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Checklist to Help You Shop for Wine


Many people find the decision making of which wine to buy/make/invest on overwhelming. All those different wines to choose from, all which have a unique flavor, experience to offer. But which one to order, which one is the right one? Many consumers fall back on the usual, the OK but not great, based on the familiar name. It is a shame, because at the Wine Butler there are many interesting, delicious, wines at all price ranges. We also offer the convenience of making your wine in Toronto or Mississauga.

The article below was originally published by The Wall Street Journal. It focus on types of wine to be embraced or to be avoided.

To us, a wine shop is a playground. We understand that many people find wine stores confusing, overwhelming or just plain annoying. All those wines, all those labels, all those neck cards claiming a 90-point rating.

Secrets of Success

Based on blind tastings for our columns over the past couple of years, here are some tips for making the wine shop smaller. Now, this point is critical: We are not saying here that the aisles we’d skip don’t include some good wine; of course they do. But we want to focus on the aisles where we expect the greatest chance of success if we simply pick up a bottle. For whole categories that we suggest you avoid, we will continue to conduct broad tastings and we’ll let you know when it’s safe to go back into those waters. Other people would certainly decode a wine shop differently, but this is how we do it:

Skip the boxed and jug wines. This usually eliminates large sections of many stores. More palatable wines are being packaged in boxes these days and there are some good jugs, but save these for pool parties in the summer.

Pass by the Australian aisles. Just about every wine shop we walk into these days is choked with Australian wines. Heaven knows there are some good ones — especially among the less-popular varietals such as Riesling and famous, expensive wines like Grange — but our recent tastings have raised caution flags about lower-priced Australian wines.

Ignore the most popular lower-priced American wines, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. We know we’re covering a lot of territory here and making just about everybody mad, but our broad tastings over several years indicate that there are more losers than winners among these wines. Your chances of finding value here are low, though there are, of course, some good ones, which we’ve written about in the past and will certainly write about in the future. If you really must have a Merlot, plan to spend more than $20.

Unless you are specifically looking for a special-occasion wine, keep walking past the rack of very expensive Bordeaux until you get to the midrange Bordeaux, the bottles that cost under $50. We’ve found that, for the price, these often offer the kind of class and structure that a fine meal, like a great steak, demands. It’s also worth taking a chance on a low-priced Bordeaux because sometimes these can be among the best $10 deals in the stores. Just don’t expect to recognize the labels or even, in many cases, the appellation; the reason these are inexpensive is that hardly anyone has ever heard of them. We’d usually skip the red Burgundy aisle, though we’ll never give up on these because, at their best, they’re the greatest, and sexiest, wines in the world, but they’re finicky, risky.

The South America, South Africa, New Zealand and Spain sections are always worth a good look. There are new wines coming from those areas all the time, often at great prices, as they try to gain a market in the U.S.

For reds, head to the Italian section and look for wines from the Piedmont region. You’ll know it by the expensive Barolos, but even if you’re not looking for a big, costly wine for dinner, this is also where you’ll find a gold mine of value, such as Barbera d’Alba. We’ve had better luck with Piedmont than Tuscany, though it’s still hard to beat upscale Chianti for vitality and food-friendliness.

Seeing Reds

Also in reds, close your eyes and pick up just about any American Pinot Noir, above or below $20. Considering that this grape was thought to be a loser in the U.S. for decades, we’re amazed how far it has come in such a short time. Even some of the most common names in the store, like Kendall-Jackson and Beringer, make good Pinot Noir at excellent prices. Pinot also goes with all sorts of food. Another good bet among American reds is Syrah, which some American vintners are calling Shiraz now. Petite Sirah is a different grape altogether, but it will probably be in the Syrah section and also is usually a good bet. If you choose a Petite Sirah, be prepared for a wine with real ooomph.

For whites, we’d buy Sauvignon Blanc from just about anywhere because country after country right now is producing fine examples. In general, we’d focus on the French section for whites — Muscadet, Sancerre, Vouvray, anything from Alsace and even less-expensive white Burgundies such as Macon and Saint-Veran.

That’s a quick overview, but, if you want to get just a little bit more detailed, here are two additional pieces of advice. First, look for varietals that are new to you. Remember that Merlot was new as an American varietal in 1972, that most people hadn’t heard of Shiraz in 1998 and that Malbec was obscure until wines from Argentina caught fire a couple of years ago. More vintners all over the world are experimenting with different grape types, which means a cornucopia of different varietals in shops these days. If you see a Marsanne from California or a Carmenere from Chile, you’re likely to have an interesting experience.

Second, give the little guys a chance. It’s hard to be a small producer. Small wineries in the U.S. complain all the time about how difficult it is to get their wines distributed to many states and small wineries everywhere else in the world complain about how tough it is to get any wine at all into the U.S. Small producers often offer wines with special individuality and character. You probably won’t have read anything about them and they might be the only wines in the store without a 90-point neck ring, but that’s because these wines are rare. It wouldn’t be a bad New Year’s resolution to decide that, in 2006, you will only buy bottles that you’ve never tried before — even if you look for them in all of the aisles we said you should shun. Which actually reminds us of another good resolution: Don’t let wine critics make decisions for you in 2006. It’s useful to listen to advice from a variety of sources, but the only palate that’s important is your own. Trust it.