So, let’s say it is Friday and you are Mr./Ms. average wine consumer on your way home from work. You drop in to the grocery store for a few things and a bottle, or two, of wine for the weekend. Your tendency is probably to go to a brand label you know that has proven reasonable value in the $10-15/btl. range, like Yellow Tail, Cupcake, or Woodbridge. Now, let’s say this day you just got a raise, or your just feeling a little adventurous and decide your willing to up your budget to $20/btl. and you look at the 100′ long wall of wine in front of you… and you are totally lost! What do you do? Make a selection at random? by varietal? because you like the pretty label? If you are like me (before the wine training), I eventually gave up and rolled the dice, picking a bottle at random of a varietal I thought I enjoyed. Half the time, I struck-out and had to pour the bottle down the drain. It happened too often to stick to my pride and drink the awful bottle.
If this sounds familiar, just what can you do to be a little more realistic and have a better chance of selecting a bottle you will enjoy? This will require a little advance thought and a little time to walk through the process, but in the end, you will feel like your money is being better spent!
How do You Drink Wine?
Most importantly, think about how you drink wine: with food, or without. Food requires wines with more acidity to cut through and compliment fats, proteins and carbs. Acidity is the component that makes you salivate and a “bite” is usually felt near the back sides of the mouth and tongue. Easy drinking (less acidic) wines may be what you enjoy, but are best drunk on their own. For example, it is difficult to find a Malbec, or Red Zinfandel with good acidity. I am convinced this is the result of producers assuming people have discovered Malbec and Zin as simple, fruity wines that drink well without food. These varietals can present much more character, but aren’t often produced this way. In the end, wine is a business and if a producer doesn’t think they can sell a type of wine, they will simply choose not to produce it.
If you enjoy wine primarily accompanied with food, then one approach can be looking for regions that are known for producing primarily acidic wines, i.e. Chianti (Italy), White Burgundy (France), or White/Red Bordeaux (France).
Special Case: if you are a red meat eater, wines with high tannins should be your choice, as the tannins break-down the fats in the meat and clean your palate between bites. When your palate is cleared, it prepares your taste buds to appreciate the full flavor of the food with each bite. Tannins are the component that makes your mouth feel like Marlon Brando chewing on cotton balls for his next big scene in The Godfather. The cottony dryness is usually felt between the teeth and gums. These wines are fantastic paired with red meat. Examples would be: all Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Sangiovese, French Red Bordeaux. Italian pasta dishes with red meat sauces are also good pairings for these types of wines.
Why Do You Drink Wine?
Do you drink wine for the appreciation of the flavor, or do you just enjoy relaxing with a bottle of wine after work? If you are the latter, just make an effort to learn the better quality growing regions and select something in your price range from one of these areas. In general, wine regions that are known for their quality, or have been growing wine for generations, tend to offer generally better wines. An example would be Napa Valley in the U.S., or Bolgheri in Italy. If you can find a $20 bottle of Cab Sauv from these areas, give it a shot… it is more likely to be enjoyed, than a random Cab from Lodi, or Mendocino. If flavor is your thing, you are going to be one of those needing to put some effort into learning about wine regions, because that is the only real method for selecting wines by flavor profile.
If you are selecting wine to enjoy with friends, or at a restaurant… some of these same strategies can work. If you are lucky at the restaurant, you might get a server that actually knows something about wine, but in general think of these situations as opportunities to learn more about wine. I have written several more advanced posts on this site to help with a detailed approach to fine wine selection, if you are ready to dive in.