing all the grapes together produced wines with more rounded, if generic flavor, thanks to the diversity of constituents. I can live with generic, as long as it’s not too oaky or vinegary or musty. If the wine is smooth and low profile, I’m set.
Wine makers who blend their grapes have more tools at their disposal than when working with varietals. Freedom to blend allows a skilled vintner to tweak the flavor in any direction allowed by the grapes at his disposal, to the point where it almost seems like cheating.
Blended wines, often labeled “table wine,” are some of the best wine values around, as you’re not paying for the prestige or hassle of varietals.
Unless you’re some fancy expert who knows exactly what you want in a varietal, you’re playing a game most likely to end with you paying more for a bottle that is less satisfying than a cheaper blend would be.
2: Think outside the bottle
Boxed wines have a bad reputation that started when some truly awful wines were first packaged this way. But boxes are no longer where bad wines go to die.
Boxed wine uses a Bladder in Box, or BiB, system, in which the wine occupies a plastic bladder within the cardboard box. Despite boxed wine’s rap, there is nothing inherent in BiB technology that conflicts with wine quality. In fact, thanks to the one-way valve and collapsible bladder, no oxygen is allowed to touch the wine. As the volume of wine shrinks, the bladder inside the box shrinks with it, snuggly containing the dwindling volume of wine inside. Most BiBs are guaranteed a six-week lifespan once opened, while an opened bottle’s lifespan is a matter of days.
Savvy campers have known for years that boxed wine is a no-brainer for backcountry boozing. There’s no risk of broken glass or wine spills in your backpack, and no big heavy bottle to pack out. You don’t even need to bring the box part, or you can use it to start a fire.
The one clear advantage that bottles have over boxes is with long-term storage, aka cellaring. BiB packaging is not conducive to this stockpiling, and accordingly, the wines that are packaged in boxes aren’t designed to be aged. If you’re in the 1 percent of oenophiles who can afford to keep wine as a hobby, you should probably stick to bottles.
But according to betterwinesbetterworld.com, a full 99 percent of wine consumption is intended for use within six months of purchase. If this 99 percent all drank boxed wine, according to the website, that would be the equivalent in carbon savings of taking 250,000 cars off the road, while eliminating 941 million tons of glass.
The packaging in a three-liter box runs cheaper than packaging for four, 0.75-liter bottles, and one box is much lighter, more compact and of a shape more amenable to shipping than four bottles. Environmental savings like this translate into financial savings, some of which are passed along to consumers, which makes it possible to find some very drinkable wines in three liter boxes at $20 or less, which works out to $5 or less for a bottle.
And not surprisingly, some of best boxed deals are blends.
3: My (patent pending) Ice Cube Blend
Here’s a fun party trick: Set up taste tests between red and white wines, and see how many people can tell the difference, blindfolded, between the two colors. Many can’t.
I could, but it was harder than I expected. This led me along a trail of questioning various assumptions I’ve long held about wine. I’ll spare you every twist and turn along this path, and just say that it led me to what I call my ice cube blend.
Put an ice cube in a small cup (not a wine glass). Add equal parts (cheap, blended) red and white wines. And that’s all. Before you howl in protest, just try my ice cube blend. Then feel free to whine or wine, whichever feels appropriate.