Cheap wine can be great wine – here’s how

It’s time for some good news: Good wine (including good cheap wine) is in the eye (or tastebuds) of the beholder.


How about even more good news? Good wine doesn’t need to be expensive wine.

A great wine experience is about so many things – good company, conversation, accompanying food, refreshment, easy drinking, a cooling sensation (or a warming sensation), lingering flavour, texture, aroma and even beautiful colours in the glass.

So, can you have a great wine experience with a wine that cost under $15? Absolutely. Under $10? It’s possible. Will every cheap wine deliver a great wine experience? No. The cheaper the wine, the more inherent the risk and therefore the more care that is required in choosing.

In this post, I’ll discuss what factors influence the price of a wine, how wine prices relate to wine quality, where the thresholds are in pricing, how you can get the best value when buying cheap wine, and why you may even want to buy more expensive wines in some cases!

What influences wine price?

Boring old economic factors influence wine price – availability, demand, scarcity, costs, location of vineyard, brand reputation, etc.

However on a more practical level for us as consumers, one of the biggest influences is the purchase channel: Wine prices will be determined by the situation in which you are buying. Also, there will be some trade-offs when buying from cheaper or more expensive places. Here’s a breakdown of prices in different contexts, in order of cheapest to most expensive:

  1. Online wine sales outlets, including ‘secret deal’ sites like Vinomofo Grays Online and Get Wines Direct (these can be risky because you sometimes don’t know what you are getting – that can be the catch)
  2. Online ‘Wine Club’ services like CellarmastersWine Selectors and Virgin Wines (these can be risky because often you will receive two mediocre wines with ‘made up’ brands for every reputable one, in a mixed case)
  3. Large discount liquor retailers like Dan Murphy’s and 1st Choice
  4. Online-only specialty wine offerings like Different Drop and Naked Wines
  5. Independent, franchised and premium corporate ‘brick and mortar’ wine stores (which may also have an online store, usually at a similar price to the shopfront) like Vintage CellarsPorters LiquorPrince Wine StoreMelbourne Street CellarsAnnandale Cellars (also known as Veno)
  6. Cafes and restaurants

Here’s a great list of Australian wine outlets, both online and off, from the NZ-based Wine-Searcher.

How does price relate to quality?

Better wine does cost more. Why? There are a couple of fundamental reasons:

It costs more to make better wine. This is obvious but true.

For example, some evidence suggests that the fewer grapes that are produced by a single vine, the more flavour and perceived quality they have, although there is disagreement on this point too.

Attention to quality in the vineyard can be a major factor in wine price

Attention to quality in the vineyard can be a major factor in wine price

Good wine can only come from good grapes, and vineyard management is critical for good grapes. Vineyard work is one of the highest costs for a winery. So, it follows that a decent amount of effort can only go into the vineyard if the price of the wine allows enough revenue to justify it. The US-based Wine Folly has published an excellent article on the contributors to wine quality.

Winemakers keep their really good stuff separate from the ‘bread and butter’ and treat it in a more ‘handmade’ way (and therefore a costly way). Sometimes they may use more expensive oak barrels; they might keep the wine to mature for longer or use more expensive bottles or labels. All of these things add to the cost, but they also contribute in a good way to the overall wine experience for us.


Important price bands

When shopping for wine, you can target the best value by aiming for specific price ‘bands’. Taking the average major wine retailer like Dan Murphy’s as an example, here are the most important price bands when hunting for great value wine:

Under $12

Probably not terrible – just not very flavourful or interesting. Virtually anything under $10 will be a mass-produced, simple, cheap wine from the large agricultural areas of inland Australia. Most likely it will be a little fruiter (very slightly sweet), easy drinking, inoffensive and simple, but probably without major faults if it is from Australia or New Zealand. Not for taking out to dinner, but OK for a Tuesday night at home. These will not show much varietal character and will not build ‘wine wisdom’, but that’s not what they are for! You will notice an improvement in quality by jumping to the next price band.

$12 – $18

There is value to be had here! Dan Murphy’s, 1st Choice and others regularly price $18 wines at $13-$14 on special. SOME of these will be worth picking up, especially the ones from good, reputable regions for the variety (download the guide below to help you pick the best of these). You will get the biggest boost in quality for every extra dollar spent by jumping to this price band.

$18 – $25

My favourite price band. In this range at a cheaper bottle shop, you can find really expressive, distinctive, flavourful wines that you can learn from. This is where many of the really excellent wineries of Australia and New Zealand pitch their best combination of quality and price. Most of the wines will be clearly labelled as hailing from reputable growing regions, so your chances of choosing a ‘dud’ are greatly reduced. Try using the guide below to find a good value wine in your local bottle shop in this price range. Ask for recommendations from the store based on the guide’s parameters (especially region and variety) to get a great value wine that will really make an occasion or just to celebrate the end of a long week.

How to get the best value when buying cheap wine

  • Find the specials that have been pushed down from the $18-$25 bracket into the $12-$18 bracket
  • Look out for a wine from a reputable growing region for that variety (see the guide below) amongst a sea of non-specific ‘South East Australia’ or ‘Wine from Australia’ labels
  • Feel the indentation in the base of the bottle (the ‘punt’) – it is a bit of a cliché and much-disputed, but there is some truth in the idea that higher-quality wines come in more expensive bottles (i.e. the ones made from heavier, thicker glass with a deeper indentation in the base)
  • Avoid home-brand wines (or made-up brand wines) by looking at the details of the wine producer on the back label – are they providing loads of detail on who made it, or are they being vague? You could even check against this list of known home brand wines

The case for more expensive wines

The more you build your wine wisdom, the more you’ll be on the look-out for excellent wine experiences and good value – and the better you will be at finding it. But, like any pursuit, the more you get into it, the more you could spend. Be warned – the more you learn about wine, the more interesting the higher-priced wines become!

So, are expensive wines worth it? Well, first of all, let’s assume that ‘expensive wines’ are, for the purposes of this article, over $25, simply because this is the next price band above those discussed previously.

A recent University of Western Australia study classified $25-$70 wines as ‘Premium’, based on consumer survey responses, so that seems like a sensible category to use.

Back to our question – I think the average ‘non-wine connoisseur’ can find great-wine for under $25 and even under $18, at the average large retailer. Is expensive wine (let’s say above $25) that much better that it justifies the extra outlay? For most people, most of the time, no. But, the more you taste, learn and appreciate wine, the more you will get from spending a little more to try the exceptional wines on special occasions that sit out of the everyday budget.

In summary

  • Consider where you are buying your wines – weigh up the trade-offs between value and certainty in the different options
  • Think about the price bands next time you are looking for great value cheap wine
  • Don’t forget the simple tips for choosing good value wine every time (see the notes above and download the guide below). This post is useful also.
  • The more you learn about wine, the more that expensive wines will be worth your money

Let me know what you think about wine pricing, buying cheap wine, expensive wine or anything else on this topic! Send me an email via the contact page.