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Why do we feel so much pressure and feel like we're going to be judged, especially if we buy a cheap wine? Well, because some folks in the wine industry have made it seem hard and have made you believe that there's a right and a wrong when it comes to wine.
Now hear this: It's not hard. There is no right or wrong. That's the old way of approaching wine. We know better now. Buying wine should be a fun, stress-free exploration. Remember: You're not being tested.
â€¨How to buy wine
But how do you choose wine? Confronted with a menu or huge shop full of bottles, it can be confounding and intimidating. Add to that a limited budget and you might be tempted to order the house wine or grab the nearest bottle sporting a cute animal on the label and run.
But really, all that's needed is to arm yourself with a bit of knowledge so you can shop or order from the wine list like a pro!
First, you need to decide what is cheap and cheerful for you. For the sake of this article, we consider any decent wine between $8 and $14 to be a cheap wine.
Second, let's dispel the screw cap myth once and for all. A screw cap does not indicate a bad or cheap wine. The world of wine is one of tradition and cork is traditional. But the renegade wine producers of New Zealand and Australia were the first to embrace the screw cap and for good reason: it's impervious to leaks. The wine inside is guaranteed to be untainted and delicious. And under that screw cap you can find $8 wines and, yes, $40 wines, too.
Certain countries, wine regions, wine styles and grape varieties lend themselves to less expensive, quality wines. For instance, Vinho Verde from Portugal is a lovely, fruity, tart white wine with an ever-so-slight spritz, perfect for summer sipping, and it's rarely over $12.
Italy produces several wines in the $8 to $11 range that are fantastic values. Look for the Primitivo, Sangiovese and Merlot blends.
Avoid wines that need prolonged aging: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Barolo or Amarone, for example. These wines shouldn't be a bargain. If they are, they're not going to be good or ready to drink for years.
Favour wines that want to be enjoyed fresh and young like Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and many Rieslings to name a few.
How to buy wine in a restaurant
In a restaurant, don't automatically default to the unnamed house wine. Many restaurants offer substantial by-the-glass lists. If you're a wine novice, order by the glass every time you go out. This is a wonderful way to find out your likes and dislikes. Keep notes about the wine, how it tasted with what you ate, how it smelled and what you enjoyed about it.
Ask lots of questions. Don't be shy to ask the server to make a recommendation. You can also ask for a tiny sample of the wine before you buy it.
Wine myths dispelled
Remember the rule: Red wine with meat and white wine with fish and poultry? That was a fine rule of thumb when the only food folks had wine with was French or Continental. Scrap that and start again. Our palates and menus have evolved so greatly. Asian, Indian, Mediterranean and many other influences have crept into our cuisine and that changes the wine 'rules' too. Order a wine that pairs with the strongest flavour on the plate. That may not be the meat; it may be the sauce or a bitter side veggie.
Here's a simple rule of thumb: Asian foods often pair well with crisp, acidic white wines, which can be of great quality for a modest price. Bold red meats and heavy jus go well with strong, mouth-filling reds. The Australians, Spanish, Portuguese and Italians produce fantastic red wines at fantastic prices.
Even bubbly can be affordable. Pricey Champagnes aren't the only sparklers worth celebrating with. Even if you're on a budget, you can still splash out on a sparkling wine. Look for Cremant from France, Asti and Prosecco from Italy and Cava from Spain. It's possible to find lovely bottles under $14, with an even greater selection at the $20 price point.
Shopping for cheap wine
We asked Natalie MacLean, editor of Canada's largest wine review site and author of Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Bottles (Doubleday Canada, 2011) to list her 10 favourite bargain wines for us -- and they're all under $20! Here's what she had to say:
1. Linden Bay Winery Pinot Grigio, Niagara, Ontario, $11
This wine is dry and refreshing with lemon-lime notes and white grapefruit and no heavy oak or alcohol. Perfect for the deck or dock. Pair with salad, shellfish, sushi, light seafood and quiet weekend afternoons. â€¨
2. Alamos Torrontes The Wines Of Catena, Salta, Argentina, $14
Pretty and floral with very pleasant lime blossom aromas. Medium-bodied and ultra food-friendly. Pair with Asian dishes, fresh seafood salad and picnic baskets.
3. Trius Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, Niagara, Ontario, $19
I love the smoky hazelnut goodness here with toasted almonds. Some mouthwatering green apple flavours through the middle. Pair with pan-seared scallops, pasta with a vodka cream sauce, grilled tiger shrimp and chicken skewers.
4. Torres Vina Esmeralda, D.O., Catalunya, Spain, $14
Lemon and white floral notes galore! Mouthwatering acidity. I dare you to find a better wine at this price for spicy dishes and conversation. Go ahead, challenge me!
5. Perrin Rose Reserve, A.C., Cotes Du Rhone, France, $16
A mild rose with pleasant field strawberry and raspberry notes. Bone-dry and food-friendly. Pair with grilled tuna, stuffed olives and paprika-dusted grilled prawns. â€¨
6. Graffigna Malbec Grand Reserve, Pedernal Valley, San Juan, Argentina, $17
Smoky with dark fleshy fruit: perfect for barbecues! Lots of rich flavour with a satisfying full-bodied texture. Fire up the grill and crack open a bottle! Pair with grilled steak, hamburgers, prime rib and brisket.
7. Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza, Argentina, $15
A stunning quality and taste for this price point. Rich and full-bodied with lip-smacking delicious black fruit aromas and just enough toasty oak. Pair with grilled juicy steak and baked beef empanadas. â€¨
8. Heartland Stickleback Red, South Australia, Australia, $15
Incredible price for this quality. Loaded with big black fruit and lots of mouthwatering acidity. Great wine for big meals, especially those involving steak and proposals.
9. Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Maipo Valley, Chile, $14
Full-bodied, rich and layered like you would expect from a $25 wine. Aromas of ripe black plum and blackberry. Perfect for potluck gatherings and movie night. Pair with red meats, pork, ripe cheese and pasta.
10. St. Hallett Shiraz Gamekeeper's, Barossa, South Australia, Australia, $16
This wine has good acidity that cries out for food, especially hearty meat dishes. Ripe and tart blackberry flavours with some black plum and just enough oak. Pair with the smug satisfaction that you paid half what this wine is worth.
Armed with this list, go ahead, print it out and stuff it in your wallet. You'll never feel cheap about buying a bargain wine again.