Choosing wine is difficult in the best of times, and these are hardly the easiest of times. But it doesn’t have to be as difficult as the imposing shelves of wine can make it appear. Not only are there services out there to tailor your choice based on your own taste and preferences. But there are several tips that don’t require a refined connoisseur’s palate to help you choose your next bottle.
Regardless of the occasion: whether you are picking a bottle for your next hosting present, thanksgiving peace offering, anniversary dinner or a romantic evening, these tips will come in handy.
One – Don’t focus exclusively on the grape varietal
Here in America, we love to talk about the grape, from Abouriou to Zinfandel, many wine experts know their varietals from A to Z. But most of us can only recognize a handful. The most famous, like Cabernets Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir (there are too many to list them all), can give a wine a certain glamour by association, or a hint of what might be inside. The trouble is, it’s only a hint.
According to wine experts, grape varietal accounts for only about 20-25% of the difference between bottles. The rest of the difference is due to innumerable other factors, like the climate, weather, soil, water, and so much more! So don’t put all your grapes in one basket. More so when you never know what percentage of other grapes might be blended in with that alluring Chardonnay.
In fact, in Europe, the old country and bastion of international wine making, wine drinking, and wine culture, blends are common. Some of the finest wines ever made have been careful, and artful, mixtures of multiple varieties to create a perfected whole.
Two – Don’t fall for the marketing ploys
A truly mind-blowing amount of money is spent every year on marketing wine, and none of it affects the taste of the contents. Fancy labels, suave salesmen, and memorable descriptions surely influence our choices, however. After all, if they didn’t, the companies wouldn’t spend so much on them.
Therein lies the biggest problem with it, the companies that can afford to do so are the ones raking in the most revenue: the big conglomerates. Yes, even in wine, certain huge companies dominate the field, and it can be incredibly difficult to identify their work compared to the small-scale artisanal producers.
So look past the label, and taste the contents whenever possible. If not, ask an expert; just keep in mind they too may sometimes have an interest in influencing your choice.
Three – Wine scores are important, but not everything
Another trend in the American world of wine that no customer can avoid, is ratings. These scores (which usually range from the 80s to 90s out of a so-called 100) are ubiquitous in stores, wine magazines, even some restaurants are happy to post the number. In theory, this is sensible, as they represent the carefully evaluated reflection of wine experts. But in practice, you cannot trust them completely, and should not base your decision solely upon them.
The problem with the scores is two-fold. On the one hand, they have been steadily creeping upward, a slow inflation as wine critics outdo each other…and as the higher rating helps rake in the cash. On the other hand, the scoring system is a reflection of a rather subjective view of what the wine should taste like. Emphasis is placed on heft, length, and ageing potential, rather than how good it might taste when you pop to cork.
Don’t be deceived into blindly following the elite club of experts who deliver these ratings. You have to develop, and learn to rely on, your own unique palate.
Four – Terroir is only as good as you treat it
Terroir is more than just the land upon which the grape is grown. It is also the spirit with which the grape is cultivated, and the way the weather and soil interact. But, perhaps most importantly, it is the way the farmer treats their land.
Grape vines are not easy to grow, and require a great deal of cost, time and attention. Or for corner-cutters, even greater quantities of pesticide and fertilizer. And while pesticide residue is probably not a serious concern in your wine, the care and attention taken by the vinter will be reflected in the final product.
Unfortunately, knowing the full history of a bottle is virtually impossible when choosing one in the store. Short of doing in-depth research, it is difficult to know for sure how a given farmer treats his land, even the internet rarely has all the answers easily available.
But such research can pay off. The right bottles will not only taste better, but be better for the planet and environment. This is why many choose to put their trust in companies dedicated to encouraging the best farming practices by rewarding the farmers who go out of their way to respect the terroir.
Five – Trust your own taste, no one else’s
How much you enjoy the wine you buy will not depend on how much you paid, or how pretty the label is, or even how good the shop owner claimed it was. What matters ultimately is how it tastes, to you. Taste is inevitably subjective, both in what flavors or aromas you prefer, but also how your body detects and responds to them.
And be especially wary of wines which prominently advertise a certain flavor, like chocolate, bubble-gum and so forth (not to be confused with wine coolers). These are not flavors that have been added to wine, but the merest hints of one or more natural chemicals in the wine which an expert palate can pick up on. These ‘flavors’ won’t hit you over the head with a club. In fact, unless you have trained your taste buds, you probably won’t even detect them at all.
Blind taste wines to avoid as much outside influence as possible. Taste different varieties, international vintages, and don’t be afraid to try new things. The objective is to develop your own personal palate. Sure, if you are taking a bottle to a book club, you can ignore all the tips above, but I bet you’ll impress them more if you can articulate what you like about the wine.
Eventually, you’ll become your own connoisseur, by virtue of very pleasant practice. Until then, consider innovative tools which help you develop your own palate faster, and maybe you’ll never have to suffer a bad bottle again.