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How to Choose Wine: Tips for Picking a Good Bottle of Wine

A large selection of wines at a wine store in Italy.
It's hard to know where to start when picking out a bottle of wine! Photo by brandy turner on Unsplash

When you are choosing a wine, it can seem like a daunting task. How do you choose a good-tasting wine when you don’t know that much about wine? What’s the best red wine? How do you answer that if you’re not even sure what’s a good red wine? Unfortunately, there are no solid answers to this question as a lot of wine tasting comes down to personal taste. However, there are a couple of easy tricks for you to remember that will make the process easier.

To choose wine, you must first consider why you are drinking the wine. Are you pairing for a dinner party? Choosing a bottle at a restaurant? A celebratory gift for someone? Or just looking for something to share on a Saturday night? Whatever the occasion, a bottle of wine holds importance- whether it’s in an investment in an evening or an expression of a relationship.

How do I Choose a Good Wine?

As mentioned above, choosing a good wine is entirely dependent on the tastes of the person (or persons) who will be drinking it and their tastes. When you’re choosing a bottle of wine, it ultimately comes down to two things- what flavors you like out of wine, and how much you want to spend (if you’re not usually a wine drinker then skip ahead a little as we will cover that as well).

A bottle of good wine is something that will make you feel- it should evoke emotions in you, whether that is a simple pleasure or an emotion that is attached to the event that you previously drank it at. Wine should be an expression of the time.

The best way to absolutely guarantee a good wine is to opt for a well-known grape from a well-known wine region, so for a really safe bet, choose something from the Bordeaux region of France or the Napa Valley. These wines will come with a heavier price tag but are more likely to guarantee you to enjoy the wine you are drinking.

Alternatively, if you are looking for something a little more budget that will still be a good wine then research the vineyards that are close to the well-known and famous ones and buy from there. These vineyards are likely to have a very similar style of terroir (environmental factors), having similar weather and similar soil, just missing the price tag of existing reputation.

Know What Flavors You Want

Wine is made up of three major taste points- sweet, from the natural sweetness of the grape, sour, also from the natural flavors of the grape- often referred to instead, as crisp, tart, fresh, etc, and bitter- referred to instead as tannin. Tannins are a naturally recurring bitter flavor that is found in fruit skins, seeds, and other things such as tree bark and tea bags. If you’re still not sure what tannins are, then it’s the taste you get when you leave a tea bag in the cup for too long.

It’s important to note that every wine contains a balance of each of these flavors, so it’s not necessarily as easy as just choosing one and going with that. However, these three bases will give you a really good idea about which direction to go in. Typically the lighter body that a bottle of wine has, the fewer tannins it has, and the more likely it will be erring on the sour side of flavor.

If you are relatively new to wine, then it’s good advice to steer clear from wines with heavy tannins. While not everyone is the same, tannins can be a bit of an acquired taste and particularly for beginner wine drinkers- why jump in at the deep end?

Know Which Type of Wine You Want

If you know that you or the person you are buying for has a particular preference for rosé, then no online quiz or article should tell you to buy a red, a white, or a sparkling (unless it’s a sparkling rose of course). While it is a good idea to try different kinds of wine to expand on what you know that you enjoy, try to explore within what you already know first. That means if you already know that you like light-bodied white wines like Pinot Grigio, try other light-bodied white wines like Sauvignon Blanc.

It can be useful to know that there are a lot of different aspects that can affect the flavors of the wine. This can mean that you have one Sauvignon Blanc, for example, grown and bottled in New Zealand and you love it, but you try another, say from Australia and it’s much less to your taste. This can be very frustrating, especially for someone who is trying to choose a good wine for beginners. There’s a simple reason for this though.

Everything can affect the flavor of a wine, from the type of soil that it was grown in, to the amount of rainfall vs. sunshine that year. Grapes grown in a cooler climate will take longer to ripen, and so produce a wine that has more acidic qualities. Grapes that are grown in a warmer climate ripen faster, so the naturally occurring sugars are more prominent in the wine production process.

Think About Who You Are Buying the Wine For

If you’re buying a bottle of wine as a gift for a wine-lover, then it can be a particularly challenging task. The best advice if this is the case is to ask the recipient what style of wine they like (as in full-bodied or light-bodied, reds, whites, or sparkling. This will give you a little room to play with. You can then either go to a specialized wine shop and ask for advice, or you can try to choose something within the range that you are given by them. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.

If you are buying it for a dinner party that you are a guest at then you can choose something that is a little bit more of a crowd-pleaser. Unless the host has specified what you will be eating then you probably don’t need to worry about pairing it well. If this is the case, a light-bodied red wine like a Pinot Noir will go very well, or else a versatile medium-bodied red like the Spanish Tempranillo.

If you are buying the wine as a gift for someone that you don’t know very well- for example, your children’s teacher – it’s probably best to play it safe and get a crowd pleaser as above. If you know them a little better then you can customize a little more. For example, if you know they are a big coffee drinker then you can probably go for a red that is a little more full-bodied, and if you know they have a bit of a sweet tooth, you can opt for a sweeter wine.

Are You Pairing Wine With Dinner?

Food and wine pairing can be tricky, even for professionals. However, there are a couple of rules that, if you stick to them, make pairing food and wine easy.

If you start with a dish that you want to serve then you can work backward from there. Think about your dish: what is the overall flavor of the dish? This isn’t necessarily based on the type of protein you are serving, but often the sauce. Try to pair with that.

There is a regularly spoken rule in food and wine pairing that white wine goes with fish and other white meats, and red wine goes with red meats. This is a good rule of thumb, especially when starting but it doesn’t always apply.

Think about the weight of your food. Is it a light salad? You should pair it with a light-bodied wine. It’s a heavy stew? It will be perfectly matched with a full-bodied wine.

Are you serving a regional dish? If you are serving something that’s very typically Italian then serve it with a bottle of Italian wine. If you’re serving paella, serve it with a bottle of Spanish coastal wine. The reason why this works so well is that typically the wine and the food were developed over hundreds of years in concurrence with each other.

There are generally two different ways of pairing wines: congruent pairing, which means that you would pair a lemon-based sauce with a wine with sour notes. This is a very popular- and probably the easier way of pairing wines.

However, if you choose this method then you must have a wine that is more of whatever the flavor is. That means if it’s a pairing of sweet food and sweet wine, you will need to choose a wine that is sweeter than the dish. This is because the dish runs the risk of washing out the wine and ruining both.

Alternatively, you could try a complementary pairing. A complimentary wine pairing will make the food taste better with the differences between the two. A good example of this is a creamy dish- for example, a chicken alfredo paired with a tart white wine such as a Pinot Grigio. This combination will allow the best of each component to be presented on your palette.

Don’t Bother About Vintage

Vintage wines have a great reputation with wine drinkers and beginners looking for how to choose wine, but in reality, only a tiny fraction of wines created are ever intended to be kept to vintage. Especially if you’re a relative beginner in the art of choosing the wine you might as well not blow your budget on a wine that you don’t truly understand the complexities of. It’s a waste of money for you.

The year that you see on the bottle is the year that the grapes were picked. Often, wines like to be drunk young, and the younger a wine is the more powerful and punchy its flavors will be. For example, a light-bodied white should always be drunk young, as the longer that it is left the more that it will lose its signature palette of crisp, fruity flavors. The same goes for rosé wine- you should always choose a young rosé, as they are very rarely meant for aging.

If you are trying to choose a wine for you to age at home, for example for a wedding anniversary or the birth of a new child then it’s best to go to a specialized wine shop to ask what their recommendation is. Certain brands are typically good for aging, such as Moscato or cabernet sauvignon, but different years can taste very different from each other because of rainfall, sunshine, or a variety of factors.

Light-bodied vs Full-bodied Wine

The body of the wine is arguably one of the most important components of the wine! The body of the wine refers to the way that the drink feels in your mouth- or the mouthfeel, and the richness of the wine. This texture and flavor of the wine are created by several factors: the grape variety, the alcohol level, and the sweetness of the grapes at the time of harvesting.

The time of harvesting the grape is important as the riper the grape is at the time of harvest, the more natural sugar can be found inside. This means that wine from warmer areas- for example in Australia, is more likely to be both sweeter and fuller in the body than wine that is grown in colder regions- for example in Germany, even if they use the same grape.

Read the Label

This one is a really big one if you want to learn as you drink. If you don’t read the label then every time that you choose a wine, how will you know what you liked about it, and what you didn’t? Equally so, if your wine bottle just says ‘table wine’, or ‘blended’, then it contains a mix of grapes from several different plants. This might taste great, but it’s probably not going to help you with the long-term quest of being able to pick up a bottle of wine and know if you like it.

It can be really easy to be sucked into a wine based on how good the label looks but don’t be fooled. As your mother used to say, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The back of the label will tell you what is inside. Generally speaking, the more information that is on the back of the label, the better.

The things that you should look for on the label are as follows:

The country and the region that the wine was produced in.

If you can’t find the country then it’s likely that what you are looking for is the region of the wine. Once you know the regions of your wine a little better you will be able to identify both the quality and your personal preference for each. The same goes for the country. As we mentioned earlier, certain countries that have a higher average temperature are more likely to produce sweeter wines than cooler countries, owing to the speed at which the grapes ripen.

The Name of the Producer/Wine

Again, as you begin choosing your wine, this probably won’t mean an awful lot to you, but the more that you watch out for the producers that you like the more you will be able to know that you will like a wine before you drink it. This is because wine producers, much like music producers create their own small nuances in their wines.

If you like one of their drinks, the chances are quite high that you will like the other things that they produce. The same is reversed, if you don’t like it, then you may not like the other things that they produce- although we would caution about writing off a producer entirely over one bottle of wine. Once again, as you begin it’s something that shouldn’t affect your choices too much, just something to look out for.

Not all wines will have the producer listed on them. This means that they were made on a larger scale, which can mean that the wine is of lower quality, but again, most of choosing a good wine, for beginners especially, is more about finding out what you like rather than the absolute best quality of everything.

Grape Variety

Probably the most obvious thing on this list. Grape variety what you would consider being the ‘name’ of the wine. This includes things like merlot, malbec, chardonnay, and so on.

While there is plenty of other aspects of a wine that can affect the taste and whether or not you enjoy the wine, the grape variety is the most obvious choice. If there is no grape variety listed on the bottle then the chances are pretty high that it is a blended grape variety. This isn’t a bad thing, but getting one variety as you’re starting out is a helpful way of ensuring that you know what you like.

Vintage

As we mentioned earlier, vintage isn’t something that you really need to be worrying about yet, as the vast majority of wine that is made is not made to be vintage. However, when reading a wine label, the year on the bottle (the year the grapes were harvested) is something that you should learn to notice and appreciate.

Sulfites

Sulfites (when used excessively) are the thing in wine that gives you a headache. By law, wine produces need to disclose if their sulfite quantity exceeds 10mg/per liter. However, lower sulfites don’t necessarily mean a bottle of better wine, as sulfites lower the chances of oxidization and certain other issues that wines can suffer from.

Best Red Wines For Beginners

If you want to start out your red wine journey then a great place to start is with a light-bodied red, like Pinot Noir- especially if you’re starting without food. This is because red wines- particularly heavy-bodied reds like cabernet sauvignon have a very high level of natural bitterness, coming from the tannins within the wine.

It’s perfectly natural to not like bitter drinks the first time- just think about the first time you tried coffee. Just build yourself up from light-bodied reds to medium bodies and then eventually full-bodied wines.

However, if you are pairing your wine with food then you can afford to get a bit more creative. The tannins in wine bond very well with fat. This means that if you want to pair your wine with food like a steak, which is full of fat and protein, the wine that you pair it with will taste nowhere near as bitter as it would if you were to drink it on its own.

In short, if you are drinking the wine on its own or with something like light food, then Pinot Noir is your best choice. If you are eating with something fatty and juicy like beef, then you can afford to try a little bit more of a fuller-body of wine, as the two flavors will pair very well together.

How To Discover Which Wine you Like

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to wine. To find out which wine you like, you simply have to try out a couple of different varieties and remember what you like. As a good starting point, however, you can look at the drinks that you already drink and work from there.

Think about whether you like your coffee with milk in it or whether you like it black. If you like your coffee with milk in it, try for a light-bodied red wine, whereas if you like black coffee try a medium-bodied wine like a merlot. If you love espresso then you can probably start yourself off with a full-bodied red- but don’t be afraid to dial it back down if you find the taste is too strong for you.

If you like your fruit juices to be really bitter, like grapefruit juice, then the chances are that you would enjoy a white wine that’s tart and refreshing, like a pinot grigio or a sauvignon blanc. If you’re more of a cloudy apple juice type of person then you’re probably going to enjoy a chardonnay more.

Some Chardonnays are aged in oak barrels, which makes them the perfect starter wine for people who already love alcohol that’s aged in oak barrels, drinks such as bourbon, whiskey, and certain types of rum.

Final Notes

There are many different factors that come into play when you are learning how to choose a bottle of wine, but in reality, the most important factor is the best wine to drink for you. Drinking wine is an experience, and an experience that is there to be enjoyed. The more that you drink wine, the more confidence you will have choosing a good wine.

Asking yourself what wine you should buy is the first step on a long and exciting journey to being able to choose a wine to go with dinner, choose the best red wine, as well as learning about wine- from the flavor profiles, to identifying what is light and fruity, and what is a good, full-bodied red wine.

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