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Wine shopping guide: Which wine should you buy?

wine bottles
Photo credit: smartboy10/Getty Images

Imagine: You’re standing in front of a wall filled with thousands of wine bottles just staring back at you, hoping you’ll choose one of them to take home. Oh wait, no need to imagine that; it happens every time we go to the store for wine, right? Follow our wine shopping guide to take the mystery out of finding the perfect bottle of wine.

White, rose, red? Bubbles?

To determine the style of wine you’d like, you need to understand the main differences among grapes, where they are from and how they are made.

White

Chardonnay

Chardonnay comes in two distinctive styles. If you want buttery and oaky, lean toward one from California. If you love the way chardonnay tastes minus the butter, look for chablis. This style is super-clean and mineral-driven but still has that creamy mouthfeel.

If you like this, also try: Marsanne, roussanne, viognier, Trebbiano

Riesling

Not all rieslings are sweet! Look for these keywords to determine sweetness/dryness.

  • Troken: Dry
  • Kabinett: Dry to off-dry
  • Spätlese: Sweet (This translates to “late harvest.” Drink with something spicy!)
  • Auslese: Even sweeter and means “select harvest”
  • Beerenauslese: Rare, raisinated and sweet
  • Trockenbeerenauslese: meaning “dry berry select harvest,” the rarest
  • Eiswein: Frozen grapes turned into sweet wine

If you like this, also try: Furmint, Assyrtiko

Chenin blanc

Chenin blanc has many different styles and can be quite versatile. The wine is dry to off-dry with notes of yellow apple, pear, chamomile and honey. Look for a Vouvray variety if you prefer an off-dry wine with aromatic flavors of honeysuckle, ginger and beeswax. These wines also come in sparkling forms.

If you like this, also try: chardonnay

Sauvignon blanc

California sauvignon blanc features tropical flavors such as passion fruit and white peach, whereas Sancerre has vibrant acidity with notes of grapefruit and flint. Then there’s New Zealand style, which is more herbaceous … and yes, cat pee is actually a desired aroma in high-quality sauvignon blancs! Just the wine you were looking for.

If you like this, also try: vermentino, chenin blanc, verdejo

Grenache Blanc

Grenache blanc is a color mutation of grenache. It produces medium- to full-bodied white wines that are typically aged in oak for a toasty, creamy quality. It can also be quite floral with notes of honeysuckle and Meyer lemon. Grab a bottle from a producer in Spain.

If you like this, also try: roussane, viura, garganega (Soave)

Vermentino

Vermentino is a delicious white wine from Italy. If you like a dry white wine with notes of lime, green apple and almond, this is one to try.

If you like this, also try: chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, gruner veltliner

MORE: The history of wine in America

Red

Pinot Noir

All right, this is a tricky one. Pinot noir refers to many regions, which determine flavor profiles. Here are five:

  • French: Typically earthy, herbaceous and light. Notes of mushroomsm wet leaves and florals such as rose and cherry. Look for regions such as Bourgogne, Cote de Nuits and Morey-St-Denis.
  • German: AKA spatburgunder. A lighter pinot with notes of raspberry, cherry and a hint of earth.
  • Italian: Pinot nero, as the Italians like to call it, has fruity flavors with notes of smoke, tobacco and cloves.
  • California: Big and lush, with flavors of sweet cherry, vanilla, Coca Cola and cloves.
  • Oregon: Oregon and Burgundy share the same latitude as France’s Burgundy region, so they have similar characteristics. They are lighter and more tart than California’s pinots, but have earthy, truffle qualities like Burgundy.

If you like this, also try: Gamay, Schiava

Sangiovese

Eating pizza tonight? Grab a bottle of sangiovese. This Italian varietal is the perfect match, but like most wines, it has multiple names: Chianti, brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano. These wines vary from fruit-forward to smoky and rustic.

If you like this, also try: nebbiolo, Tempranillo, aglianico

Zinfandel

Look for a producer from Napa Valley, Dry Creek or Russian River. Note that zinfandel has a tendency to be higher in alcohol than other varieties, so check the ABV. A lighter style will be around 13.5 percent, whereas a full-bodied one will be around 16 percent!

If you like this, also try: grenache, carignan, frappato

Syrah

Syrah (AKA shiraz) from Australia is a powerful, sometimes meaty grape. Syrah from California and Australia tends to have fruit characteristics with lots of spice. Syrah from France has more acidity and notes of smoke, black olives and herbs.

If you like this, also try: mencia, touriga nacional

Nebbiolo

This tannic grape is a staple in northern Italy. Look for Langhe nebbiolo, barbaresco and Barolo. Think of Langhe nebbiolo as the baby sister to barbaresco, and barolo as the big brother to them all. These wines are age-worthy, so look for an old vintage.

If you like this, also try: aglianico, Tempranillo, sangiovese

Cabernet sauvignon

Made from one of the most popular grapes, this wine is most well known from Bordeaux, California and Australia.

  • Bordeaux cabernet is where it all began. This style is very age-worthy and savory. Cabernet sauvignon is typically blended with cabernet Franc or merlot. Look for a Bordeaux from Medoc or Graves.
  • California cabernets are for the lush type. If you’re looking for something bold and opulent, look no further. This fruit-forward style is all over California.
  • Australia cabernet is best from the Coonawarra region. This region is full of red clay and produces a cabernet full of powerful tannins with notes of white pepper and bay leaf.

If you like this, also try: merlot, cabernet Franc, nero d’Avola

MORE: Food and wine pairings tailored to favorite foods

Bubbles

Sparkling wine

First things first: Not all sparkling wine is Champagne (with a capital C). True Champagne comes from the region of Champagne in France. All other wine with bubbles is considered sparkling wine. There are so many delicious sparkling wines found outside of France, though. Just like riesling, sparkling wine has a range of sweetness. Brut nature is the driest, followed by extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry and demi sec.

Fun tips

  1. A screw top does not mean the wine is bad. It happens to be an affordable way to ensure the wine doesn’t become flawed from the cork.
  2. Good wine does not have to be expensive.
  3. Don’t judge a book by its cover! The wine label doesn’t mean the wine is good or bad.
  4. We all have different palates, and there’s a wine for everyone.

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