Finding Good Value in Wine

Shelf of wine bottles at Aldi.
Yeah, it’s cheap. But is it good value? Perhaps.

Good Value Wine

If you want to find “good value” in the wine world, how easy is it?  How much do you need to know about wine? Is it possible to get “good” wine at a supermarket, or even at a hard discounter like Aldi or Lidl?

Well. Defining “good value” is almost as difficult as defining “good”, since tastes are notoriously different from person to person – particularly when it comes to wine.

Nevertheless, I think most of us could agree that a good value wine is one that punches above its weight.  A wine that offers more – more concentration, complexity, finish, or whatever else is important to you – than most of its immediate competitors for a price that is similar or lower. As it turns out, it isn’t so difficult to find a good value, and you don’t need to know that much about wine to do it. 

But! “Good” is a moving target. Every person who drinks wine EVER has got their own criteria, and there are as many tastes as there are people lifting a glass of wine. The longer you drink wine – and the more attention you pay to what is in your glass – the more your tastes will change.  You will seek out different things, you will want different experiences from your wine. Which is not to say that your tastes will evolve the same way as those of the person sitting across from you. You will remain unique.  But if you have been drinking wine for a while, odds are pretty high that you are going to look for things that wouldn’t have appealed to you when you first started.

So, outside of your own head, what you, personally, think is “good” is anybody’s guess, really.  Hopefully you know what you like.  Having said that, though, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of finding that most elusive of creatures: the “good value” wine!

What to do

There are many options, and they can be grouped into “good”, “better” and “best” without difficulty.

Good Options

Most of these are going to look quite familiar from bargain-hunting for many kinds of non-wine products as well. They are effective. They just require a bit of planning and/or luck.

Wait for Sales and then Stock Up

Self-explanatory. For breadth of selection, online retailers are particularly useful because they generally try to clear out their virtual bin-ends at least once a year.  It’s often a great opportunity to pick up some fairly big names at a good price. Larger retailers, particularly, will also often mark wines down or sell off delisted wines at a good discount.  When they do, get in there! Even mass-market wines will keep for a little while; buy what you can use before it becomes undrinkable. The key here is to check the retailer regularly.

Buy the Mixed Cases

Nearly everybody offers a variation on the mixed case of wines, calling them a tasting package, a wine tour, a tasting course or something even more whimsical.  They are nearly always offered for less than the single-bottle prices would amount to, and it is usually a reasonable deal. Particularly good if you are open to trying things that are new to you. 

Caution: many online shops will offer a large discount on a mixed case of wine to new customers. While these cases can be interesting – and the price is often very attractive – the wines themselves are often own-brand wines (though this is seldom obvious, since they are often branded differently) and the prices are more or less permanently discounted. This practice, while not actually illegal, is deceptive at best. And the deal is essentially illusory.

…or by the Case

Again, most sellers will offer a slight discount if you buy cases of the same wine.  For many, it is giving you the 12th bottle of the same wine for free.  Some will even do it for a case of six. Often it is a flat discount of 10%.

Hit the Hard Discounter

Okay, the prices are lower in any case.  But is the wine any good?  Yes and no.  Your best bet here is to orient yourself on one of two things: the region or the grape. Looking for specific producers is not useful, since the important names almost never sell their wines at hard discounters.

Region:

If you want a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or even a Barolo, Aldi has them. In my opinion they don’t come anywhere near the quality of even modest producers from their respective appellations.  But they can represent typicity for their larger region. The grapes used in the Châteauneuf, for example, are found throughout the south of France, and particularly the southern Rhône and Provence.  So, if you like the Southern Rhône style, think of it as a good Côtes-de-Rhône instead of a poor Châteauneuf. Once you make that mental switch, the wine isn’t bad at all.  This is particularly effective with their Barolo, which is made by one of the biggest cooperatives in Piedmont, and offers excellent value if you think of it, not as a Barolo, but as a basic Nebbiolo, such as is often found bottled as “Langhe”.

Grape:

Okay, international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are grown nearly everywhere. There are decent, extremely cheap wines made from these grapes coming from warm, seasonally stable countries from the southern hemisphere like Chile. You should drink them today instead of tomorrow, but they are just fine. Just don’t expect complexity in your glass.

On the other hand, if it is only important that the name of that famous region is on the bottle, you aren’t likely to find a better price for wines that are from appellations carried by hard discounters. Just don’t expect it to be a top-of-the-line product, it certainly won’t be. Really good bottles sell for far, far more money.

Part II: Better Options

Part III: the Best Options

Coming in a few more days!

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