Decision making in the wine aisle can often feel like a total shitshow. When it comes to your own decision-making, it's a interminable pilgrimage through the aisles as you try to find the "best bottle;" the one to be opened for an apéritif, a romantic dinner, or a farewell party for that work colleague of yours that just got laid off. Faced with such an endless wall of bottles, the final decision is similar to playing Russian roulette. To help you avoid a headache—before or after the act—we've prepared a guide to help you pick out a bottle at your local supermarket.
We're not going to lie: Just like you, we're dummies when it comes to wine. To do this right, we asked specialist William Ripley for help. Our expert has worked as a wine dealer in New York before settling in Bordeaux and starting up Cubiton in 2014, a project that's aimed at elevating the reputation of boxed wine. In his quest to find packaging that can properly match the quality of its contents, William spent a good amount of time in neighborhood supermarkets and delis, so he's in a good position to dole out some tips. Here are some rules to live by if you want to score a good bottle of wine at the supermarket—and this is by no means a complete list, but a hell of a useful start.
Taste As Much As Possible
Wine is, above all else, about the pleasure of discovery—the discovery of new flavors as well as new, intoxicating sensations. If, until now, this concept of discovery was limited to downing the first bottle that finds itself in your possession, take interest in what you're drinking from now on. Every opportunity to drink wine will become a way of expanding your horizons and educating your palate. If there are several bottles at your disposal at the table, taste them all! That'll always be better than drenching your brain (and your tastebuds) with that sparkling wine your uncle brings around to every family dinner. If you have a clearer idea of what you like to drink, then that's a good starting point for your research at the supermarket.
Be Willing to Spend More Than Five Bucks
If you want to avoid a category five headache the next day, reach into your wallet instead of trying to save money by getting the cheap stuff. You're putting yourself at risk with anything under five or six bucks. By pushing aside the most affordable bottles, you're dodging disaster, like wines that are often botched and stabilized with chemical products so they don't turn to vinegar. "When you know there are other production materials (a glass bottle, cork or cap, label…), the distributor's margin, the middleman, transportation, VAT...In the end, there isn't much left in profit, so somewhere along the way, it's the winemaker's profit margin and the quality of the wine that are toast," says William. Paying a little more to pay way less later is the right choice.
Take the Time to Read the Label
Without any real knowledge, our reflex is to often pick the prettiest bottle on the shelf. While being attracted to something shiny is only human, it can still be risky. According to William, "a nice bottle is a good start, but using your brain is better." And if the bottle that caught your eye looks more like a Starck lamp with medieval typography than a bottle of wine, it's time to reconsider your choices. In most cases, by reading the wine label on the back of the bottle, you'll learn a lot about the wine's geographic origins, the history of the winery, the grapes being used, the potential vintages, classifications, and other appellations...There's no better way to get the facts.
And if you don't retain anything from this jargon, listen to the dormant epicurean inside of yourself; the one who keeps telling you that taking a little interest in this is worth it in the end. The goal is not to be able to know the names of every AOC or PGI by heart, but at least you'll know which ones are likely to please your palate. Ditto for the grape varieties: You'll quickly discover that a Pinot Noir is nothing like a Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again, test things out, make note of the flavors, and, at most, look things up: you'll be satisfying your inner bacchanalian along the way.
Know at Least Two or Three Vintages and Appellations
"In the category of wines under 10 bucks, the vintage has little influence on the final price. And yet, inside a bottle, a lot of things can happen from one year to the next," explains our specialist. Hence the importance of checking the weather.
Regarding appellations, flavors vary according to the soil and region. The more you head south, the more intense the wine gets. Even within the bounds of the Bordeaux region, for example, there are differences between the left and right banks of the Garonne river: Over by Saint-Emilion, Merlot grapes give us wines with hints of fruit, whereas on the left bank, the Médoc region gives birth to stronger wines thanks to Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a well-known fact that Languedocs and Côtes-du-Rhônes are more powerful wines than Bourgognes or wines from the Loire Valley, which are known for being light.
Don't Trust the "Great Wine of…"
Because the wine you're about to buy probably doesn't come from a small estate. To be distributed in large retailers, there are supply minimums to meet. This doesn't mean the wines will be bad—far from it—but if you want the image of the little winemaker managing a ten-acre vineyard, you're in the wrong place. You'll have to go to the wine shop for that.
Certain expressions on the labels are voluntarily appealing, and quickly conjure up images of Jon Snow pruning his vines with nail clippers. Such is the business of marketing, after all. Yet you should know that behind words like "estate" or "château," there's probably just a huge warehouse coated in metal. On the other hand, turns of phrase like, "Bottled at the château" or, "Bottled on the property" can inspire confidence. They guarantee that different stages of production (from harvest to vinification to the bottling process) are carried out in the same location. And that's at least a small victory for the discerning gourmand that you are.
Beware of Special Sales
If supermarkets are putting wines on sale, there's obviously a reason. It could be to get rid of a wine that didn't sell well (not necessarily because of flavor—maybe because of its appearance or its price). It could be to sell off a wine that is still good, but shouldn't be kept much longer because of its age. Or it could be to orient customers towards a particular wine.
When supermarkets have sales, it's not necessarily to make fools of their customers. According to William, "Even if there are economic imperatives, a wine department manager isn't going to shoot himself in the foot by selling smoke and mirrors. He wants his customers to come back. These guys know wine—some are trained in oenology—and contrary to popular belief, they make interesting selections." So OK, it's worth sticking around, but just be careful.
Pay Attention to Those Cardboard Medals
Like any good wine professional, William was wary of medals for a long time. They are, no doubt, fascinating. We tell ourselves that a wine that received a bronze medal at an Olympics-style wine competition must be good. Wrong. Medals in wine can mean everything and nothing at all. That said, while award winners are not automatically better than others, they're certainly not worse!
Avoid Plastic Bottles at All Costs
As a general rule, all wines that cost less than five bucks at the supermarket are likely to hit you in the head—hard. However, if for whatever reason, you do decide to tempt fate and embark on an adventure with a plastic bottle, consider this: There's a good reason the glass industry is still alive today, and it's because wine is always better in a glass bottle.
Please note: After all this, we do recommend, above all, that you visit your local wine shops, which will always guide you towards a good bottle and properly educate your tastebuds.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on June 27, 2016.