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Overwhelmed in the Wine Store? Confused as to Where to Start?

Updated on November 5, 2009

Winer by CAndrews


Overwhelmed at the Wine Store? You're not alone.

A recent marketing study revealed that as many as 26% of wine shoppers describe themselves as ‘overwhelmed’ at the wine store, and it’s little wonder. Wine professionals seem to assume that average consumers are wine geeks just like them, and that’s clearly not the case. Still, choosing a bottle from that confusing cornucopia doesn’t have to be a scary proposition -- armed with just a few simple pointers, you’ll be able to select a red wine that perfectly suits your needs, your palate, and your pocketbook.

Think a bit about what you like. Are you looking for a wine that’s sweet, or do you want something dry? Do you enjoy fresh flavors that remind you of fruit and flowers, or are your tastes more earthy, tending toward spice and smoke? Having an idea of those basic distinctions will narrow your choice considerably, and an understanding of a couple of basic wine facts will guide you toward the perfect bottle.

Reading a Wine Label

Take a look at the label of a bottle that catches your eye. In the United States, winemakers are required to state the amount of alcohol by volume in the wine, and this teeny bit of fine print is your best clue to the relative sweetness of the liquid inside. To understand how it works, consider the basic process of making wine – some yeast is added to some crushed grapes. Yeast eats sugar, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then it excretes alcohol. The more sugar it eats, the more alcohol it creates; the higher the alcoholic content on the label, the dryer the wine. Conversely, low alcohol means that more of the sugar in the grapes remains in the wine. Generally speaking, wines under about 11% alcohol tend toward sweetness, while those above 11% are increasingly dry.

Another key bit of information is a wine’s country of origin. Wine lists and wine stores often divide their offerings by country, but in general terms, you really only need to think about the difference between old world and new world wines. Old world wines come from the classic wine-making regions of Europe - France, Italy, Spain, and all their neighbors. New world wines come from everywhere else – North America, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa. Broadly speaking, the old world leans toward wines that express the soil; they tend to be infused with those spicy, woodsy, leathery flavors that wine geeks call "earthy". Winemakers from the new world often see their wines as an artistic expression, and their nuances are more often bright and juicy – or "fruity", in wine-speak.

So forget all the intimidating advice you’ve ever gotten from snooty waiters or status-conscious friends. Wine doesn’t have to be expensive to be great. It doesn’t have to be anything at all, except what you like. Use these pointers to embark on your personal journey of discovery – there’s no education more enjoyable than a drinking education!

A Starting Point:

To get you started, I suggest you try a variety of wines from reliable producers - those wineries that consistently deliver quality wines in a given varietal. You might want to sample one of each of these varietals, to get a feel for where to dig deeper.

  • Columbia Crest (Washington State) - try their Chardonnay (a popular white) and a couple of popular reds - Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Columbia Crest is a reliable producer of all of these, and widely available in the U.S.
  • Ravenswood (California) - try their Zinfandels - they've got a number of very good ones, and they are also widely available.
  • Rosemount (Australia) - try their Shiraz and Shiraz-Cabernet - both very nice, easily found, and not very expensive.

When you find what you like...

Once you find a wine you like, pick up a couple of extra bottles, to have on hand. Be sure to store them properly, so they'll be as delicious on your next tasting as they were on your first. Invest in an inexpensive wine cooler/wine fridge - even a small 8-bottle wine cooler will do for starters. Then, you can enjoy a really nice wine in the future, perhaps even better than it would be today.

Some Very Enjoyable Reading

Reading about wine can be very interesting, and can really entice your palate, and motivate you to try new wines. A great read - fun and interesting, is Gary Oldman's "Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting wine".

Wine Spectator magazine, available by subscription, or at your local newsstand or wine and liquor store, is also a very enjoyable, casual and unintimidating source of great information on wines. Each issue contains a buying guide, including a "best values" section; they even have a handy tear-out recommendation card, for you to carry along to your local wine shop or liquor store. Personally, I prefer to shop for the wines that Wine Spectator rates in the very high 80s or low 90s. That way, you get a good feel for what a particular varietal or style is supposed to taste like.

I like to have the actual magazine around the house to browse through over time. But, if you prefer to read online, check out winespectator.com, or these other hubs:

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