There are many moments in life that make our hearts sink. One of the worst is surely coming home from a wine shop with a disappointing bottle. One of the problems with wine is that it is sometimes inherently mysterious: until you’ve unscrewed the cap, the contents of the bottle can be either thrillingly exciting, or painfully underwhelming. Often, you simply don’t know until you’ve poured out that first glass and taken a tentative sip.
Choosing wine can be hard. It really doesn’t help that the world of wine has a tendency to be irritatingly pretentious at times, and bottle labels are more often than not filled with elitist nonsense, impenetrable bits of jargon, and archaic French adjectives that block our understanding and put us in a state of confusion when browsing. Making the most of your trip to the wine store takes time, practice, and you’re going to make mistakes at some point.
However, we’ve put together some key pieces of advice that might help you avoid disappointment in the future and may save you from making some of the key errors all of us occasionally make when seeking out a new bottle of wine.
1) Last Minute Buying
This is one of those typical mistakes which can’t always be avoided. Perhaps you’ve been called last minute to attend a party or a dinner, and you simply haven’t got the time to go to your favourite wine store, and find yourself hurrying into the nearest vendor.
Whether you’re shopping for shoes or booze, last minute buying is sure to put anyone in a bit of a fluster, and the chances are, you’ll end up having to grab something from a rack which is made up of limited options. By limited options, I mean boring, supermarket-friendly bottles, the sort of mass-produced stuff which I usually refer to as ‘wine for those who don’t really like wine’.
Whenever possible, give yourself a bit of time. Do your shopping in a reputable shop, which stocks a decently curated wine list – if you can’t manage this, get a bunch of flowers instead. No wine really is better than bad wine.
2) Avoiding Speaking to the Shop Assistants
Yes, wine can be an intimidating world to step into, but that really doesn’t mean that those who choose to work in wine shops have to be intimidating people. Indeed, often the opposite is true — wine shop assistants who work in good, interesting wine stores are generally people who have a genuine passion for oenology.
Oftentimes they’ll be sommeliers or on their way to becoming one, with a passionate interest in the craft and art of wine. Chances are, they’ll be only too happy to have a good chat with you and share their recommendations and experiences.
A lot of fine wine shops put a lot of effort into training their staff, sending them to wine tasting courses and other such events. Also, most of the staff will have tried the new wines coming into the store at some point, and as such, they’ll have their own personal opinions on most of what they stock.
Who wouldn’t want to tap into that kind of expert advice and insider knowledge? Get chatting – tell them what you usually like and what you’re looking for and see what they can do to help.
3) Not Considering Food
Food and wine pairing can be quite tricky, and to get it right every time takes a hell of a lot of knowledge and exploration.
However, if you’re planning a dinner party, or you’re heading out to a friend’s house and you know what will be on the menu, it’s well worth thinking about which wine to choose before you buy a bottle. The main idea behind this is to make sure you choose something appropriate – even if it’s not a perfect match.
Thankfully, nowadays there are literally dozens of apps and resources which can give you quick, easy recommendations for food and wine pairings in a matter of seconds, providing sommelier standard advice at the push of a button. If you really get stuck, go for a classic flexible wine – Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs tend to go with a huge variety of dishes.
If all else fails, reach for the Champagne. It pairs with every food imaginable, and everybody loves it!
4) Bargain Hunting
There’s nobody alive who doesn’t love a good bargain. Getting something great for a lower than average price is one of the joys of life, and it fills us with a sense of superiority and smugness which is difficult to beat. Unfortunately, more often than not, risking the bargain buckets and budgets shelves while buying wine pretty likely to end badly.
It’s a bit of an undeniable truth that really low-cost wine is almost never worth the bottle it’s stored in. On the flip side of this, the really expensive wines are also something of a joke – fools are easily parted with their money, after all.
The middle ground is your safest bet, and most would agree that something around 25 dollars is likely to provide pleasant surprises and memorable flavours. Aim for bottles from named, small producers, avoid the massive conglomerates, and splash out if you want to. You’re worth it.
5) Not Venturing from Your Comfort Zone
We’re all comfortably aware of the world-famous regions of the Barossa, Margaret River and the Yarra Valley. We’ve heard of and tried the great Californian reds, the historic bottles of Bordeaux and La Rioja.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that all of these regions produce brilliant, reliable and interesting wines. However, even in smaller wine shops, there’s likely to be a great range of wines from every corner of the globe. Wineries from lesser known regions have to try harder, as they really do have something to prove – being up against the better-known wine producers from famous locations.
Next time you’re at the wine store, why not take a bit of a gamble? Head out of your geographical comfort zone and try something from an up and coming wine region like Argentina, South Africa or Greece or within Australia, Orange, Canberra or the Granite Belt south west of Brisbane. You might discover something truly remarkable or establish a firm new favourite to tell your friends about.
6) Not Going for a Case
Want to get great wine and save a few dollars? Most wine shops will offer some sort of discount for a full or half case of wine, sometimes as much as twenty percent off the original price.
Once you’ve had a bit of a chat with the store assistant, and taken on board their advice, why not get yourself a case and take full advantage of the savings you’ll make? It may be that you only needed one bottle at that moment, but there’s no doubt that a time will come soon when you’ll be in need of another, and then one more, and then one more…
7) Where do I Store It?
Buying a case or two might be the best option, but then taking it home and storing it in the garage really will put your investment at risk.
Heat is enemy number one for wine. Temperatures higher than 21°C will age a wine more quickly than is usually desirable. And if it gets too much hotter, your wine may get “cooked,” resulting in flat aromas and flavours. The ideal temperature range is between 7°C and 18°C (and 14°C is often cited as close to perfect), though this isn’t an exact science. Don’t worry too much if your storage runs a couple degrees warmer, as long as you’re opening the bottles within a few years from their release.
More important than worrying about achieving a perfect 14°C is avoiding the landmines of rapid, extreme or frequent temperature variations. Temperature variation is likely to be more critical for older wines where the seal of the cork is less tight (corks lose some elasticity with age). The problem with temperature variations is that the volume of the wine expands as temperature rises, decreasing the ullage volume, and then contracts as temperature falls, increasing the ullage volume. If the closure is providing a completely airtight seal, then this is of relatively little consequence. Aim for consistency, but don’t get paranoid about minor temperature fluctuations; wines may see worse in transit from the winery to the store. (Even if heat has caused wine to seep out past the cork, that doesn’t always mean the wine is ruined. There’s no way to know until you open it—it could still be superb).
And finally, keeping wines in your household refrigerator is fine for a couple months, but it’s not a good bet for the longer term. The average fridge temp sits between 3 - 4°C to safely store perishable foods, and the lack of moisture (humidity) could eventually dry out corks, which might allow air to seep into the bottles and damage the wine. Keeping wine in a fridge for a longer time will also slow down the aging process which is not ideal.
8) Judging a Book by Its Cover
It’s been an interesting few years for wine labels. More and more small wineries have been upping their graphic design game, coming up with interesting and unique labels to catch the attention of casual wine buyers as they browse the shelves of their local wine store.
However, many of the bigger wine companies have cottoned on to the fact that consumers have become interested in quirky labels and unique designs. Some have started bringing out bottles festooned with the sorts of branding made to trick the buyer into thinking they are purchasing something unique and independently made, when in fact, the bottle contains something which is anything but that.
9) Not Returning Your Bad Bottles
Sometimes it happens – wine turns bad. Flaws occur due to a wide range of reasons, and chances are, the fault has nothing to do with the shop from which you bought your wine. Despite this, any wine shop worth its salt will happily take an oxidized or corked bottle back from you and replace it with something else.
Don’t be afraid to approach the manager of the store which sold you a dodgy wine – they’re professionals, and there is no doubt they would do exactly the same if they found themselves in your shoes. It’s likely they’ll be pleased to be informed that something is wrong with their stock, as they can avoid similar disappointments from happening again with other valued customers.
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