Winter and red wine go together like Italian restaurants and pasta, but finding good wine among the mountains of supermarket mediocrity can be harder than persuading a Sicilian not to pay their "taxes" to the Mafia.
Inadequate knowledge can land you in more sour grapes than you bargained for. The global wine glut means there are bargains to be had, but it can be tricky knowing which ones to take a punt on and which ones not to touch with a barge pole. Steering clear of bottles with animals on the label is one rule of thumb, but then how do you choose?
This guide will help you find top-tasting bottles without the price tag to match. I sniffed, swirled, drooled longingly over and, in the worst cases, happily spat out each of 47 wines, in a quest to find the best 10. All had their identities concealed.
Of the 47 wines, 34 came from New Zealand; seven from Australia; five from Italy and one from Spain. All of the wines sampled cost between $15 and $20 a bottle.
Enjoy this top 10 - but when venturing over to the low-priced stands at your local supermarket, remember two things: cheap doesn't always mean cheerful and knowledge means more pleasure for the palate.
TOP RED $15-$20
Carchelo C, $17-$18
If its striking packaging doesn't get you, the dark chocolate taste and full body of this Spanish red will. Expect mocha flavours because this is made from one of the world's most chocolatey grapes, monastrell (aka mourvedre). It is blended into this silky-smooth red with Spain's great red grape, tempranillo, the backbone of great rioja. Winemaker Joaquin Galvez Bauza included smaller amounts of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot to give upfront fruity appeal. Available at specialist vintners nationwide, at Bonita Tapas Bar in Ponsonby, Auckland and Tabou restaurant in Kingsland, Auckland.
2008 Rolling Shiraz, $19-20
This runner-up wine is always good. It comes from the Central Ranges in New South Wales, Australia, whose warm location and rolling hills account for its plump, fleshy, warm fruity flavours - and its name. Widely available.
2008 Cosmo Red, $19-20
To call this wine quirky is understating the case. It's made from a quirky - and secret - combo of four red grapes grown in Gisborne, a place better known for whites.
Winemaker James Millton is a biodynamic guru in the wine world. And it follows that he's adventurous, hence this unusual and delicious blend, which is full-bodied, fleshy and fruit-driven but complex. Bottles of this wine are selling fast, so if you see last year's vintage instead of this 2008 Cosmo, grab it. millton.co.nz
2008 Farnese Sangiovese, $17-18
This stunning bargain is made entirely from Italy's prolific and sometimes unreliable sangiovese grape, which is the mainstay of chianti and deliciously spicy in this red. Like most good sangioveses, this is medium-bodied with pretty out-there tannins, making it a challenge for those accustomed only to Kiwi reds.
Team it with a steaming bowl of tomatoey pasta and all that rusticity is softened beautifully, or just try it with your favourite cheese. Available at specialist wine stores or A Touch of Italy, touchofitaly.co.nz
2007 Cent'Are Nero d'Avola Sicilia, $20
This outstanding, spicy Sicilian red breaks new ground in high-quality winemaking for southern Italy. This is made from the nero d'avola grape - nero being black; Avola being a town in southeast Sicily. It's one of my personal faves, thanks to close acquaintance with it. Available at specialist wine stores or A Touch of Italy, touchofitaly.co.nz
2009 12,000 Miles Cabernet Franc Malbec Merlot, $20
Carterton winemaker Christine Kernohan named this wine in honour of the distance to her Scottish homeland. It is a surprise to see this particular red blend emerge from the Wairarapa - which is better known for pinot noir than for the more challenging Bordeaux trio of cabernet franc, malbec and merlot. Yet these grapes combine deliciously to produce this smooth-textured red with flavours of wild berry. gladstone.co.nz
2009 Villa Maria Private Bin Merlot, $19
Merlot has long been eclipsed by pinot noir as New Zealand's big red wine hope, but many winemakers - especially in Hawke's Bay - still hold this noble red grape in high regard.
This wine shows why. It's a youthful red with pretty strawberry and raspberry aromas, which lead into a full-bodied style. villamaria.co.nz
2008 Sacred Hill Hawke's Bay Syrah, $20
New Zealand now has its own triennial syrah symposium in what is home to our country's top syrahs: Hawke's Bay. This big-bodied syrah comes from the Bay and has classic cracked black pepper flavours and a savoury aroma. It over-delivers on taste for this price. sacredhill.co.nz
2007 Taylors Eighty Acres Shiraz Viognier, $19-$20
While most large wineries have long left family hands, Taylors Wines is celebrating its 40th anniversary of making wine - and remaining family-owned and operated.
This red was an immediate stand-out in the tasting, thanks to its deep, dark colour and soft, fruity flavours. Viognier is a white grape. And though it sounds counterintuitive, its inclusion with shiraz enhances the wine's dark colour and fragrant aromas. It's worth mentioning, too, that this year Taylors Eight Acres wines became 100 per cent carbon neutral. taylorswines.com.au
2008 Lindis River Pinot Noir "1912", $20
Last but not least, this is the sole pinot noir to make the grade for this tasting. It's also the only South Island wine in this top 10 line-up, which is hardly surprising, given that most red grapes need far more warmth than New Zealand's south can offer. This is a light-bodied red with cherry flavours and a silky finish. lindisriver.co.nz
Thanks to my tasting co-ordinator, Douglas Wallis, who unwrapped the wines, poured them and concealed their identities for this story.