I am not mature about wine. Up until a few years ago, I still fervently believed that an acceptable way to drink wine was in a plastic cup with a few shots of lemon-lime soda. But now that I am an official, dyed-in-the-wool food snob, I have had to learn to like wines that pair well with food, taste great, and don’t bust my meager budget. I’m also expected to show up at most gatherings bearing a bottle of wine that has not had sips taken out of it prior to arrival at said gathering. Being an adult is hard.
It doesn’t have to be expensive to be classy, though, provided you that follow this basic guide to selecting a cheap, tasty wine that will go nicely with the food you’re eating.
First, let’s discuss how to taste a cheap wine. Using terms like “oaked” or “nuances” or “grassy” to describe a bottle of wine doesn’t do much for me. Actually, it makes me want to push your face into the water fountain and steal your lunch money. So let’s avoid those altogether. My version of wine appreciation is basically that I appreciate the hell out of wine, and I’m thankful that I get to drink it. Here’s how I want your own wine evaluations to go:
Step 1: Pour a small amount of wine into your glass
Step 2: Swish it around for a second
Step 3: Put some in your mouth
Step 4: “Appreciate” it by asking yourself “when I sipped this wine, did it taste good in my mouth?” If the answer is yes, then you’ve selected a good wine. If the answer is no, then you’ve accidentally picked up a household cleaning product, and should probably lay off of the wine for a few minutes until you can see clearly again.
Kidding. Some wine really sucks. So here are a few of my favorites to get you going. Given the amount of wine I drink (seriously, I’m about 2 bottles of cooking sherry away from living in a refrigerator box with an imaginary cat), I like to think I have a good handle on what cheap wines are the best in their category.
There are a TON of great white wine options for under $12. Enough to get you drunk for a really long time without leaving you penniless, that’s for sure. I have a tendency to choose my white wine based on either a) whether there is a cartoon animal or baked good featured on the label or b) whether I could make the name of the wine into a dirty word if I used a Sharpie marker. When I don’t have time to judge a book by its cover, though, I have some go-tos that always do the trick.
This wine is sweet, fresh, and smooth, like Justin Bieber. Maybe I should only describe wines in terms that refer to Bieber. As in, “this wine is like baby baby baby.” It also has the word “cake” in the name. How can that be bad? It’s not, and for under $12 a pop, you should never say never (ha! Bieber reference!).
Pairs well with: Assertive vegetable flavors and chicken. Try this stuffed mushroom !
Yellowtail Pinot Grigio
Usually, if a wine brand has such aggressive, graphic branding, it’s because it’s going to be sucky. Or because you’re accidentally in a Hollister store, and are about to drink cologne. In this case, I’ve found that having a giant, yellow kangaroo on the front of a bottle doesn’t seem to be mutually exclusive from excellent flavor. This pinot grigio is so light and fresh that you’ll down a bottle before you’ve even realized what you’re doing. It’s too clean to leave a lingering flavor on your tongue, so you can pair it with just about anything you want.
Pairs well with: Salty, spicy foods. Try this corn relish!
Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc
I *love* this wine. Sauvignon Blanc almost always tastes like grapefruits to me. And I love it, despite the fact that every time I take a bite of an actual grapefruit or sip actual grapefruit juice, I feel like someone has committed a war crime in my mouth. Just UGH. But in SB wines, the grapefruit taste is incredibly welcome and feels like drinking on a patio near a beach.
Pairs well with: Fish and fowl alike. Try this lobster-making guide!
Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon
This is the “sack up and drink it, then eat your red meat” kind of wine. I always assumed that red wine was to go with red meat because they both have what looks like blood in them. This is not the case. Rex Goliath Cab Sauv is deep, and reminds me of eating steak in a gentleman’s office. One with lots of wood paneling and globes lying around.
Pairs well with: red meat, red sauce, things that are red, Sprite. Try this meatball sub recipe!
Fish Eye Merlot
The name couldn’t be less appetizing, but Fish Eye does a good job with wines for about $7 a pop. Their merlot is no exception. It’s fruity and dark, and pretty tannic (meaning sucks the moisture from your mouth, if you ask me), but it doesn’t hang around too long on your tongue. I think this is a steak-eating wine. There are other wines, like bordeaus and malbecs that also go well with steak, but a classic merlot just seems to be the perfect choice in my opinion.
Pairs well with: steak, rich pork dishes, chocolate, lemon-lime soda (seriously, it’s like a wine spritzer if you add some frozen berries). Try this steak marinade!
Layer Cake Shiraz
Yes, *coincidentally* this is another wine involving cake. Whatever. It’s spicy, rich, and complex, and I know you’ll love it. The deep, dark flavors feel almost intimate in your mouth (not like that, seriously), and remind me of half-naked people in Moroccan tents. This wine isn’t messing around, though, so if you like your wine light and airy, this is probably going to be too much for you to handle. If you like naked people and/or rich spicy things that aren’t Denzel Washington, then this wine IS for you. Give it a try.
Pairs with: chocolate, gamey meats, rich beef dishes, and sweet potato/squash dishes. Try these sweet potato latkes!
I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you about boxed wine. There are some AWESOME boxed wines available nowadays. It’s not just your parents’ repulsive-but-ultimately-available Franzia blush wine anymore! Some great bets for boxed wines are Bota Box, Black Box, and La Petit Frog.
The benefits of boxed wine:
–3-4 bottles worth of high-quality wine for around $20
–Nobody knows how much you really drank
–You don’t have to finish a bottle in one night (I know, I know, but SOME people don’t drink a whole bottle at a time)
–Stays fresh for weeks at a time
–Handy spigot means no re-corking
–Box shape and size is perfect for keeping in the top shelf of your fridge, where you would otherwise keep worthless crap like milk
–Showing up to a party with a box of wine is like showing up to a party with a keg of beer. Instantly popular and generous.
–Environmentally friendly packaging
–Perfect for camping or poolside, where glass might be dangerous
–Bag can be removed from the box toward the end, avoiding the need for a glass
In the end, the best wine to drink and to serve with a meal is the wine you enjoy the most. Don’t let wine snobbery or prices or labels fool you into drinking something you don’t love. I have been known, on occasion, to drink a white wine with steak, just because I like them better. I have also been known to dump an entire bottle of wine in a Camelbak and float the bladder next to me in a pool, attached to me via the sipping tube, because the wine stays cool and it allows me both hands for reading or shielding my eyes from the cruel sun. I guess what I’m saying is drink what you love in a way that you love it.
What’s your favorite economical wine?