buy wine I likePosted: January 22, 2010
Because I’ve been asked, by three of the four people who actually read this blog, and because those three or four people occasionally have me for dinner, (and so it’s in my interest to influence their taste)â€”for these reasons, I’ve written this primer for buying wine. It’s biased, but it’s all true.
1. Buying wine without knowledge of the individual producer is gambling. You read the label as best you can for clues as to what kind of wine it’s going to be and whether you’re going to like it, and then you bet the bottle-price that you’re right. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win big. The more you know, the better your odds.
2. There are tricks that help narrow the odds fast, like knowing the rules of a card game. It is good to know the rules of poker before you put money down, say.
3. The first rule is that place of origin trumps grape. This is less a factor of climate than of culture: Californians tend to make one style of wine, Burgundians another. However, it is also true that most non-Europeans tend to make similar wines. This is because they have no tradition, and so follow fashion: they make what sells.
4. The fashion currently is for big, viscous, jammy, fruity, high-alcohol, often vanilla-flavored (oaky) wines, which are made to be drunk like cocktails and usually detract from a meal. These wines are friendly to palates used to syrupy soft drinks, and to people who need to be smacked to be impressed enough by a wine to spend money on it. Rule: non-European wine from an unknown producer will usually be made in this style.
5. European wine is vastly more interesting, more varied, more difficult, and more likely to improve and improve with the taste of good food. Every region makes several wines in styles altogether distinct from every neighboring region. Many people find this intimidating, and try to cling to grape varieties, which are used to roughly designate style in New-World wines. This method is doomed. Rule one again: place of origin trumps grape.
6. You don’t have to be familiar with (it’s a clichÃ©) every hamlet in France to consistently buy good wine at a good price. There are tricks.
- Trick #1: Choose a region (a country will do) and only drink wines from that region until you get a sense of it. Then, choose another.
Trick #2: Forget regions, buy by importer.
7. A bottle’s importer is usually listed on its back label. Some importers are huge, follow fashion, and are only out to make a buck. Others are boutique operations with two employees who only sell wine they believe in, aesthetically, politically, spiritually. Each importer has its own palate and its own politics, and may or may not have distribution where you live. The trick for you is to find a few you agree with. Once you do, you’re golden: buy everything they import that you can afford; they will rarely lead you astray.
Appendix Iâ€”Miscellaneous advice that didn’t fit anywhere else: Wines from famous places are usually overpriced. Wines with over 13.5% alcohol tend to be more viscous and less versatile with food than lighter ones. Beyond this fact, don’t sweat food-pairings. Forget any prejudice you may have against pink wine, or red or white for that matter. It’s silly. Don’t sweat whether a wine is “good” or not. It’s a drink, after all, not a class marker. That said, one in maybe ten bottles sealed with natural cork is “corked,” and will taste a little like mildew or wet cardboard. A reasonable wine-seller will refund you for these, with a receipt.