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Buying the best cheap wine — that also tastes good

You may have champagne tastes on a boxed wine budget, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a bottle of wine that tastes like maroon vinegar.

Wine can run the gamut from Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck all the way to vintages that can cost more than our homes.

So how do you choose an inexpensive wine that tastes delicious? We spoke with some sommeliers to get the tricks of the trade.

Be aware of your hidden biases

A 2017 study in Scientific Reports found that when people see two bottles of wine at two different prices, they’re more likely to rate the expensive wine as tasting better than the less expensive wine.

When MRI scans were taken of the volunteers, they found that two parts of their brains showed greater activity: the ventral striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex. These are the two areas involved in evaluating expectations and seeking rewards.

That’s why researchers say that, when you see a higher price, you’re likely to automatically link that price to a greater expectation of reward. That can change your perception of the taste — regardless of how the wine actually tastes.

Skip the grocery store

Most of the wines in grocery stores are produced in bulk in order to supply many stores. This can mean cutting corners, including the use of additives like oak extract, acid and sugar, watering down the juice and more, according to Vincent Anter, founder and host of V is for Vino Wine Show.

“Sure, there are some gems to be found, but unless you really know the producers, they are tough to pick out,” he said, adding that most of those wines are produced by large conglomerates.

Stick with smaller retailers or…

Smaller retailers are always trying to provide bargain wines, Smith said. Ask them about the wines from the Loire Valley in France, along with Italy, Spain, Portugal and Argentina, all of which can offer fantastic values.

Melissa Smith, founder of Oakland-based Enotrias Elite Sommelier Services, likes to shop online at K&L Wine Merchants, but she also suggests reaching out to local retailers, who will likely be thrilled to guide you on your own wine journey.

…Check out big-box wine stores

If you go to your local wine shop, they’ll be able to give you great personalized service, according to Kathleen Bershad, author of The Wine Lover’s Apprentice and owner of Fine Wine Concierge in New York.

That said, big-box wine stores are typically able to offer significantly lower prices due to the volume of wine they handle.

If you’re really looking for the best deal, services like Wine Searcher can help you ferret out the best places to buy your favorite wine, Bershad said.

Buy international wines

The United States — and specifically California — produces a ton of amazing wines, Anter said.

“But unfortunately, because of the way our system works in America, value is harder to find unless you know what you’re looking for, especially amongst an ocean of California wine producers,” Anter said.

South American wines tend to be less expensive due to lower labor and land costs. Or, look to Europe, where costs may be kept lower through several factors, including:

Government assistance for wine producers, which is available in many wine-growing regions.

Regulations that control everything from grape yields to where the grapes come from to the use of additives.

A distribution model that doesn’t vary from state to state and doesn’t include three tiers, with each tier marking up the wines each step of the way.

The production of more entry-level wine, because most Europeans see wine as part of the meal instead of a luxury item.

Stay away from trendy wines…

A group of peoples cheers with red wine in wine glasses.

Wine, like all things, goes through trends, according to Mathew Woodburn-Simmonds, a UK-based freelance sommelier who runs The Plate Unknown, a website celebrating world food and drinks.

To pick up a bargain, he suggests avoiding the trends.

“Rather than a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Argentinian Malbec, look for an Argentinian Cabernet Franc or New Zealand Pinot Gris,” he said. “They will be the same price, but a higher quality, as it isn’t resting on popularity to sell it.”

The same applies to lesser-known Eastern European wine-growing countries like Greece, Slovenia and Hungary, all of whom are turning out great quality wine at pocket-friendly prices, Woodburn-Simmonds said.

…But don’t be afraid of unusual wines

Instead of reaching for a California Cabernet Sauvignon — because the best Cabernet grapes go into the more expensive bottles — look for a Cabernet from Argentina. Argentinian wine producers are known for their Malbec, not their Cabernet, so better quality grapes will likely be in that bottle of Cabernet, according to Bershad.

“Along those lines, look for the grape you’ve never heard of,” she said. “While you might love chardonnay, a Torrontes can offer a similar feel and flavor, but because it’s not well known, the quality is likely to be better for the price.”

Pay Attention to Where the Wine Comes From

Much of what goes into the cost of a bottle has to do with where the wine is grown and produced, says Smith.

“Have you seen the cost of an acre of land in Napa Valley?” she said. “Between that, French oak barrels starting at $800 a piece and a celebrity winemaker, you can see why a bottle of Cabernet might cost $100 per bottle.”

To find quality wines at a lower price, Smith seeks out regions that don’t have a culture of using fertilizers or pesticides in their vineyards, such as Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. She also looks for countries with wine cultures, where wine is part of their daily consumption with meals. A lot of wine in those countries is made in co-ops, where the grapes have passed certain standards and vineyard practices, and in large quantities, allowing the prices to be low.

“If a wine newbie goes into a grocery store and looks in the European section, you’re going to have a great chance at picking out a wine that’s been made sustainably and ethically,” Smith said.

Smith also recommends talking to the buyer at your local wine shop or reading about it in a trade magazine if you’re particularly interested.

Another thing to be aware of is that wine production can be labor intensive in some parts of the world. For example, machinery can’t be used in vineyards with very steep hills or narrow terraces, so those grapes need to be harvested by hand. You’ll know if this was the case if the label says “hand picked grapes” or “hand harvested.”

That wine may not necessarily taste better, but it will increase the cost of the production. As a result, the price of the wine will be higher, according to Woodburn-Simmonds.

Danielle Braff is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website that empowers millions of readers nationwide to make smart decisions with their money through actionable and inspirational advice, and resources about how to make, save and manage money.

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