The grocery store wine aisle. The most intimidating shopping experience since unnecessary hyperbole was invented. Half of the wines are genuinely bad. Another quarter are generic and bland. Most of the rest are overpriced. And most infuriating is that when you find one you like, it might not be good the next year. How is someone supposed to find a good wine in all these bad choices?
The best way is to actually taste them all and figure out which ones are good. Since that’s all but impossible for an average person, the best way is to avoid grocery store wine aisles and head straight for your local wine shop. A good wine shop can steer you towards low priced high quality wines, because they’ve tasted every wine in their store.
But that doesn’t always work. So what’s next best? Below I give some strategies for finding a wine that will make you happy and not break the bank. The tricky part is that you aren’t necessarily going to like what I like, so we have to start with what kind of wine you’re likely to like. Like, you know what I mean?
New Wine Drinkers
Let’s start with new wine drinkers. You’re going to like sweet wine. That means white, that means Rose. Never drink a sweet red. Even if it was possible to make a good sweet red, and I’m not sure it is, it’s surely to be an abomination of the worst craft. You’re better off jumping straight into the dry wines with red.
Why do you want sweet wine? Well, wine tastes bad. BUT WAIT!!! You just spent the last two blog posts telling me how wine was universal, and everyone can like it. That’s true…once you get used to it. It’s not an acquired taste in the sense that liver is an acquired taste. But it’s acquired in the sense that you have to stop tasting the really strong flavors to taste the subtle ones.
Think of soda pop (don’t even start with me on what it’s called). Soda naturally tastes bad. Seriously. Ever give soda to a 2 year old that never had it before? They hate it. It “bites” their tongue or it’s “spicy” they’ll say. You have to get used to the bubbles before you can enjoy the sweet. In the case of the wine, you have to ignore the acid and the tannin to enjoy the fruitiness. Don’t worry, in time the acid and tannin will be your favorite part.
New wine drinkers basically want adult fruit juice. But while you’re not paying attention, you’ll find that you start to like wines that are less and less sweet, and eventually sweet wines will seem overpowering and syrupy. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good if you like them. Just be open to trying new things, even if you didn’t like them in the past.
Good beginner wines (wine snobs, butt out here, you’ll get your turn later):
- Moscato, the princess of sweet white wines. Almost like dessert
- White Zinfandel (rose)
- Sweet Riesling (German white wine, not to be confused with dry riesling. Most dry riesling will say it’s dry)
- Pinot Grigio (not super sweet, but a very fruity white)
The second benefit of the wines above is that they’re relatively consistent in quality, so you don’t have to spend a lot. $10-20 should get you a good one, and there may even be good values under $10 (try Trader Joe’s for good cheap white).
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are very popular white wines and you may be tempted to start with those. By all means, I would never discourage trying something new. But they tend to be more advanced whites. Sauvignon Blanc can be amazing, but in its cheaper versions can be a bit harsh. Similarly, great Chardonnay can be some of the most sought after wine on the planet, but the preponderance of bad Chardonnay on shelves makes it hard, even if you were ready for the bigger flavors of a Chardonnay.
One last thought for new wine drinkers. I haven’t talked much about red. Red can be kind of intimidating. It has harsher acids sometimes, and the tannins are a very different taste that takes a while to get used to. Most red wine that beginners like is not real high on tannins. Tannins are basically the compounds that give the wine its character. It comes from pretty much all plants. It’s hard to describe, but think of how coffee and tea taste when you brew them too long. Those are basically tannins getting over extracted. And just like coffee, there are bad wine tannins and good wine tannins. They can be harsh, they can be mellow. Finding good tannins in cheap wine is, maybe not rare, but inconsistent at best.
All that being said, most wine drinkers will drink 80% reds or more, and many exclusively reds. Wine goes from nice to hauntingly expressive when you add the skins to the fermentation process. At some point, you will want to try it.
I recommend starting with a Merlot. Merlot gets poo poo’d a lot after the movie Sideways. The main character in that movie claims that it has no “structure”, which basically means it doesn’t have a lot of acid and tannin. The flip side of that is it tends to be very fruity, which is exactly what you want in a beginner wine. You can pick up a decent bottle of Merlot for $20. A steal can be found from time to time as low as $15. Lower than that is a gamble. When you get above $30, you start to get more tannin and acid and it starts to taste like a Cabernet Sauvignon, a much more expensive grape varietal.
Now, $15-20 isn’t exactly a table wine price for most people. The other option is to drink some of the more dry wines listed in my next post. We got started on cheap Italian wine like Chianti and Sangiovese for $6 a bottle and it’s quite serviceable, though maybe it’s $8 these days.
I was originally going to cover how to navigate the dry wines in the wine aisle in this post, but this is getting wordy, and I’m getting tired. I’ll post more tomorrow, including the #1 rule for buying grocery store wine, and the one that most people break.