Drinking Cheap: 25 Reds Under $25

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We’re back with another installment of 20 under 25. This week we tackle reds.

The price-point spread in red wines can be baffling – a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon can be ten bucks, or upward of a thousand, or anything in between. Some regions are simply always going to be more expensive than others for equivalent quality – there’s cachet pricing, vast differences in real estate and production costs, and a host of other factors. The upshot is that it can be hard to know when a lower price means a bummer drinking experience and when it means a scorching-hot deal.

This guide offers a wide range of reds, all reliably great and under $25. Most of these are bottles you can find pretty easily in a wine shop or even your supermarket, and none are so obscure that you can’t get them online if you can’t find them in front of your face at your local grocery store.

Ancient Peaks Zinfandel 2012 ($15.00)


Zins can be big and jammy or relatively restrained – this one’s in the middle and a really great co-pilot for anything grilled, or anything Pizza. Raspberry and cherry as well as the hallmark blackberry flavor that is typical of this grape; hints of vanilla and cedar on the finish. Supple and spicy, not overwhelming. Really good.


Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2012 ($23.00)


From Umbria, Italy (and reasonably easy to come by here), this intense red is a blend of Sangiovese, Sagrantino and Merlot. It’s a brilliant ruby color and very full-bodied with a touch of vanilla on the palate. Like most good Italian wines, it’s a versatile food wine, but if you’re looking for timid and wallflowery this isn’t your guy. It’s intense and brooding. Like James Dean. Only…. Italian. And… wine.


Baileyana S-Bar Pinot Noir (about $20.00)


A lot of San Luis Obispo wineries specialize in Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay). With the region’s extreme proximity to the Pacific, many of them are light-bodied and ephemeral – this one is a little more of a heavy hitter. Blueberry and fig notes, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. A subtle sweetness and very soft texture, but definitely enough of an acidic structure to hold everything up.


Black Slate Porrera Priorat 2012 ($20.00)


Priorat hails from the Catalunya region of Spain and this one might or might not be one of the ones you have to find online – depends where you live. This Garnacha tinta-based wine has a lot of character, evoking stone, raspberries and blueberries. Moderately tannic. Really nice. Actually, I predict Priorat is slated to become a lot more visible in the States sometime soon, so if you like Spanish (and Catalan) wines, consider stocking up before the prices rise.


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Bodegas Beronia Rioja Riserva 2008 ($19.00)


Ah, Tempranillo. Leathery, supple, powerful. This one’s a great exemplar with a rich and complex flavor profile; ripe and fruity but also with notes of toffee and chocolate and baking spices. Silky mouthfeel, very smooth.


Chamisal 2014 Stainless Pinot Noir ($24.00)


Young-tasting (not in a bad way), light-bodied pinot from the San Luis Obispo region. Tart fruit predominates (think cranberry, rhubarb, a little strawberry). It’s a juicy, crisp pinot with an exuberant brightness.


Château Tour Saint-Joseph 2009 ($20.00)


Red Bordeaux from the Haut-Medoc area. Medoc wines, particularly the “Cru Bourgeois” designation, are a relatively awesome deal for good French reds, and this is a good example. “Black” is the first word that comes to mind for this wine. Black cheery. Black currant. Black rock. Licorice. Even a little bit of – is it graphite? I think it is. French wines often show less juiciness and more mineral notes than their American analogues, and you might prefer one style over the other – both are valid. This one’s discernibly French, and very balanced.


Concha y Toro Carmenere Gran Riserva 2011 ($16.00)


I don’t always love southern hemisphere reds; I admit it. This one’s pretty great. Carmenere is probably the “signature” grape of Chile (as Sangiovese is to Tuscany). Concha y Toro’s seduced me because it has a heavy violet presence on the nose and I am always a sucker for that. A bit dusty, lots of black fruit and a very dry finish.


Dashe Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($21.00)


A well-balanced wine from Zinfandel Ground Zero – Dry Creek has a lot of great ones, not all of which are as affordable as this one. It’s a well-balanced (but not timorous) bottle, rich and bright. Nearly black in the glass, aromatics ranging from raspberry and cocoa to violets; on the palate, some spiciness, black cherry, dark chocolate and a little bit of blackcurrant. Deep, but not ponderous.


Duckhorn “Decoy” Sonoma Valley Red Wine ($20.00)


Duckhorn makes some mighty pricey wines – this blend from their “Decoy” budget-friendlier line is a Bordeaux style red – youthful, very brambly, fruits-of-the-forest nose, voluptuous tannins, and a lot of cedary, spicy, woodsy stuff on the palate. Tasty.


Ferrari-Carano Merlot 2012 ($19.00)


I will say it again and again. Merlot is unfashionable right now. That fact is your best friend because prices have gone through the floor. A Merlot that would have commanded a very high price ten years ago can now head for your cellar (or your dinner table) for a song, and that is because people are lemmings and doofuses and not because there is anything wrong with this varietal. Good Merlots are gorgeous. And this one is good. Classic varietal character, plummy and velvety. Nuanced nose of blueberry, pastry, black plums, cedar and chocolate. Ample mouthfeel and soft but lengthy acidity. Palate leads with red cherries, supported by vanilla, cinnamon and mocha notes. Get it before the market corrects on this grape. It will.


The Game Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.00)


Another great value from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa. Nose is dominated by chocolate, plums, blackberry and tobacco. Palate is dense, juicy, with a black fruit character, solid tannins and a long finish. The Game Reserve wines (there is also an excellent Chenin Blanc) are part of a conservation initiative – not only are they very dedicated to biodiversity on their vineyards but a portion of sales for these bottles is collected for disbursement to environmental conservation and education programs in South Africa. So when you buy this, you’re helping to save rhinos – whether that cancels out the rib eye steak that it’s begging to be paired with is a question for the philosophers.


Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvee 2012 ($20.00)


So, this is something I have seen in supermarkets in my neck of the woods but if it doesn’t pop up in yours, it’s worth seeking out via Le Web. Along with Quivira and Preston, Gun-Bun is one of the Sonoma wineries I never stop talking about, and this red blend is one of the reasons why. I don’t even know exactly what-all is in this, but it evokes something from the southern half of France, and with the big delicious plum note that jumps out of this wine I’m guessing Merlot is one of them. Also full of dark berries, chocolate and a bit of smoke. Rounded, nuanced, and rich. Buy it now, drink it soon.


Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 ($15.99)


If you like really light, extremely restrained wines – don’t buy this. Old Vine Zinfandels pack a punch and this one is not an exception. These octogenarian vines produce very intense fruit and the final product is equally striking. Dark, rich, jammy, pappery, with a very long finish. Like many of its kind, an excellent BBQ wine.


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Las Rocas Garnacha 2009 ($12.00)


This Spanish Grenache has an earthy character, a dark ruby hue, and a nose full of kirsch and licorice. Supple medium-full body, raspberry and blackberry on the palate, very lingering finish.


Qupé Central Coast Syrah 2012 ($17.00)


A deep purple wine from Santa Barbara, this is a fairly classic Syrah, inky, a little viscous, with blackberry and pepper and whatever we mean when we call out “forest floor” in a wine – a sort of dark-but-clean earthiness. It’s a non-confrontational wine, which not all Syrahs can claim. In fact it’s a little basic. But that’s not a bad thing, and it’s a very good value.


Reyneke Syrah 2012 (27.00)


This highly-rated syrah is a steal even though it’s the most expensive wine on the list ($27.00 but I am a firm believer in occasional rule-breaking). Biodynamically farmed and fermented with ambient yeasts, this South African wine is highly perfumed, spicy, and structured, with a pronounced white pepper note, a lot of cherry, a bit of fennel and violet, and the heavy, almost meaty character that is found in good Syrahs. More of a showoff than the Qupé, and very yummy.


Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Rosso (around $20.00)


Another Sangiovese blend that holds up excellently against heavier fall and winter food but can also play nicely with a salad. Bright and fruity, voluptuously cherry-forward, totally yum.


StoneCap Merlot 2012 ($10.00)


Once again: unless you can articulate exactly what is so lame about this grape, and do it with more panache than Paul Giamatti, you are not ready to write it off. Get over here and join us on the “More for me!” side. It’s nice here. Velvet and plums, velvet and plums, velvet and plums. Hints of red berries and some spice. A steal.


Thackrey Pleiades Red Wine XXIV ($23.00)


Do you like maverick weirdo mystical artsy polymath types who are shrouded in mystery and eucalyptus volatile oils and fog? Meet Sean Thackrey! This Marin County winewizard makes some super expensive and super culty-sought-after wines. He also makes a Red blend called Pleiades, which mortals can afford to drink on weeknights. The “Chef’s special” of the Thackrey shop comes from a different recipe every year – it’s sort of like going on a blind date but one that was set up by someone who never lets you down. XXIV is a happy little wine, with a wild arpeggio of notes ranging from pomegranate to vanilla to citrus zest to kirsch, chocolate and hazelnut. Clean, fresh finish. Though they are all a little different, any vintage of Pleiades you can get your hands on is worth your time and your under-$25 card-swipe. It’s nutballs-but-gorgeous Bolinas-in-a-bottle and possibly my favorite thing on this list. Adore.


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