Picking Past the Pretty Label
Alright fam, we know how to taste wine & order it at a restaurant now, but how on earth are you supposed to figure out what wine to buy at the store without getting overwhelmed by all the options and aisles?
As you’re new to wine and learning what you do and don’t like, start where you’re familiar. If you usually like California pinot noir, go to that section and try something different in the same price range. Perhaps try a pinot noir from a different region like Oregon, New Zealand, or even France.
Is white wine more your speed? Let’s say you normally drink chardonnay. The same rules apply as above. Try a chardonnay from a different region or a new one at the same price point.
But let’s say you’ve done that and you’re ready to try new wines and want to do better than a stab in the dark. First, be wary of judging the wine by a pretty label. This is classic marketing at work. That being said, it can give you an indication of the audience they’re going for. Wines like Cupcake, Barefoot, and Ménage à Trois are targeting people new to wine who are attracted to the fun names and branding. If you like these wines, that’s great. Drink them! But don’t limit yourself.
Most wine labels will fall into 1 of 3 categories: the entry wines with fun labels like the ones mentioned above, traditional wines with informative labels like Old World wines from strictly controlled regions like France and Italy, and non-traditional or newer wines with sophisticated or artistic labels. I suggest trying more of the latter 2, as those will usually (not always) be higher quality than the kitschy wines of the first category.
So once you get past the look of the label, what information will help you actually pick a wine you’ll like? The 2 most helpful factors are what grapes are in it and where the wine is from. The label will always include this information, and the wine will be organized by one of those categories.
Let’s start with the grapes and go back to our examples above. We already discussed trying a different wine of the same grape from a different region. We can even go a step further though. If you like pinot noir, a light-bodied red varietal, you could try another light-bodied red wine like a beaujolais made from gamay or a garnacha from Spain.
Let’s say you’re a chardonnay fan, which is a full-bodied white wine. You could also try a different full-bodied white varietal like a viognier or a pinot grigio/pinot gris.
If you’re not sure what’s similar to what you like, one of my best pieces of advice is to simply ask the people at the store. They are almost always helpful and definitely know their selection the best. This works especially well in wine shops, but even folks at the liquor store can be helpful in pointing you in the right direction. At the grocery store you’ll usually be on your own and won’t have a wide selection, so avoid picking up wine there when you want to branch out.
If all else fails, just search “wines similar to X” (grape/style you like) for some suggestions. And of course stay tuned here for more on this topic.
The other way to choose a wine is by where it’s from. This is helpful as the winemaking style and the terroir (the soil and mineral elements) are often similar, especially in highly regulated Old World regions (European countries where modern winemaking began). It can be fun to try a few different varietals from the same area, such as Oregon or Argentina.
Old World wines can be a little tricky as they often label their wines by the region rather than the grape, since all white or red with that regional designation must be of the same varietal. As you get started learning more about wine, simply googling “chardonnay from France” would tell you to look for a bottle of white wine labeled Burgundy, since all white Burgundy must be chardonnay. As you learn more about what wines you like and wine in general, you’ll begin to pick up how different varietals are labeled around the world. Stick with me, and I’ll guide you here.
We’ll get into the nitty gritty of reading a wine label soon, but for now use your wine tasting basics to try out those bottles you bought knowledgeably!
And don’t forget, drinking wine is fun!! You won’t love every bottle you try, even with the advice of your local wine seller and me. But if you taste it mindfully you’ll learn more about what you do and don’t like in wine, and that’s helpful, too!
I’d love to hear how your wine shopping goes and how you used my advice. Please leave a comment with your approach and how it turned out! I hope you shopped with confidence!