Jennifer is passionate about wine. She has worked in the wine industry for 2 years as well as the restaurant industry for over 10 years.
Choosing a bottle of wine should be an enjoyable experience. But with so many varieties, styles, and regions to choose from, it can be an overwhelming task. Whether you are buying wine for a special occasion, a gift, or yourself, here are some tips to help make your decision easier and a little more enjoyable.
Decide on a Budget
This is the first thing you should do before you even enter the winery or store. Decide how much you would like to spend on a bottle and stick to it. If the staff offers you any help, don't be afraid to tell them what your budget is. That way they can help you find a wine that's in your price range.
Understand the Different Styles of Wine
It's a good idea to become familiar with the different styles of wine. It will help when you are choosing a wine if you know which styles you like and which you don't like. At the very least, you should know the difference between red, white, rose, and sparkling.
Basic Wine Characteristics
Sweetness (or Dryness): Usually, the first thing people notice about a wine when they taste it is the level of sweetness. When a wine has very little sweetness, it is referred to as dry. Knowing whether you like sweet wine, dry wine, or something in between (often referred to as off-dry or medium-dry), is important when choosing a wine.
Body: The body of the wine referrers to the weight or the mouthfeel of the wine. A good way to understand it is thinking about how water would feel in your mouth and comparing it to how olive oil would feel in your mouth. Water would be light-bodied, and oil would be full-bodied. Wine can be light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied.
Acidity: Wine that is acidic has a sharp, tart like taste in the mouth. It's usually the result of grapes that were a little under ripe. Think about it. If you picked a grape off the vine before it was ripe, how would it taste? Sour. Cooler climate regions usually produce more acidic wines because there's not as much sun and heat to fully ripen the grapes.
Fruit: When a wine is referred to as fruity, it is talking about the flavors of fruit that can be tasted in the wine. One misconception is that when a wine is fruity, it means that fruit has been added to the wine. In most cases, wine is only made from grapes (unless it's a fruit wine). These fruit flavors usually come from riper grapes which is why warmer climates produce fruitier and sometimes sweeter wines.
Tannin: Tannin can be easily confused with dryness because tannins leave a dry feeling on the tongue. Tannins are what gives red wines that bitter taste. Wines that are high in tannins will leave your mouth feeling really dry after you swallow it. The tannins come from the skins of the grapes which is why whites don't have tannins. With white wine, the skins are removed before the fermentation process.
Get Familiar With the Wine Regions of the World and What They're Known For
I'm not saying you should know all of the wine regions of the world, their climates, and what type of grapes they grow. But getting a basic understanding of some of the more popular wine regions and what grape varietals they are primarily known for can help quite a bit when buying international wines. For example, Chile is known for Carmenere, Australia is known for Shiraz, Germany is known for Riesling, and New Zealand is known for Sauvignon Blanc. If you are looking to try a wine from Chile, you should look for a Carmenere. If you are looking to try a wine from New Zealand, you should look for a Sauvignon Blanc.
Wine Folly has a good article about the Top Wine Regions of the World. It talks about the 10 most popular wine regions of the world and the grape varietals they are known for.
Know the Basic Wine Terms
There are many different wine terms that are used to describe the taste, smell, appearance, and mouth-feel of wine. Knowing some of the basic wine terms can be helpful when choosing a wine. Knowing what characteristics you personally enjoy in a wine and how to describe them will be useful when asking a staff member for help.
Read my article about wine tasting terms for beginners to get yourself familiar with some of these basic wine terms.
Find the Right Pairing
Its a good idea to learn the basics of wine and food pairing so that you can create your own pairings. And it will help you choose the right wine if you are planning on drinking it with a meal.
As a general rule, rich and flavorful food pairs well with equally flavorful, full-bodied wine. Likewise, delicate food should be paired with more delicate, light-bodied wines. You are trying to match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine. You also have to consider acidity. Generally, the wine should be more acidic than the food. You don't want the food to overpower your wine.
When pairing wine with spicy food, it's important to match the intensity of the wine. You usually want to serve a sweeter wine with spicy food, depending on how much of a kick your dish has. Spice diminishes the sweetness in wine which will make a dryer wine taste sour. The sugar also helps to cut the spicy flavor making sweet wine a great pairing for spicy food.
As far as red and white wines go, there are no rules. You are trying to match the intensity and sweetness of the food with the wine. With that being said, red wine does pair best bold-flavored, fattier meats (red meat) and white wines usually pair best with lighter-intensity meats (chicken or fish).
Ask for Assistance
Don't be afraid to ask for assistance when choosing a wine. The staff is there to help you, and in most cases, they know a fair bit about the wine. Let them know what style of wine you typically like—for example, white or red, dry or sweet—and let them know approximately how much you want to spend. Some places, especially wineries, even offer wine samples, which can be very helpful and fun, too.
Do a Wine Tasting
And finally, the most enjoyable way to find out what wine you love is to try it. Choose a place that will allow you to have samples of the wine. Most wineries offer samples for a small fee. I personally find it a much more enjoyable experience to go to the actual winery instead of a grocery store or other shop. If you don't live near a winery, try to find a wine store instead of a general liquor or grocery store. They are more likely to have wine tastings available.
Important Safety Note: If you are planning on tasting wine it is best to have someone drive for you. A few wine samples might not seem like much but they can definitely sneak up on you. You wouldn't want to be on your way home and realize you shouldn't be driving.