Seven tips for buying wine when you’re in a strange store, you aren’t sure about what you want, or you’re just generally confused.
Buying wine is confusing to begin with, and it’s even more confusing because the industry wants it be confusing. Case in point: How many times have you read the back label, looking for information about what’s in the bottle, only to find something like: “complemented by currant and wild berry. …a hint of spice and anise. … earth tones are indicative of the mountain soil.” Yes, but what does the wine taste like?
But never fear. The Wine Curmudgeon, as always, is here to lend a hand. These seven guidelines will help you navigate most wine aisles and give you a good idea of whether you want to buy the wine or not. And, if you have a tip that I’ve left out, send me an email or leave a comment.
1. Alcohol levels. Federal law requires labels to list the alcohol level, though it’s sometimes in tiny type and difficult to see. The higher the level, the less sweet the wine. Generally, dry wines start at 12 percent alcohol. Higher alcohol wines, and especially higher alcohol whites, are less pleasant to drink and especially less pleasant if you aren’t having them with food.
2. Different wine, same producer. Many producers have different tiers of wines, based on price. Kendall Jackson, for example, has Vintner’s Reserve (about $12), Grand Reserve (about $18), Highland Estates ($25), and Stature ($50 and more). What that means is that if you like the $12 wine, you’ll probably like the $18 wine even if you’ve never tasted it.
3. Old World vs. New World. Old World wines, from Europe, are less fruity and less alcoholic, while New World wines, from the Southern Hemisphere and the U.S., taste cleaner and fresher. None of these are good or bad; they’re just differences. If you want a fruity wine, you’re better off buying a New World wine.
4. Oak. This is, next to alcohol, one of the most divisive issues in the wine business. Some people love oak and others think it’s the worst thing to ever happen to wine (which is usually what the Wine Curmudgeon thinks). Generally, oak isn’t as noticeable in red wine, but is very obvious in white wines. If you don’t like oak, look for words like vanilla, caramel, buttery, and toast on the back label description. That usually means the wine has significant oak flavors.
5. Appellation. This is the region of the world that the wine is from. For most wines that we drink every day, appellation is mostly about price. Wine that says California on the label is gong to be less expensive than wine that says Central Coast, which is going to less expensive than wine that says Napa. Wine that says South Eastern Australia is going to be less expensive than wine that says Barossa Valley. There’s also a quality difference, with the more specific appellations usually being better made wine.
6. Tannins. Red wines have them and white wines don’t. If you don’t want that bitter, astringent flavor that tannins produce in the back of your mouth, opt for white wine. Also, some red wines –- pinot noir, tempranillo, grenache, and merlot – are less tannic than other red wines – cabernet, shiraz.
7. Shelf talkers. These are the little cards that hang on the shelf under certain wines. Sometimes, they’ll quote scores or the Wine Magazines. The shelf talkers that are most helpful are those that feature store recommendations, usually by the employees. If you try one of these wines, and you like it, you’ll be more comfortable trying another wine that the employee recommended.