Turns out, picking up good, cheap wine from Safeway isn’t as hard as we thought. But before you go stocking up on $7.50 reds willy-nilly (tempting), consider what makes a bottle more or less expensive. Oaking and aging, which round out flavor but take extra resources—surprise—up the cost. For a great cheap pick, seek wines that are easy and inexpensive to make. The flip side of the coin: Some of our favorite varietals really do need that extra TLC (read: oaking) to taste up to par. Here’s where you can save, and where you really should shell out that extra $5.
Save: Cabernet Sauvignon
It’s super easy to make wine with this durable grape, known for thriving in most conditions. Bad weather? Bad soil? No problem. Even when winemakers are working with cheap grapes, it’s pretty hard for them to mess up a bottle. When you know you’ll be drinking from a plastic cup (hi, transatlantic flight), opt for a Cab Sauv.
Splurge: Pinot Noir
This guy is pretty much the opposite of Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir, the Princess and the Pea of the grape family, is thin-skinned and picky. Growing conditions need to be just right to achieve those warm stonefruit and berry flavors you know and love. Cheap Pinots that haven’t been given that level of care and attention just aren’t very worthy of your taste buds.
Save: Sparkling Wine
Great news: It’s your BFF’s birthday. We give you full permission to buy a $12 bottle of bubbly. Champagne might be fancy, but like a designer purse, you’re really just paying for a brand of grapes that come from a tiny area in France. Look for Cava, a dry, elegant and fruity sparkler from northern Spain that’s made exactly like Champagne. Another great option is Crémant wine, grown next to the Champagne region. When in doubt, look for bottles labeled “Metodo Classico” or “Spumante,” which means they were made using the traditional Champagne method.
Chardonnay sometimes gets a bad rap for tasting cloyingly sweet or just generally “oakey.” That’s because cheapo brands often skip the real oaking process and add artificial flavors, which cause mega wine hangovers. Oaking, or aging wine in oak barrels, costs a pretty penny. But it works miracles on Chardonnay, causing the tannins to become less intense and the taste to be smoother. Yes, it’ll impart subtle hints of crème brûlée and brown sugar—but not the flat vanilla notes that make somms cringe.
Save: Vinho Verde
Everyone and their grandmother knows Port. But have you met its unfortified cousin, Vinho Verde? It tastes like a boozy, gloriously dry limeade you never knew you needed on a hot day. And because it’s from Portugal, an up-and-coming wine country, you can score a fantastic bottle for under $10. There, we said it.