As you may or may not have noticed, we are a beer-drinking household. The amount of beer we go through in a given week is a bit alarming. We are also lovers of scotch, and I will admit to having a soft spot for the ever polite gin and tonic, but where Graeme and I really drop the ball is in regards to wine. I like wine more than Graeme does, but both of us are total wine morons and don’t really understand it. I have attended many little intros to tasting wine, and none of them ever managed to penetrate my thick, wine-resistant skull. I am not sure why this is, as I do enjoy a delicious glass of wine, although I am incapable of telling you what I like about it.
I would love to know more about wine generally, but specifically I would love to just feel more confident doing basic things like picking something out at the SAQ, rather than employing my usual tactic of going for the prettiest label within my price range. (Yes, I really do that.) This is where my good friend Petite Chablis comes in. She is not only a lovely person, but she possesses the rare talent of being able to talk about wine in terms that even I, the dumbest wine person there is, can understand. And she has a wonderful approach to wine drinking that is unpretentious, focused on enjoyment and sociability, and does not tend to do that think wine people do where they compare stuff to urine. So I asked her if she would write a guest post for Braising Hell that was a sort of “cheat sheet” for buying wine when you are stupid and overwhelmed, and she kindly obliged. I love what she’s written and I think it will be super instructive for me in my future ventures to the liquor store. If there are any other wine morons out there like me, I am sure you will be as thrilled as I am to read her advice below.
Help! I’m on my way to a dinner party and I’m supposed to bring a bottle of wine and I know nothing about wine. What should I bring?
Facing wine-store panic as you stare down row upon row of unfamiliar labels? You’re not alone.
Unfortunately, there’s a somewhat unwelcoming culture surrounding wine, one that seems to be more about obsessing over the wines themselves than making wine an enjoyable experience – part of a meal, part of a social occasion, or simply a source of relaxation and pleasure. When you’re listening to a friend or acquaintance go on about how this red contains “whispers of lingonberry” or “lacks a sense of terroir,” it can be easy to think, “wow, I really don’t know much about wine.” Hence the uncertainty that can set in when you’re asked to provide wine for a dinner party or when you’re confronted with one of those encyclopedia-length wine lists at a Really Nice Restaurant.
But the truth is that very few people know much about wine, and those who pretend they do often don’t.* And you don’t need to pay $50 or read tons of books about wine or travel the world sipping and spitting** in order to pick out an enjoyable bottle.
Well, that’s great, PC. But I’m still in the liquor store and I still have no idea what to buy. Can we get to the real advice, please? Like which wines I should look for? And now much I’ll need to spend to get a good bottle?
Right, useful advice. Here we go.
I’m a big fan of looking for wines by region and varietal, rather than by label, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar liquor store. The problem with getting too attached to specific labels is that when you can’t find them on the shelves, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and give up and leave the store with yet another bottle of overpriced Cabernet.+ Do jot down the names of a few recommended wines, but if you can’t find them in your store, try something in the same price range from the same region.
Below, I present some suggestions for my favorite region/varietal combos. Almost all of the wines I drink are under $15 (most, in fact, are under $10) and so the recommendations I’ll be making will focus on that price range. I will also mention a few of my favorite wines in these categories, but remember, don’t get too stuck on the labels!
Crisp, light whites (delicious for sipping on hot days, perfect with grilled fish)
- Grüner Veltliner from Austria – OK, this is pretty obscure. But most stores will carry one or two bottles of this wine, and they’re delicious – think lemons and limes, a bit of pineapple and a delicious crisp finish. I like Grooner, which is fairly widely-distributed; I also love the Laurenz und Sophie Singing Grüner Veltliner, but that may be harder to find.
- New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – This is probably my favorite category of white wines. They’re vibrant and fun to drink. A typical New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will have lots of fruit (mango, pineapple, melon, pear) and often some green pepper on the finish to give it a bit of a kick. Our two standbys are Oyster Bay and Nobilo, but I also really like Dashwood.
Heavier whites (great with spicy Thai food and pasta with cream sauces)
- California or Australian Viognier. Viogniers are unusual whites – they usually have a slightly floral smell (think jasmine or honeysuckle) and taste like peaches and apricots and citrus. They are lower in acidity than either of my “crisp white” varietals. Sonoma’s Cline Cellars makes a really nice Viognier, as does the Australian label Yalumba.
- Washington State or German Gewürztraminer. Another unusual white wine; the “gewürz” part of the name means “spice” in German. So, as the name suggests, Gewürztraminer produces a slightly spicy white wine. A typical Gewürztraminer will have some cinnamon or cloves or nutmeg flavor, along with pears and honey. Some Gewürztraminers will also have a hint of sweetness, so I think they’re best when paired with spicy food. Gewürztraminer is usually a German grape, but Washington State has been making some good ones lately. I’ve enjoyed both the Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Hogue Cellars Gewürztraminer.
Light reds (pair these with pizza, grilled chicken, or really just about anything – they are marvelously versatile!)
- Italian Sangiovese or Nero d’Avola. Inexpensive Italian reds make great “table wines” – they are easy and pleasant to drink, with a nice balance of fruit and earth and acidity, and they’re fantastic with food. Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola are two grapes from Italy that usually turn out affordable and yummy reds. We are longtime fans of Di Majo Norante Sangiovese and Archeo Nero d’Avola.
- Côtes du Rhône red wines. These are wines from the Rhône region of Southern France made from a blend of different grapes. The most famous Côtes du Rhône wines, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, will be incredibly expensive. But down at the sub-$15 end of the spectrum you’ll find a lot of wonderful, food-friendly wines. We’re still happily working our way through a case of Domaine des Rozets; the widely-distributed Guigal is also a good bet.
Heavier, bolder reds (pair with red meat or a robust cheese, or sip on their own)
- Argentinian Malbec. This red grape is originally from France but has found great success in Argentina and became very popular very quickly in the US market. These will be spicy, fruit-forward wines, with flavors like blackberries and cherries and pepper. I’m a longtime fan of Conquista and Trapiche; recently we picked up a bottle from Zuccardi that we liked a lot.
- Chilean Cabernet. Cabernet is my favorite red wine, but lately I’ve had a tough time finding US Cabs under $15 that I’m excited about drinking. Fortunately, Chile came to my rescue. Chilean Cabernet will have some raspberry or blackberry quality to it, along with a bit of dark chocolate, black pepper, and tannins. I’ve had good luck with Casillero del Diablo and Xplorador.
Happy wine shopping!
* I am still cranky about the time a guy cornered me at a party to give me a lecture on Malbec. He assumed I had never heard of it and proceeded to tell me several incorrect “facts” about the grape. Sigh.
** I’m not a big fan of spitting. I understand it when you’re going to be tasting a ton of wines and you don’t want to get super-drunk, but I don’t think you can really evaluate a wine unless you actually drink it. Also, I haven’t figured out a way to spit into a bucket without worrying that I’ll either dribble on myself or splash someone else.
+ A story that describes many of my early wine-buying experiences.
Petite Chablis is an enthusiastic amateur wine geek who loves recommending her favorite bottles to friends, both in real life and on the Internet. You can read her musings about inexpensive wine, fun cocktails, and other important topics (like Canadian reality television) at petitechablis.wordpress.com.