California has one of the best wine-making areas on the planet. Great wine grapes need rolling hills and plenty of sunshine, and Sonoma and Napa have those in spades.
Sadly, I can’t afford wines from this amazing wine region. I’ve tasted many of them during my 17 year food and beverage management career, and most of them are lush, complex, delicious and well outside my price range.
Many of the wines of France and Italy are magnificent as well. But the demand for these wines is so great that they are priced too high for me. Even the least expensive French and Italian wines are usually more than I can afford.
So what’s left?
There are many excellent imported wines that are absolutely affordable. They come from Australia and South America.
Australia has a huge land mass with plenty of areas that are every bit as hilly and sunny and good for growing wine grapes as Napa or Bourdeaux. But Australia doesn’t have a large population — about 20 million people compared to the 312 million in the US.
Consequently, they have a surplus of fabulous wine which is exported cheaply to the US and other countries.
Similarly, South America — and in particular Argentina and Chile — have perfect growing conditions and make really good wine. But because their population is small — 36 million and 17 million, respectively — great wine is available at bargain basement prices.
Even the very low end Australian wines — which are made from all the grapes leftover after the better brands buy up the best — are drinkable, if not amazing. These include Jacob’s Creek, Yellow Tail and Lindemann’s, all of which are available for less than $5/bottle, in some cases closer to $4.
Comparably priced California jug wines — Carlo Rossi, Gallo and the rest — and box wines are not only undrinkable but definitely will give you a headache from all the impurities they contain and because of the accelerated fermentaion process.
South America also has decent wines in the same price range. The brands tend to come and go more quickly than the Australian wines, which have been more effective at marketing specific brands than the Argentineans and Chileans, but the quality you get for the money is probably even better.
Even the revered French winemaker Chateau Lafitte Rothschild has an affordable Argentinean wine on the market for less than $10/bottle. And it is made from the same grape stock as their astronomically priced French wines.
South Africa is another country that has some deeply discounted wines that are of decent quality. And though there are far fewer than Australia or South America, the number of South African offerings is growing every year.
So the next time you want a really affordable wine that you will actually enjoy, walk past the California wine section (you probably won’t even be allowed in the French wine section), and check out some Australian and South American wines. You won’t be disappointed.