You can’t travel overseas right now. But your taste buds can—and on the cheap.

By Markham Heid
August 11, 2020
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Like a great book, wine can be transportive. Every bottle contains a bit of the essence of its birthplace , and enjoying a bottle from a faraway land can feel like a few of your senses got to make the trip.  

While a lot of imported wines cost an arm and a leg—and are usually worth every penny—you don’t have to spend big to explore some of the great, under-appreciated wines of Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and other far-flung places.

Here, experts offer their top picks for awesome, affordable grapes, styles, and regions from the world’s major wine-producing countries. Consider this your cheat sheet when it comes to buying first-rate foreign wine on a budget.  

Credit: Adobe Stock

 

Italy

Right now—and it may not last—the Etna region of eastern Sicily is your destination for high-quality, modestly priced Italian wine. “Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco from Sicily are truly exciting categories,” says Madeline Triffon, in-house master sommelier at Plum Market, a chain of upscale grocery and wine stores in Detroit and Chicago. “Grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, the red Nerello Mascalese and white Carricante grapes have terrific quality potential.” Look for Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco bottlings from Planeta and Tenuta di Fessina, such as Tenuta di Fessina’s Etna Rosso, $25.

  

France

Light white wines from the Loire Valley, a major wine-producing region in central France, offer some of the country’s most compelling quality-to-price ratios. Quincy, a small appellation in the east of the Loire, “way undercuts” more famous appellations like Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé for value French Sauvignon Blanc, Triffon says. Muscadet is another great Loire pick, says Olivier Flosse, beverage director at New York City’s Bouley at Home. “One of the best wines for summer, it’s an incredible match with any type of salad of fish,” he says. Domaine Trotereau Quincy 2017, $22 is a good place to start.

 

Germany

In the world of wine, Germany is almost synonymous with Riesling. The country produces plentiful quantities of some of the world’s best Riesling, many of which come from the Mosel region. “But what if I told you that Riesling had a delicious, zippy, and fresh cousin that had all the mineral traits you enjoyed about the Mosel?” asks sommelier John Avelluto, owner of The Owl’s Head wine shop in Brooklyn. That “zippy” cousin is the Elbling grape. “Elbling is an ancient grape varietal—in fact one of Europe’s oldest,” he says. “Bracingly dry, light, and with floral hints, it’s perfect for high summer temperatures and cold food.” It’s also an unbeatable bargain. One excellent example: Weingut Fürst Elbling 2018, $14.

 

Spain

Montsant is a relatively obscure winemaking region in Catalonia, southwest of Barcelona, that encircles the better known (and pricier) Priorat. While it may not have its neighbor’s reputation—at least, not yet—Montsant is producing some true gems. “These rich blends of Garnacha and Cariñena—sometimes with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah—are wonderful values,” Triffon says. Keep your eye out for Venus La Universal Montsant Dido 2018, $21.

 

Greece

Greek wine—any of it, all of it—is worth exploring right now. “The whites are naturally high-acid and pair with everything from seafood to fatty meats, and the reds are lean and fruity and delicious with fish or fatty red meats,” says Zac Adcox, sommelier and beverage director at St. Louis’s indo. Forced to choose, he recommends the red grape Xinomavro and the white grape Assyrtiko, both of which can be found in “really good” sub-$20 bottles. A great example is Thymiopoulos Vineyards 'Young Vines' Xinomavro 2018, $14.

 

Austria

Austria is often overshadowed by Europe’s more prodigious and prestigious winemaking countries. But when it comes to inexpensive, food-friendly red wines, the country’s offerings are hard to beat. “They are the perfect bridge wine for so many types of food,” says Adcox. He recommends Zweigelt, a red that tends to be light-to-medium bodied and equipped with plenty of flavor-plumping acid. Give Heinrich Zweigelt 2016, $18, a try.

 

Portugal

It’s hard to go wrong with red wines from the Douro region of Portugal. “Big fruit but balanced with earth and tannin and acid,” Adcox says. Triffon seconds his endorsement. “They have fabulous density and floral aromas thanks to the famed Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesca grapes,” she says. They’re also incredible values. Wine & Soul Vinho Tinto Manoella 2017, $19, is one of countless great examples.  

 

Argentina

For fans of California Cabernet Sauvignon, Argentinian Malbec has long been an affordable weekday alternative. But the word about Malbec has been out for so long that the wines are no longer the country’s best-kept secret. What is? Ironically, Cabernet Sauvignon. “Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon is a very safe bet for true Cab expression at moderate price points,” Triffon says. Zuccardi’s Q Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, $18, is a good, widely available bottle.

 

Chile

A lot of wine drinkers have been turned on to the insanely good value of Chilean wines, especially the country’s relatively affordable and excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But the humble Pais grape—once among the most-planted in Chile, though usually relegated to cheap bulk wines—has begun to make a reputation for itself. “Chile’s Pais grape has been underrated, but this is changing,” says The Owl’s Head’s Avelluto. “Over the past 10 years we’ve seen many enthusiastic winemakers produce quality wines that have a medium-light body with floral and herbaceous aromatics like rose petals and hibiscus, and fruit profiles ranging from young cherry to pomegranate and cranberry.” He recommends Luis-Antoine Luyt’s Pipeño Carrizal, $20 as one to snatch up if you can find it.

 

South Africa

Chenin Blanc has long been South Africa’s most abundantly grown grape—largely because of its use in brandy. But the country’s old-vine Chenins are worthy of more esteem than they currently enjoy. “The price points are not to be believed,” Triffon says, adding that they’re “a steal if you like complex whites.” Adcox agrees, and says South African Chenin Blanc offers “plump New World body with racy Old World acidity.” One to look for: Joostenberg Chenin Blanc Die Agnteros 2018, $16.

 

Australia

Western Australia is where it’s at, and Triffon says Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are your best value buys from that region. Unlike a lot of U.S. Cab and Chard, she says the alcohol levels of the Aussie iterations tend to be mellower. “Their acidity levels are refreshing thanks to the Indian Ocean breezes,” she adds. Keep an eye out for wines from the Margaret River, such as Point Ormand’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, $13.