If you love wine but don’t have endless cash to spare, choosing a bottle can be tricky.
The problem isn’t a lack of low-priced options: The wine industry is growing rapidly and new inexpensive wines show up on wine shop shelves all the time.
The challenge is finding gems among potentially humdrum choices: How do you know which sub-$20 white wine to choose for your summer BBQ? Or decide how cheap is too cheap at a restaurant?
There’s good news for wine-lovers with little cash to spare: Studies show that most people can’t actually taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.
And whether or not you have an especially sensitive palate, there are great values to be found if you shop smart. Here are some rules of thumb you can follow to end up with the finest wine possible on a frugal budget.
1. Look for Lesser-Known Varietals
Wines that Americans love—like Chardonnays—effectively come with a popularity “tax,” and tend to be the most overpriced. It follows that you’ll get a better deal if you look where others don’t, says Cornell Hospitality School wine lecturer Cheryl Stanley.
“Be adventurous,” Stanley says. “There are great values in some lesser known varietals and or regions.”
Those include wines from places with cheap labor costs and lots of inexpensive land, like Malbecs from Mendoza, Argentina, says Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle.
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