I recommend having on hand red and white wines that you’d be happy to drink any night of the week, wine that isn’t too sweet for you to reduce into a sauce and that won’t cost you more than $7.99 a bottle.
“Table” wine, in other words.
If you have any anxiety about shopping for wine, I can settle that for you right now.
It’s true that the selection is stupefying, even at a gas station mini-mart.
So the first encouraging thing to know is that the product mostly tastes awful and is woefully overpriced.
What I mean is that any glass of wine that ever disappointed you was most likely an unappealing wine. You and your sense of taste are fine.
Everything about wine carries assumptions of exclusivity. Standing in the wine aisle of the grocery store, trying to decipher the nonsensical verbiage on the back of yet another undifferentiated bottle, it can strike you all of a sudden that you’ve been standing there too long, like some kind of amateur, which just makes you want to grab the next bottle you see and get the hell out of there.
The fact is that even French people standing in the wine aisle of a grocery store in Bordeaux, thirty miles outside some of the greatest vineyards on Earth, stare at the bottles for too long. No one can make any sense out of it.
Ironically, we’re all able to recognize wines that we like, as we can with anything else that we put into our mouths.
Like a good steak, a good wine has a flavor that is obviously delicious.
Think about that for a moment. It could potentially revolutionize your perspective on wine.
If you buy a bottle from a wine shop and the wine turns out to have a bouquet calling to mind grape juice spiked with Everclear, then the shop owners have no idea what they’re doing.
If you buy a glass of wine at a restaurant and the first sip burns all the way down, or it tastes flat, or you find yourself reluctant to drink it along with your meal because its flavor clashes with everything, then the restaurateurs have no idea what they’re doing, either—even if the glass to which we refer is the least expensive one on the wine list.
Any price bracket of wine is capable of presenting you with delicious options. Expensive wines mainly promise greater nuance. Appealing flavor is something that you simply take for granted, regardless of the price tag.
You expect no less from any other food that you purchase.
And on a budget of eight bucks, you can experiment without anxiety.
When shopping for wines, pay attention to the wine producers. They exert the most influence over quality, because they are the ones who furnish the skills and the growing conditions that good results require.
On a wine label, the producer often appears by name, as with Bouchard Ainé et Fils.
Sometimes it’s the name of the property, such as Chateau Maris or Domaine Laroque.
It could also be a brand name, often something stupid like Fat Bastard or Smoking Loon.
Usually appearing beneath the producer is the region from where the wine came. So much of what we think about wine concerns these regions, that I’ll address this directly:
Owning a few hectares in Burgundy doesn’t automatically result in spectacular wine.
This doesn’t stop anyone from putting a spectacular price on the bottle, however.
Wine is produced successfully only in very small regions scattered throughout the globe. It will always be a rather scarce commodity.
This is especially the case with wines from celebrated regions like Bordeaux and Napa Valley.
Wines from these places are all now over-priced, which is to say that their quality will never match what you pay, and that the price of the truly great bottles completely exceeds the value of the pleasure that any wine can ever bring.
Demand is so intense for a place like Burgundy that you’ll spend twenty-five dollars for the region’s weakest product, something that tastes like a $4.99 California merlot.
California, meanwhile, is the vanguard of a mass-market ghetto, including Australia and Spain, where producers are evidently in an arms race to produce the most cloyingly sweet, alcoholic wines possible using aggressive grapes like cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and tempranillo.
I say all of this only so that you’ll permit yourself to acknowledge a bad wine when you taste it. Enough capable people produce enough great wine that good stuff at fair prices is plentiful.
Learning to shop for table wine makes a great initial foray into this enormously satisfying part of meal-making. It’s a great way to reacquaint yourself with the basics if you’ve been burned by one too many clueless recommendations, and to rediscover what it is about wine that really matters to you.
Remember: You can already identify a good wine. The challenge is to simply keep yourself trained on this minimum threshold of quality, regardless of what you hear from anyone else or what a bottle says.
That just makes you a shrewd customer, which is the prerequisite of connoisseurship in anything.
Wines from Romania and Bulgaria, particularly those made with pinot noir
Wines from France made with grenache, gamay and cabernet franc
Feel free to explore wines from Washington, Oregon, California and elsewhere. The suggestions above merely provide greater consistency in quality, in my experience. They’re less likely to swing between quite good and very bad.
Having said that, be aware that wines from France’s Beaujolais and Côte du Rhône regions, once famous bargains, are now generally overpriced. The French Languedoc (long-DOCK) still offers some good values, as does a broad region in France known as the Southwest (Le Sud-Ouest).
Wines made with pino grigio (i.e., pinot gris)
Wines made with sauvignon blanc
Wines made with chardonnay
The same goes here as for what I said about red wines. Be aware that sauvignon blanc wines from the renowned Marlboro County, New Zealand, are generally over-priced, as are chardonnay wines from practically anywhere famous.
A final note:
“Dry” is a misused term. Many people seem to think that it means tannic.
The term “dry” refers to sweetness.
The easiest way to learn the difference between dry and off-dry is to taste for yourself. Compare a French Muscadet with a German gewürztraminer. The former is definitely dry, the latter definitely not.
Tannins are astringent chemical compounds that do in fact make your mouth feel dry. They’re present in black tea, unripe bananas, and in wine as a result of red grape skins and the oak barrels in which many wines are aged.
A Bordeaux-style wine made with cabernet sauvignon is highly tannic; a Beaujolais made with gamay is not. Both should be relatively dry.
Wines can often be described as having good “structure.” What this means, basically, is a wine that isn’t too sweet and a little bit tannic.
In essence, this is what you’re after.
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