Choosing a high-quality wine in a restaurant is easy. The server or sommelier offers some recommendations, and you pick the one that most closely fits your preferences. When you're staring down a long row of wine bottles at the grocery store, however, it's a different story. There's no wine steward there to tell you which one will go with tonight's baked chicken and pasta, much less which one is higher quality.
While you can't always judge a wine by its bottle (or cask, as the case may be), there are some things you can look at while it's still on the shelf:
- Price. Now, don't get us wrong. There are some really good inexpensive wines out there. Chances are pretty good there are some sitting on your grocer's shelves. A high price doesn't guarantee quality, but it does signal that the market is willing to bear a higher price. That means some people out there consider it a wine of sufficient quality to pay a premium for it. Price shouldn't be your only factor in choosing a wine, but watch out for bargain-basement wines, too.
- The winery. Some vineyards and wineries enjoy a stellar reputation. While enjoying one particular selection from a particular winery doesn't mean you'll like them all, you can expand your safety net out to those wineries you trust. Keep careful note of which selections you enjoy, and which ones you'll want to take a pass on the next time around.
- Regional appellation. Grapes grown in different regions have different flavors, which can often make a subtle but significant difference. Know what regions tend to produce your favorite wines. Realize, as well, that the wine maker is required by federal law to use 85% of the grapes in that wine from a given appellation in order to put it on the label. That number is higher for some varieties in some states.
- Look at the year. Here's where knowing a little bit of history can help, as well. If you know what appellation you enjoy, you can look up the climate and the other weather conditions during a given year. You'll be able to tell if the harvest was perfectly ripe, thereby producing good wine. A season with lots of heat or one that's too cold will produce lesser-quality grapes, and thereby lesser-quality wine. Older wines aren't always better.
- Check out the back label. Each bottle of wine typically has two labels. The front label has the information we've been talking about above, including appellation, brand, and year, as well as other legally-required information like alcohol content. It probably also has some winery marketing-speak, such as being "select reserve" (which just means that it's high quality and extra-aged). The back side, however, has other information. Along with the requisite warning for pregnant women and drunk driving, the winery typically puts some promotional information. There they might say a number of things, many of them in marketing-speak. However, if you look closely, they may mention certain cues, such as some of the fruits used in the wine, its finish, and other features.
- Ask for a sample or a recommendation. While your average grocery store isn't likely to have a sommelier on staff, those with extensive wine departments are learning more and more ways to cater to their customers. Obviously, liquor control regulations limit what a store can do, but some have found ways to promote local wines by sponsoring wine tasting events. In some cases, the stocker who's replenishing the shelves may even have some knowledge that might be helpful.
- Don't be afraid of wines with a screw top or in a cask (box). It's estimated that around 8% of corked wines in a grocery store have been contaminated by the cork. Box wines, as well, are no longer simply a budget item. Make sure to consider both when trying to decide which one to take home.
Ultimately, there's only so much you can do when looking at a bottle on the shelf that will tell you whether you'll like a wine. You need to taste the wine to get the full experience. It comes down to expanding your wine experience, knowing which regions, offerings, and wineries you prefer, and then seeking those out. If all else fails, you might have some luck making specific suggestions to your grocer about what wines you'd like to see (and buy) on their shelves.
David Moore is the Social Media Coordinator at The International Wine of the Month Club, an online mail order wine club established in 1994 and fit for anyone from wine enthusiasts to those just looking for great wedding gift ideas.
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