A wine industry friend is a member of a prestigious golf club. Most of his fellow members are interested in wine and regularly quiz him about it. Do they ask about the latest Grange? The top bordeaux? Not on your life. The most common question is, "What are the best wines available for less than $20 a bottle?"
Value. It's an interesting concept, especially in wine. To some, a grand cru French burgundy selling for $500 a bottle can be great value; others think anything over $20 has to be pretty good to justify the expenditure. We all love a bargain and although what makes something a great buy is subjective, in reality, most of us have one main yardstick of great value and that's good drinking at a low price. At heart, we are cheapskates. So here's our guide to maximising the quality of the wine you drink, while minimising the cost. We've set $15 a bottle as the upper limit, but good wines do exist at $10 and below.
What's on the label?
"Good wines have to have a story," I heard a wine marketer say. It may sound like spin but the growing thirst for the latest wine trend has created a new generation of label drinkers and opened a world of new opportunities for wine salespeople. A hip winemaker with a good story adds dollars to the price of a wine and allows marketers to persuade you that lower-priced, mass-market labels are somehow second-rate. My advice is to ignore the label and the hype and seek out relatively unfashionable grape varieties such as riesling and cabernet, and uncool regions like the Riverina.
What's in the bottle?
How do you find out whether what's in the bottle is any good? Hone your judgment by jotting down the names of wines you taste. Listen to advice and seek help on the question of wine value. Go to tastings at your local wine shop and see what tickles your fancy among the budget-priced specials. Take recommendations from your wine shop and see if you agree. Read wine commentators in newspapers, magazines and online for recommendations, but be wary of columnists who never include inexpensive wines. Listen to friends' recommendations - word of mouth can be a good source of advice on good value in wine.
Economy of scale counts when it comes to wine value and many of Australia's biggest winemakers have the reserves of know-how, the resources, the technical expertise and the capital to over-deliver in value. Brands like Jacob's Creek, Yalumba, Hardys, De Bortoli, Angove and McWilliams consistently provide amazingly good wines in the $7 to $15 price range.
Fashionably boutique new wineries can certainly make wonderful wines, but the vagaries of climate and scale of production can make them pricey. With $15 or less to spend, it's better to buy wines from long-established, bigger wine regions. South Australia is a good source, as are the broad vineyards of the Murray Valley and the Riverina. Newer regions such as the Yarra Valley and Margaret River have expanded and they are also becoming sources of good, cheap drops.
The flood of imported wine that has inundated Australia in recent years makes local winemakers despair. The buoyant Australian dollar has sometimes made these imports absurdly cheap, while EU government assistance in parts of Europe hasn't helped. Nor has an import-besotted younger generation in the Australian wine trade. But for the consumer it has been a bonanza and imports can offer amazing value for money. Good Spanish red from Rioja and classical chianti for less than $10 a bottle - factor them into your budget.
The bag in the box
Invented in Australia, the wine cask - a collapsible plastic bag of wine in a cardboard box - democratised wine consumption in this country. It offered a readily accessible, everyday glass of wine at a low price and was a major factor in converting beer-drinking Aussies into wine quaffers. The cask came to be regarded with derision by some and variable quality didn't help. Now the cask is falling out of favour, which is a pity as some wine casks contain good wine. For my money, the two-litre casks seem to be the best, with above-ordinary wines consistently coming under Yalumba, De Bortoli and Winesmiths labels. And remember the price: the casks I mentioned sell for $10-$19, which translates to $3.75 to $7 a 750-millilitre bottle. For everyday drinking, it's a persuasive price tag indeed.
The cult of the cleanskin grew out of the wine glut of the late '90s and early 2000s. Wineries with an excess sold large quantities of bottled wine, unlabelled, at very low prices. They also used the cleanskin market to rid themselves of problematic or faulty wine. Initially, cleanskins were sold in lots of six or 12 in a sealed box marked with the basic identity, contents, strength, additives, seller's details and so on. Later, cleanskins came to be sold as individual bottles with labels giving those basic details on each bottle. Are they good buying? Sometimes yes, there have been some surprising bargains over the years, but there have also been shockers. Cleanskins come with no guarantee of origin, other than the basics, so wines under similar labels bought at different times may be quite different. Finding good cleanskins is an adventure for the consumer; but they do exist and cleanskin specialists often have generous tasting and refund policies that reduce disappointments.
Just as big winemakers enjoy economies of scale over smaller operators, so do big retailers. Some in the wine industry lament the power that a few large retail empires wield, but competition between these retail wine giants is so fierce and pricing so sharp, that it has meant a bonanza for consumers. Now the familiar names of Woolworths, Dan Murphy's, Liquorland and Vintage Cellars are being challenged by new international players like ALDI. It really is a buyers' market.
Don't ignore small wine stores. They may not be able to compete on even terms with the big boys when it comes to discounts on national wine brands but they can provide great buys with their exclusive labels, bulk purchases and lesser known gems. They are also more personal in approach and a chat with the proprietor or manager, can often turn up super value wines you may never have heard of.
There are lots of wineries or wine merchants that offer discounts, special bottlings, wine events and so on. Other offers come from enterprises like banks, airlines and media organisations. The deal with each club varies. You might have a ton of choice, or be tied to a limited range; it might involve signing up for mixed dozens of wines sold at a discount over normal retail prices; sometimes you sign up for a regular delivery of wines chosen by the club. The wines are often exclusive to the club, but can have a recognised winery's name on the label, so relative value is a moot point compared to your local wine shop. Check around to find how each club works, but bear in mind what's possible at your local shop. Clubs can be very convenient for the time-poor and their potential buying power can mean low prices. The biggest wine club in Australia is Cellarmasters with well over 300,000 members. With that many purchasers, great economies of scale are possible. As well, Cellarmasters is operated by Woolworths, which adds corporate clout to the equation. The Wine Society is another big club, a not-for-profit co-operative founded in 1946. Members pay a $50 joining fee and agree to at least $100 of goods from the club each year to maintain membership. The Society offers all sorts of benefits, including wine advisors to help with purchases.
20 of the best for less
You can go well below $10 for a bottle of wine that won't kill you. Don't ignore something that sells for $6.99. Check out this bargain hunter's booty of top cheapies, all for under $15.
1. Jacob's Creek Riesling 2013 $7-$10
Classical riesling with style far beyond its price tag. Will age well too. Widely available.
2. McWilliams Hanwood Estate Chardonnay 2013 $8-$10
Inexpensive chardonnay need not be ordinary. Complexity and elegance on a budget. Widely available.
3. Clean Skins Taster's Choice Clare Valley Riesling 2013 $7-$8
This unprepossessing grey label conceals a young riesling that won a gold medal at the Adelaide wine show. Amazing and well worth a gong. Exclusive to Dan Murphy's stores.
4. Neve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $6.99
Paying $25 for New Zealand savvy? Forget it! Try this zesty drop. It ticks all the boxes for $7. Exclusive to ALDI stores.
5. Windy Peak Chardonnay 2013 $11-$14
De Bortoli consistently over-delivers with this refined chardonnay from its Yarra Valley winery. Widely available.
6. Hardy's Siegersdorf Riesling 2013 $10-$12
Riesling with a great heritage and a great price. Pristine varietal character. Exclusive to Dan Murphy's stores.
7. Yalumba Y Series Viognier 2013 $12-$15
The astonishing perfumed aromatics and lush texture of viognier summed up by Australia's experts. Widely available.
8. Angove Long Row Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $8-$10
Passionfruity young sauvignon blanc from South Australia that's zippy and quenching. Widely available.
9. Dopff au Moulin Riesling 2012 $13-$14
Exotic, aromatic riesling from France's Alsace region. Exclusive to Dan Murphy's stores.
10. Trentham Estate River Retreat Pinot Grigio 2013 $9-$10
Pinot grigio that balances ripeness and savoury interest well. Widely available.
11. De Bortoli Sacred Hill Shiraz 2013 $5-$8
Light, easy, everyday drinking red wine at a sensational price. Widely available.
12. Chateau Les Maurins Bordeaux 2012 $9.99
Packaged like a $50 wine, this elegant cabernet-merlot is a steal. Exclusive to ALDI.
13. Deen De Bortoli Vat 9 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 $10-$13
Intense, medium-bodied cabernet of real generosity. Widely available.
14. Elefante Garnacha 2012 $12-$14
Spanish grenache made into a savoury, moreish, satisfying wine of real interest at this price point. Widely available.
15. Tudor Central Victoria Shiraz 2012 $12.99
Spicy, ripe, medium-bodied shiraz, with mellow tannins for easy current drinking. Exclusive to ALDI stores.
16. Zilzie Selection 23 Pinot Noir 2013 $8-$10
Light, succulent pinot that makes a very good no-fuss quaffer and unlike some cheapies, it does have real varietal personality. Widely available.
17. Chemin des Papes Cotes du Rhone 2012 $8-$10
Peppery, meaty, fruity, soft and ripe. This wine from the Cotes du Rhone is an easy-drinking French grenache blend. Exclusive to Dan Murphy's stores.
18. Azahara Shiraz 2013 $13-$15
Generous, ripe and spicy, smooth and uncomplicated enjoyment. Widely available.
19. Montes Classic Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 $8-$9
Appetising, savoury cabernet of good balance and varietal identity from Chile, and is exclusive to Dan Murphy's stores.
20. Vina Decena Reserva 2009 $6.99
An easy-drinking Spanish merlot-cabernet blend that's super-smooth, savoury and mature. Exclusive to ALDI stores.