Wine is enigmatic: the translucent bottle glints appealingly to the eye, while its smooth, hard glass caches the perfumes and tastes within. Even music seems more concrete: you can write it down and reproduce it, whereas each bottle has a life of its own and provides a truly unique drinking experience. Despite 20 years of experience in the wine business, in roles as different as producing, importing and retailing wine, I am frequently disappointed by wines I buy, so I can only imagine how frustrating it can be for a casual wine lover, who wants a nice bottle to share with her partner over dinner, to choose wine. Of course, the best insurance is knowing the region and the estates, what the land is like, how the vintage was, how the grapes were led through fermentation and aging. But no one can know that for every region, every estate, and though I love Sangiovese and often choose Tuscan wines, I’m curious about other regions and varietals. I’ve decided to share the guidelines I use to choose a wine when I don’t know much about a region. They’re simple, even obvious, tips, yet they’ve proved helpful over the years.
First, I think of style. Do I want a richer or a lighter wine? On the whole, southern European wines will be richer and have higher alcohol than their northern counterparts. Within Italy, for example, other things being equal, Sicilian wines will be richer and more alcoholic than wines from the Valle d’Aosta; ditto for the Rhone and Burgundy in France. In terms of richer versus lighter, vintage plays an important role, too: hotter vintages producer richer, more alcoholic wines than cooler ones. And even if you have no idea whether it rained in 2014 in the Languedoc or not, alcohol as percent of volume is required on the label. 13,5% is my cut-off for reds and whites: less is light, more is rich.
Second, size matters–yet, it’s a parameter that’s consistently swept under the rug. How many bottles an estate makes is a proxy for all kinds of quality indicators: whether the owners are involved in viticulture and winemaking or reliant on consultants and employees; whether the estate buys grapes or wine; which viticultural and winemaking processes are practicable–and all of the consequent production and marketing choices. Big doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but many practices that compromise quality become necessary (or financially advantageous) when an estate edges toward 100K bottles per year. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: well-capitalised estates can afford artisanal wine-making even for a half-million bottles; still, processes have to be somewhat standardized and attention to individual vineyard plots and their pure expression in small-batch wines is almost surely reduced. Especially when choosing a wine from an unfamiliar region, a rule that has served me well is avoid the familiar name–it’s bound to be a ginormous operation if I, an outsider in that context, have heard of it.
Third, if exploring is the purpose of drinking wine from a less familiar region, choose a wine made only from a grape that’s indigenous there. Cabernet or Chardonnay may thrive the world over, but tasting Cabernet from Tuscany or Chardonnay from Austria is more interesting once you’ve gotten to know what the typical (traditional) Tuscan and Austrian wines are like. If I don’t know what a region’s indigenous grapes are, I simply ask.
Originally posted 8 April 2021.