Cheap thrills

There's nothing more delicious than a good wine bargain. (Chicago Tribune/Bonnie Trafelet)

It's January. It's dark and cold and icy and icky. Holiday bills are coming due. The kids have the flu.

Comfort yourself, a little, with a good bottle of cheap wine.Truly, there's nothing more delicious than a bargain.

Consumers feeling the pinch are already taking steps, going out less and cutting back on higher-priced wines when they do, according to The Nielson Co., a market research firm. Yet, Nielsen notes consumers are reluctant to cut back on wine and other alcoholic beverages at home, viewing them as an "affordable indulgence."

Statistics tell the story.

The strongest sales, both in terms of dollars spent and volume purchased, are for wines priced between $3 and $6, Nielsen's figures show. Hit hardest? Wines priced $15 and above.

Binny's Beverage Depot stores "are seeing an increase in the number of bottles sold, and a small decrease in the price per bottle," said Bill Newton, the company's wine and special events director.

Over at Treasure Island Foods, customers are zeroing in on wine priced from $9 to $13, according to Kathy Kingston, director of wines and spirits.

"It is fun to sell like that, to be honest, because the market is full of goodies," she said. What's not going up, however, are jug sales. Those figures are holding steady.

What to look for in a bargain wine?

"Good color, grapes you may not recognize, a decent label, a wine salesperson or a good sign and a score. All count for something," said Keith Janosik, regional wine manager for Whole Foods Market. "Boring does not count. Bad wine at 5 bucks is still bad wine."

"Value is a big focus, it just has to be interesting on some level," he added. "I steer clear of those overly acidic inexpensive ones."

Madrigal suggests consumers move away from familiar wine labels.

"These well-worn brands always sell, so you're not going to get bargain pricing," he said. "Ask your merchant for hot deals and, more importantly, get on e-mail lists. There are some incredible values we sell via e-mail and they often sell so quickly they don't even make it to the sales floor."

Meanwhile, Nielsen reports a tilt in the United States wine market toward American wine. A year ago consumers were fueling a double-digit growth rate for both domestic wines and imports. But the bad exchange rate made imports pricier, so now domestic wine growth is outpacing imports.

Yet a number of Chicago wine pros still look overseas for value.

Janosik thinks frugal wine buyers should explore wines from South America, Spain and California's Paso Robles region.

Newton also zeroes in on Chile and Spain.

"Chile remains a strong value-oriented wine growing region with good sauvignon blancs that are significantly less than their French, California and New Zealand counterparts," he said. "For reds, I love the value Spanish wines made from garnacha. These wines tend to be medium-bodied, bright and juicy."

Newton also singles out French Cotes du Rhone from the 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages as "excellent bargains."