12 Sep 2013

My 10 top tips for buying cheap wine

Cheap doesn't always equal good value. As a general rule, the less you pay for something, the less likely it'll be of good quality. So I'd always say beware false economies and, if you have a bit more spare cash, spending just that little bit more can be well worth it.

But that doesn't mean expensive stuff will always be great, or cheap stuff will always be rubbish. If you don't have much to spend, you just need to be selective, and a bit lucky.

My advice for buying cheap wine is based simply on my own experience - so feel free to agree, disagree or add your own top tips.

1. Ignore half-price wine offers in supermarkets

These half-price offers would be great if they were applied at random and on rotation to all the wines in a retailer's range... but they're not. You can find better value wines not on offer.

2. Use supermarket 25% off promotions

These are applied across the whole range (apart from usually the very high-end stuff) and you typically get the discount if you buy six or 12 bottles. A good tactic here is to mix up a few very cheap (but good) bottles - treat these as your "house" or weekday wines - with a few much more interesting ones with the money you've saved.

3. Shop at specialist wine shops

It's become a bit of a wine writer's cliche to say it, but it's true. This is where the all important concept of value rather than cheapness comes in - you're more likely to find interesting or memorable wines in these shops, as wine is their reason for being - it's their speciality rather than a means of driving sales of other items.

4. Go for France, Spain, Argentina and Portugal

I generally find these countries a good bet for cheaper wines - especially reds - by that I mean around the £5-7 mark. Spain in particular seems a top choice for good value wines at the moment, both for classic styles and more new wave examples.

5. Tread carefully elsewhere

On the other hand, if I fancy trying the wines of, say, the USA, South Africa or New Zealand, I might spend a bit more rather than focus on the bargain end, here in the UK at least. Oz Clarke said similar, and if there's anyone who knows his stuff, it's Oz.

6. Shop around

This might seem a bit obvious, but use different retailers. One day you might pick up a bottle in Selfridges or Harvey Nichols, the next it might be Tesco or Aldi. There's good and bad value all over the place, so keep an eye out and take advantage when you spot a good deal, whether for a fancy or a simple bottle of wine.

7. Use the web

Another obvious one, but it is a brilliant tool for finding the best wine deals. And the beauty of it is that while building up a case online you can open another tab in your browser and Google any wine you're thinking of getting to find out more and see what other people and experts thought of it before you commit.

8. Read, read, read and find wine experts you trust

There's no quick fix for this one, but it'll pay dividends - it'll take time and lots of reading to work out who you like and whose tastes are similar to your own. I regularly keep an eye on the blogs and sites of Jamie Goode, Tim Atkin, Jancis Robinson and many, many others. Not just for individual wine recommendations, but general winey titbits.

9. Use social media

This links in with the previous two tips - make use of social media. Following a mix of experts and enthusiasts on Twitter is a great way to learn more about wine.

10. Get clues from the label

It's true the label isn't always a good barometer of what's in the bottle, but sometimes you can pick up little clues to help you. For instance does the label name the winemaker, does it give specifics about the winemaking site and method (eg it was made naturally, unfiltered, from a specific vineyard etc). This is a tricky area as a lot of these things can easily cross over into marketing bumf, but sometimes you just get a sense this is a wine someone's cared about rather than just churned out.