When to Save and When to Splurge on Wine, According to Sommeliers

over the shoulder view of woman walking through liquor aisle and choosing bottles of red wine from the shelf in a supermarket
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If you’re feeling perplexed by the price of a bottle of wine on a restaurant menu or wine shop, we certainly don’t blame you. Your cost to buy those 730 or so grapes (well, the juice created from them) is set by a complicated equation, confirms Elyse Lovenworth, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based lead sommelier for the premium online wine shop and wine tasting experience Sommsation.

“The cost of the bottle is based on a lot more than just the juice,” Lovenworth says.

The retail price of a wine is determined by a multitude of factors, including the:

  • Location of the vineyard and the history of the land

  • Reputation of the winemaker

  • Where the fruit is from

  • Farming techniques

  • Harvesting process

  • Winemaking techniques and winery equipment

  • Wine packaging

  • Support staff

  • Advertising and marketing

  • Shipping and fuel costs

  • Supply and demand

Since grapes are grown outside, of course, there’s also the risk of inclement weather—drought, fires, storms, frost—that might destroy some or all of a year’s crop. With all that in mind, it’s pretty magical that $20 bottles are available—and depending on the varietal and where it’s from, that budget-friendly buy can actually taste pretty great.

So today, we’re revealing where to save and where to splurge when buying wine so you can sip and spend wisely.

8 Tips for When to Save and When to Splurge on Wine, According to Sommeliers

The value of the wine is less about the varietal (such as chardonnay or malbec) and more about where it’s from, the quality of the vintage and the talent of the producer, Lovenworth says. But in general, these budget-focused wine buying best practices hold true.

Save: Don’t be fooled by lofty prices.

Taste and overall enjoyment of a glass of wine is extremely subjective, says Brianne Cohen, a Los Angeles-based certified sommelier and wine educator.

“You might try a $10 bottle of wine and love it, then try a $100 bottle of wine and hate it; the person next to you could have the opposite experience,” Cohen explains. “Stay within the price point you’re comfortable with, and approach wine with a sense of discovery and exploration. For all you know, a wine that knocks your socks off could be right around the corner!”

Save: Explore lesser-known regions.

Due to decades, and sometimes centuries, of reputations as prolific and impactful growing regions, land prices in certain growing regions around the globe have skyrocketed. (We’re looking at you, Napa, California and Burgundy, France!)

As you saw in that list of wine cost determinants, the history of the land—as well as the demand for the land and the wines from it—play a big role in the overall price. If you’re looking to spend less, seek out options from up-and-coming wine destinations like Spain, Portugal, Sicily, the Greek islands, the Republic of Georgia, Austria, England or Mexico.

Splurge: Drink like royalty with nebbiolo.

Native to the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, “There is nothing quite like the noble nebbiolo grape, which is responsible for some of the finest wines in the world: barolo and barbaresco,” Lovenworth says.

Luke Wilmoth, beverage manager at CUCINA enoteca with locations in Orange County, Newport Beach, and Irvine, California deems this the “wine of kings and the king of wine,” and describes the wines made from nebbiolo grapes as “big, powerful, beautiful and tannic with a fruity and savory side, like smashing a bing cherry in a leather-bound book. This wine commands respect and gets it.”

It also commands a high price, especially when you realize that quality is paired with stringent regulations that hold barolo and barbaresco producers to high standards to maintain their rich reputation. Whether you’re investing in Wilmoth’s splurge wine (Giacomo Conterno “Cascina Francia” Barolo; $269.99, wine.com) or his still-spendy save pick (Oddero Barolo; $58.99, vivino.com), for the best flavor and aroma experience, always decant, Lovenworth suggests.

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Splurge: Treat yourself to good Champagne.

Many people order and purchase Champagne thinking that is the universal term for bubbles, Wilmoth says, but “that is 100 percent not the case. Prosecco is delicious, but it's not Champagne. Cava is refreshing, but still not Champagne. Heck, sparkling wine as a whole is fun and exciting, but only Champagne is Champagne. Yes, it must come from Champagne, France,” Wilmoth says.

To be a capital “C” Champagne, a bubbly must be:

  • Made with grapes grown in the Champagne region of France

  • Made with chardonnay, pinot noir, and or pinot meunier grapes

“There are many other factors, but those two already set it aside from all the other sparklers. This wine is magical,” Wilmoth says. And that’s why he calls it his “favorite wine to spend, spend, spend on because it's the most versatile for every occasion. Tuesday and pork carnitas tacos: Champagne it is! Friday date night with wild mushroom risotto and roasted duck? Yup, Champs! Or every wine professional's favorite, fried chicken, caviar, and a cold sip of elegant Champagne.”

Try Henri Giraurd 'Ay Grand Cru' Champagne ($199.99, artisan.wine) at a caviar cocktail hour or for an upscale date night, or score some Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Ste. Anne Brut Montagne de Reims ($54.99, klwines.com) to pop open on a weeknight with tacos or fried chicken.

Splurge: Enjoy a great bottle of pinot noir.

“This grape is notoriously fickle and high maintenance in the vineyard, and it requires a very delicate hand to perfect in the winery,” Lovenworth explains. As such, “The best expressions of pinot noir usually come at a premium price,” she says. “There are some reasonably priced pinots out there, but you have to ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ to find a good one,” so this is one place she recommends splurging at least a bit, if you can.

Cohen recommends La Follette Heintz Vineyard pinot noir ($65, store.lafollettewines.com) for juice that’s “delicate yet powerful; that perfect tension you want in a pinot noir. It offers perfumed notes on the nose, with a welcome spiciness on the palate.”

Save: You can find a great riesling for next to nothing.

If you’re looking to spend $20 or less on a versatile white wine that pairs well with everything from Thai takeout to roast duck to steamed lobster, “look no further than German riesling. Germany has a classification system that sets standards for grape-growing and wine-making, ensuring the integrity of the region and the overall quality of the wines,” Lovenworth says.

Some of the best values to be found are among the dry rieslings Lovenworth adores. Look for “Trocken” on the label, which loosely translates from German to mean “wines with no detectable residual sugars.”

Split the difference: Splurge or save on cabernet sauvignon.

“Unlike pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon is a hearty grape with thick skins. It is grown all over the world, and most famous for its expressions from Napa Valley, California and the Bordeaux region in France. Both regions offer a significant number of premium wines with price points to match,” Cohen says. (See: DAOU Family Estates Soul of a Lion; $150, daouvineyards.com)

That said, there are cabernet “steals” to be found, if you know where to look. You can find exceptional value with wines from Washington State, Lovenworth confirms, and Cohen suggests keeping an eye on Chile. Try Walla Walla, Washington-made Amavi Cellars cabernet sauvignon ($29.95, vivino.com) or Chilean Viña Aquitania Lazuli cabernet sauvignon ($34.95, vivino.com).

Save: Join a wine club for budget-friendly buys.

If you enjoy a particular wineries’ products, or live nearby or visit that region often, it can be a wise move to sign up for the wine club.

“Wineries offer awesome benefits to their club members, like discounted bottle pricing and shipping promotions,” Lovenworth says, plus some wineries offer free or discounted on-site tastings, wine-pairing dinners or other events.

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