Wallet-Friendly Wine

Our hunt for great-tasting affordable wine.

The Best Red Wines at Safeway Under $15

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[Photograph: Erostrend on Flickr]

Do you like red wine or white wine? Which one is better? Which one is healthier? Which one gives you fewer headaches? Which one stays drinkable longer?

I've been asked these questions and several variants more times than I can count. In many cases, it's hard to give an answer without grossly generalizing. Many, many choices are made in the process of producing wine (both red and white), and each of those choices—Where were the grapes grown? When were they picked? How was the wine fermented? How was oak flavor added?—affect the flavors in a wine, which then continues to evolve over time (and might or might not please your palate in the end!)

Thinking about these issues, I've been wondering a lot about the following would-you-rather question: on average, if you were to spend around $15 on a bottle of wine, and you were given the option of a) randomly selected red wine or b) randomly selected white wine, which would you chose?

For me, personally, I would go with option a). I drink a lot of widely-available wine under $15, and more often than not, I've found reds to fare better than whites—from Barefoot bottles to Black Box. From what I've tasted, it seems like the bold flavor of red wines (perhaps from longer skin contact) makes red wine more forgiving, and over-oaking or out of balance flavors can stick out more egregiously in a white. On the other hand, plenty of people would disagree. There a bunch of budget whites we'd be happy to reach for again and again. (Though you might notice that not all of these are grocery-store available. What is it with big brands and adding tons of oak chips? We are not fans.)

Do you have better luck with white or red wine in the budget category?

We set out to find the best wines to buy at Safeway, and on average, we found more to recommend among the reds compared to the whites, and it wasn't a simple effect of sample size. We tried a whole slew of red wines—27 in total—to pick out the best bottles. Here are the winners of the bunch.

Best Lighter Red Wines

We know that it can be difficult to find good Pinot Noir under $15, but Safeway offers another option to add to the list: Mark West Pinot Noir California 2010, which sells for around 9 bucks. With aromas of cherry cola, we weren't too surprised to find this wine slightly on the sweeter side with a hint of maple. However, spicy flavors (think allspice or cinnamon) and a hint of tobacco balanced out the bottle.

While we typically don't think of Cabernet as a "light" wine, the Greystone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 from California ($10) had enough bright acidity and mellow tannins to squeak by in this category. This wine had a sweetness that reminded us of milk chocolate, but it wasn't cloying. We also picked up some sweet baking spices (mostly nutmeg) to add complexity to the fruity cherry flavors. We especially like this one with salty cheese.

Best Full-Bodied Red Wines

For a fuller-bodied bottled, we liked the Las Rocas Garnacha de San Alejandro Calatayud 2009 ($11) with it's slightly smoky, black cherry aromas. The dark fruit flavors were nicely balanced in the wine with a little tobacco and oaky vanilla and nutmeg. The significant alcohol here was surprisingly well-integrated and not overwhelming (some might argue this is what makes it good bang for your buck). Pick up some semi-soft cheese, like a Port Salut, with a bottle of this wine, and you've got yourself a good time.

The Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino and Lake Counties 2010 ($15) had nice black cherry flavors with black pepper spice mixed in with a little vanilla oakiness. This dry red had mellow tannins to allow for consumption on it's own, but would also be great with Manchego or heartier beef dishes.

We also enjoyed the Bodega Tamari Reserva Malbec Mendoza, Argentina ($11) for its smokiness both in aroma and taste. While this wine wasn't very fruity, there was a bit of perceptible red raspberry. We would suggest letting this wine open up a bit and enjoying with a grilled steak or portobello mushroom.

Consider the Cecchi Chianti Classico DOCG 2009 ($14) for a dinner party featuring braised meat-based pasta sauces. This robust wine smelled like fennel and had earthy, almost bell peppery flavors complemented by dark fruit. The tannins will stand up well to richer dishes.

Many of our tasters also liked the Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection Black Label Claret Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 from California, which sells for $15. Like the name, this wine is layered with black currant, dark cherry, balsamic and a little cola. But with powerful acidity, this wine needed some substantial airing out before we were ready to dive back in, so I would suggest pouring 30-60 minutes before you're ready to serve, or dump the bottle into a decanter/pitcher beforehand. (You could even re-open it the next day.) A meaty lasagna or beef stew would do just the trick with this Cab.

We drew the line at $15, but if you are stocking up for a fancier occasion (or scored a serious coupon-discount on your groceries), we were impressed by the Franciscan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010, which sells for $19. This wine was very smooth, with a little spice and earthiness, but enough acidity to keep it bright. Because of the nice balance from this bottle, we'd drink this by itself, but it would be great with steak or a side of salami.

What are your favorite bottles from Safeway? Do you prefer reds or the whites? Any recommendations to pass along?

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting. You can follow her on twitter @seemagunda

Wines provided as samples for review consideration.

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