Navigating the aisles of your local wine store at the holidays can be a bit taxing. For the most part, you know roughly how much wine you're going to need. You know the mix, such as red/white/sparkling. And, you go into the store with your price points in place. That's the easy part! But, what about the types of wines? It can be seriously intimidating when you're taking a chance on a wine or wines you've never tried and may be buying multiple bottles. Here are a couple tips on how to minimize the- er,- crush- at the wine shop.
Once I've determined the above factors, I stick to my guns. If my price point is $10 a bottle, I stick to it. But, you needn't skip the wines over and under your mark. If, for example, you find a real bargain on a Spanish wine (and there are many) at $8, you've just earned some bonus points to trade up to another wine at $12. Comparatively, if you're buying a 12 bottle case and use this methodology, just keep a running average in your head so there won't be any surprises at the check out.
Next, it doesn't hurt to have a little bit of an idea what you'll be serving with said grape juice. Are you going to be noshing through this stuff, or is it a house red and white for the company? Do you cook on the zestier side, or are you a minimalist? See, the point here is, no one wants to bring home a case of pinot grigio you got a deal on if it's going to come off as wimpy and not up to the fare you've prepared. Get just one, bring it home and give it a try.
As a rule, I try to step up my choices a notch above sipping wine, or cocktail party wine. While a pinot grigio is good for gulping, a crispy sauvignon blanc will show better once food (especially cheese) is introduced. Similarly, reds with some body and abundant fruit will show better with a crowd used to bolder styled blends.
"Ah, but you make it sound so easy!" Yes, eventually, you're going to have to pull the trigger on a wine you've never had. You'll stare at the label, back at the price, then back at the label. Check out the artwork- look for some discernible words, back at the artwork, flip to the back for a description (if there is one) and then glance back at the price. Okay- anyone out there embarrassed that you've been caught doing this? Women are more likely to ask for a suggestion, but men- put aside your pride; this isn't directions you're asking for. You just need a couple bits of information before you make your decision.
If you've had luck with a certain varietal, or grape type, in the past, stick with it. You've still got some narrowing down to do, like region. Merlot from Napa is not merlot from South America is not merlot from Italy or France or Australia. Don't get frustrated. You know what you like, so go with what you know. And then, enlist some help from the shop.
So, you know what you like, you know the price point, you have an idea whether you like fruity, earthy, citrusy, etc., you know if it'll be served with food and hopefully what kind- now, just ask: "I'm looking for a fruity red at around $10 a bottle that will go with some tapas-type hors d'oeuvres. I like red zinfandel but sometimes it can be a little too sweet for me. Do you have any suggestions?" You've just narrowed your choices significantly, and you did it all on your own! If the shop is worth it's weight in wine, they'll offer you at least two to three choices hopefully from different regions of the world. They might even have something open for you to try.
Caution, though: be careful of too much information. If said wine clerk begins talking about the winemaker's technique of canopy management and brix levels right out of the gate, he/she is a self-important douchebag and is not listening to you. If on the other hand you've decided on a wine and ask for more information, some basic geographic and wine-style information is good, but don't hang on every last word. Wine is subjective. And if ever any doubt, drink what you like.
Now- that said, I came across a wine I want to share. It just happens to fit all the criteria above. Las Rocas de San Alejandro, Garnacha, 2007. The grape is "garnacha", which is what the Spanish call grenache. If you are into beaujolais, California zinfandel or cotes du rhone, try this out. A region's climate determines the structure of the wine, that is it's acidity, tannins, sugars, alcohol, etc. And this wine, despite it's bright fruit of ripe cherry and spice is dry with a pleasantly long finish. In short, it is very versatile. I've had it with turkey leftovers and I've had it with pork and mushroom ragout over pasta. I grabbed some cheese from the 9th Street market in Philly this weekend, and it hung right in there. And, at $10 a bottle, it outshines many wines that are double the price.
There. You have a template for finding your way through the wine maze, you've got some rules of thumb and at least one suggestion for a red that works with lots of foods and moods. Once you develop a roster of wines you like, you have reference points, and your vocabulary will increase. Then, be prepared for all the emails from friends who want to know what you served last weekend or what they should drink with chili and Chinese food. Answer, "Why, BEER, of course!"
UPDATE: Some further suggestions on choosing wines and pairing with food...Out & About December: A Perfect Match