What Are You Looking For?
The more wines you taste, the more you hone your skills for identifying a good deal. Whether you're a beginner trying to develop your tastes or a wine enthusiast searching for the “ultimate” bottle, the best advice is to get to know your local wine retailer. He can give you more than recommendations. Once he knows your preferences, he can let you know about special arrivals and give you advanced notification of promotions and sales.
Knowing What You Want
With the thousands of bottles confronting you when you walk into a store, it is difficult to know where to start. The best advice is to start small. First, become familiar with a certain grape. If you particularly like Sauvignon Blanc, try Sauvignon Blanc wines from California, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and the Loire Valley of France. An even better strategy is to try them side by side. The differences — and similarities — become obvious.
Another strategy is to become familiar with a particular wine region. If the Cabernet Sauvignon you like is from Alexander Valley, California, try a different Cabernet from that same region. Look for similar tastes that might be due to the climate and soil (terroir).
You can also focus on a producer and try all the wines in its portfolio. If you like the Chardonnay from Napa Valley's Château Montelena, take a chance and buy a bottle of its Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Riesling. The wines are different, but the winemaker and the philosophy of winemaking are the same.
The key is not to be afraid to try new things. There is nothing wrong with purchasing a wine you enjoy over and over again, but if your goal is truly to learn about wine, you must take risks. There are plenty of inexpensive wines available that give you an experience of regional varietals and the philosophies of the winemakers behind them.
Look for Lesser-Known Varietals
Wine and clothing have something in common. Each has styles that go in and out of fashion. One wine varietal can be hot for a time before receding into the background as another takes its place.
When a varietal achieves a certain level of popularity, everyone starts to produce it to cash in on the craze. The inevitable result is an influx of mediocre wines. Merlot is a perfect example. There will always be quality Merlots, but the true fad-chasers will drop what used to be hot and embrace something else, like Malbec.
Popularity is one factor among many determining the price of a bottle of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are still among the big sellers, and the best producers will have higher price tags.
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Buy Wines from Less Prestigious Regions
Another great way to save money and still enjoy good wine is to avoid most labels saying Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Tuscany. Other wine-producing regions around the world with less expensive real estate offer good wine value.
If France is your objective, get a bottle from Provence, the Loire Valley, or the Languedoc-Roussillon. If you're in the mood for Italian, look for wines from Campania, Calabria, Puglia, or Sicily. The best Spanish Rioja can be expensive, but thankfully you can still find bargains from regions such as Galicia, Rueda, Navarra, and Priorat. South American wines are also amazing deals, with Chile and Argentina leading the way.
Seek Second Labels
Wineries with world-class reputations are extremely selective about the wines bottled under their primary — and most prestigious — labels. Wines which do not make the final cut are typically bottled under “second” labels. Château Lafite reportedly started this practice in the eighteenth century, and other Bordeaux châteaux have followed suit.
Second labels are not bad wines; if they were, why would the winery have bottled them in the first place? In great vintage years, the gap between a winery's primary label and its second label is narrow, making second labels bargains compared to their first label counterparts. Here are second labels from famous Bordeaux châteaux:
Carruades de Lafite from Château Lafite Rothschild
Pavillon Rouge from Château Margaux
Haut-Bages-Averous from Château Lynch-Bages
Les Pagodes de Cos from Château Cos d'Estournel
The second label phenomenon is not as prevalent among United States wineries. Arguably the two most famous U.S. second labels are Decoy from Duckhorn and Overture from Opus One, both from Napa Valley.
Unknown Producers in Great Years
If Bordeaux has an extraordinary vintage, such as 2000, 2005, or 2009, wine prices from the most famous chateaux will skyrocket. However, a better than average winemaker from a smaller, less prestigious chateau a few miles down the road from Chateau Lafite also benefits from the vintage and can produce great wines at a fraction of the price. Thus, any bottle that has “2000” and “Bordeaux” on the label will likely be more than passable.
In regions such as the Napa Valley, where the climate is more consistent from year to year, smaller, unknown producers will likely charge higher prices for their debut wines, as they have the cachet of the region behind them, in addition to higher business costs.
Check Out the Bin End Sales
When a store is making room for new inventory and puts the old bottles on sale, you could run into some treasures. Larger stores might discount whole cases. This is a bargain hunter's paradise. Because you may not be able to tell at a glance which bottles are treasures and which ones are better for cooking, it is prudent to buy just one and try it out first before investing in more.
Buy by the Case
Most retailers offer case discounts and will let you fill the twelve bottle slots with the wines of your choice. The usual case discount is 10 percent, although some wine merchants offer higher discounts if you buy a case of the same wine. You don't need to have an elaborate wine cellar to take advantage of case savings. It just makes sense if you buy wine on a regular basis.