Drink Only the Best Wines Under $10 This Holiday Season

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Here are recommendations, taste tests and tips for drinking and serving the very best of the cheap wines.

Cheap-wine aficionados, what are you drinking this holiday season?

You can be fickle. Your favorites come and go. One day it’s a box of certified organic Yellow+Blue chardonnay. The next it’s Alice White cabernet sauvignon.

The holidays are a great time to add new wines to this changing repertoire. Here are recommendations, wine face-offs, and six tips for drinking and serving the very best of the cheap wines.

In the box

If you’ve been leery of boxed wines, it’s time to relax. They can deliver good value. “Boxed wines have come a long way since the el cheapo days,” writes Forbes contributor Katie Kelly Bell:

Boxed wine stays fresh a minimum of four weeks, it’s shatter-proof, portable, will never have cork taint, and is more environmentally conscious. In fact the total energy used to produce one box is about one-third the energy required to produce a glass bottle, leaving a carbon footprint one-half the size that of a wine bottle.

Bell gathered friends and neighbors for a boxed wine taste-off. Everyone was pleasantly surprised, she says, at the quality of the wines they tried.

Boxed wine is typically found in 1-liter to 3-liter boxes. A 3-liter box has 20 servings of 5 ounces each, according to this wine party planning guide. The standard 750-milliliter bottle contains five servings. So, when you’re comparing prices, a 3-liter box of wine is equivalent to four bottles.

Here are the top three reds and top three whites (each contender costs the equivalent of $10 a bottle or less) chosen by Katie Kelly Bell’s group.

Boxed-red favorites:

  1. From the Tank Vin Rouge (3 liters), 2010.
  2. Maipe Malbec (3 liters), 2010.
  3. Black Box Cabernet Sauvignon (3 liters), 2010.

Boxed-white favorites:

  1. French Rabbit Chardonnay (1 liter), 2010.
  2. Three Thieves Bandit Pinot Grigio (1 liter), 2010.
  3. La Petit Frog Picpoul de Pinet (3 liters), 2010.

Tip: After pouring a glass of boxed wine, give it a few minutes to breathe, she recommends.

Chuck vs. the duck vs. the rooster

My current house wines are from Rex-Goliath, the vintner with the strutting rooster on the label. But if you live near a Trader Joe’s (a grocery chain on the West Coast, the East Coast and some points in between) you’re likely to love the famous Charles Shaw brand, which comes in an array of varietals and was nicknamed “Two-Buck Chuck” because it cost $2 a bottle in California. Until fairly recently, that is. Two-Buck Chuck is priced up to $3.79 in some places ($2.49 in California). But the name’s stuck.

YouTube reviewer Harry Constantinescu compares three popular cabernet sauvignons under $10 — by Rex-Goliath (“a hamburger wine”), Charles Shaw (“a good wine for the value” but “really, really flat”) and Smoking Loon (“a little complexity” but “a little tart … a little bitter on the finish”).

He preferred the Smoking Loon to my “chicken wine” (as my grocery store clerk fondly calls Rex-Goliath) but only slightly. He says of the big chicken: “Nothing special but I’m telling you, for $7, it’s a crowd-pleaser, this wine.”

Chuck vs. Three Wishes

Huffington Post reviewer Nile Cappello (he describes himself as “no sommelier” but “quite the expert when it comes to cheap wines”) compares Charles Shaw’s chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot with their equivalents from Three Wishes, the Whole Foods label. Three Wishes’ label is “much, much prettier,” and Cappello prefers its cab. But Two-Buck Chuck won the chardonnay and merlot face-offs.

6 more tips

1. Ignore cheap pinot noir. “The bottles I ended up buying on my shopping expeditions were all a waste of money — insipid, dull, even actively unpleasant,” writes Food & Wine’s executive wine editor, Ray Isle.

2. Make malbec your friend. “If full-flavored, capably made, appealing wines that you can buy for a song strike you as interesting, then affordable malbec’s great,” Isle advises.

3. Go for the volume discounts. Grocery stores and wine merchants often offer a discount when you buy six bottles or more. The typical price break is 10 percent, but you’ll occasionally see special grocery store discounts of 15 percent. 

4. Chat up folks at the wine shop. The folks at your local wine store love good wines, of course. They, and the smart staffers at grocery store wine departments, make it their business to be ready with tips on drinkable, low-cost wines.

“Can you recommend a couple good wines for under $10 (or $15)?” customers ask them every day. Are these salespeople knowledgeable? It varies widely. You’ll have to be the judge by sampling their recommendations. Even expert wine tasters often fail to get it right. Once you find a staffer whose taste matches yours, keep going back for more referrals.  

5. Find more great cheap wines. Wine Enthusiast magazine publishes a “Ten Wines Under $10” column each month. Every month brings more wine tips.

Do your own research using Wine Enthusiast’s huge database of reviews. Here’s how:

  • Click on the Buying Guide.
  • Directly under “Buying Guide” you’ll see “search” and “advanced.” Click “advanced.”
  • You’ll find 11 filters, like “types,” “regions” and “varietals.” Use filters for “types,” “Wine Enthusiast rating” and “price.”
  • Click “types,” choose “all wines” and click “apply filter.”
  • Next, click “price” and set the sliding bar to $10. Click “apply filter.”
  • Finally, click “Wine Enthusiast rating” and set the sliding bar to 100 (100 points, the top rating). Click “apply filter.” This delivered a whole lot of results – 12,259, in fact. Fun for browsing but impossible to handle. To narrow the search, also use other filters like “varietals” and “vintage.”

6. Compare prices online. Many sites, such as WineShopper.com and WineAccess.com, are available to help you. Use your favorite search engine to find them.

What are your favorite cheap wines? Share your recommendations below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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