You never really know what a wine will taste like until you open it (even the “experts” don’t!), but there are some things to know to help you improve your chances of picking a great wine to go with dinner tonight. Read on to pick up a few tips, and have your own cheat sheet the next time you venture out to pick up a bottle or two.
The best thing you can do is drink wine! Start by serving it with meals at your home, and pay attention to what you like. Remember where the wine comes from, and what grape it is made of. As an example, Cabernet’s from Napa Valley tend to have similar flavor profiles, so if you like one, you will probably like many of them.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t like the wine you chose for the evening; just remember it and don’t pick it again! The same thing applies; if you really dislike that Reisling from Germany, then chances are you won’t like the next one you pick.
As a guide, here are some general things to remember about the various wines of the world.
The very best wines from California have the name of an American Viticultural Area on them.
The best example would be a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.
There are a number of excellent wines which only have the designation, “California.”
These wines many times are made up of some percentage of grapes from the best areas, but can also contain grapes from anywhere in California, so the cost of production is lower, and thus the prices are lower.
This general principal can be applied to wines from other states.
For example, a wine denoted “Oregon” will not generally be of the same quality or price as one which exclaims that it comes from Willamette Valley in Oregon!
Generically labeled wines like California Chablis or California Burgundy, are often misleading.
A California Chablis could be a mixture of French Colombard and Thompson Seedless grape juices. While bad generic wine would probably go the way of the Dodo Bird unless it was priced at about 99 cents a bottle, thanks to superior methods and advances in wine making technology, great generic wine is common today. Most of the long-standing generic wines you find are reasonably priced and decent wines.
The very best American wines, with one exception, are labeled with the name of the grape.
For example, if a wine is labeled “Chardonnay”, then it must contain at least 75% Chardonnay grapes.
The top whites are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling; however, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Gris, and others are close behind.
The best reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah/Shiraz, but we’re beginning to see successful efforts from Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Grenache and others.
The exception to the varietal label signifying the best wine is the Proprietary label.
Sometimes the best wine a winemaker can possibly make is less than 75% of one varietal (the most famous early example took place at the Joseph Phelps Winery in 1974, where Phelps named his 70% Cab/30% Merlot “Insignia”). That decision engendered the likes of Opus One, Dominus, Magnificat, and Endeavor, to name a few.
Cheat Sheet – Wines From Around the World
Here is a world map “cheat sheet” to help in selecting your favorite grape varietals from the best areas around the world:
1. Chardonnay – Burgundy, France (white)
2. Sauvignon Blanc – Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume from the Loire Valley, France (white)
3. Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc – Bordeaux, France (white)
4. Chenin Blanc – Vouvray from the Loire Valley, France (white)
5. Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot-Bordeaux, France (red)
6. Pinot Noir – Burgundy, France (red)
7. Syrah – Shiraz from Australia (red)
8. Grenache/Garnacha – Cotes-du-Rhone, France and Rioja, Spain (red)
9. Sangiovese – Tuscany, Italy (red)
Cheat Sheet – U.S. Wines
And a “cheat sheet” for selecting some of the best areas for your favorite varietals in the U.S.:
1. Chardonnay – Russian River, Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Sta. Rita Hills and Anderson Valley, Willamette Valley (Oregon) and Washington State (white)
2. Sauvignon Blanc – Napa, Sonoma (white)
3. Riesling – Finger Lakes, New York, Washington State (white)
4. Pinot Gris – Russian River Valley, Oregon, Washington State (white)
5. Zinfandel – Dry Creek Valley, Napa and Sonoma (red)
6. Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot – Napa, Sonoma, Alexander Valley (red)
7. Pinot Noir – Russian River, Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Sta. Rita Hills and Anderson Valley, Willamette Valley (Oregon) and Washington State (red)