Many, if not most of the names are unfamiliar. Heck, if you're in a grocery store you're probably looking at sea of private label bottles of mass produced wine with made up names meant to capture your attention.
So how do you choose a good bottle of wine?
Unfortunately there is no fail safe method short of opening them all and giving them a taste. And since we'd rather not have you arrested, we're here instead to share some of the tips and tricks we've learned on how to choose a good wine over the 10+ years we've been publishing Reverse Wine Snob.
Let's start by using just the info available on the label.
What you can learn from a wine's label (front and back)
Region and Variety
While the label will always state the region and typically the variety or varieties, preference plays a large role here. What other wines do you like? What regions did they come from? What varieties were they? As you expand your experience tasting wines you begin to hone in on regions, varieties and combinations thereof that appeal to you.
It also helps to know a bit about different regions (you can find that on many of our category pages). Our best advice here is to look for high value combinations like Spanish Garnacha, Merlot from Washington, Petite Sirah from CA, Chenin Blanc from South Africa, etc. If you read our emails we'll fill you in on all of these.
Many times lesser known regions can offer huge amounts of value without the extra costs associated with high land and grape prices. Let's take Cabernet Sauvignon as an example.
The price per ton for Cabernet grapes in Napa Valley was around $6,200 in 2020. The larger North Coast AVA was priced at less than a third of that and Cab prices in places like Washington State are more like 20-25% of Napa. Heck, go to the Lodi AVA and prices are closer to a tenth of Napa! That makes a big difference in the final cost of your bottle of wine.
Probably the biggest tip we have on region when it comes time to choose a good bottle of wine is that all things considered, smaller is generally better. While it's not an ironclad guarantee of quality, the more precise the region, the fewer the vineyards the wine is likely to come from.
Single vineyard is the gold standard here, but even going from a Cabernet labeled as California (635,000 acres of wine grapes) to Sonoma (60,000 acres of wine grapes) to Dry Creek Valley (9,000 acres of wine grapes) tells you a tremendous amount, and we'd pick the smallest one 9 times out 10 if we knew nothing else about the wine.
Lastly, Old World wines often do a lot of this quality work for you as in many European regions there are tons of rules and regulations on grape production and winemaking in order for the wines to bear specific designations on their label (Chianti and Rioja are great examples).
This is opposed to many New World regions where terms like "Reserve" and "Old Vine" can get slapped on any label the winery likes and wines labeled as a single varietal only have to contain 75% of said variety. In other words, many of those "single varietal" New World wines are actually blends with 25% other grapes added in. This doesn't necessarily mean the quality is worse, it just makes it hard to know what you are getting if the winery doesn't disclose it on the label.
Reputation is important when choosing a good wine. Some producers are just so darn reliable that you really can't go wrong with any of their wines. Again, if you follow our emails, reviews or Insider Deals, we'll fill you in on those.
If you don't know anything about the winery/producer, you can flip the bottle over to the back label and look for the following terms on wines made in the USA:
- "Estate Bottled" or "Grown, Produced and Bottled by": Both these terms mean that 100% of the grapes were grown on a winery's own vineyards within a single AVA and the wine was made by the winery on its own estate within the same AVA. Every part of the winemaking process must happen at the winery. This doesn't necessarily mean it is a single vineyard wine (in which 95% of the grapes must be from the named vineyard), just that it comes the winery's own or controlled vineyards and every aspect of the winemaking process is done by them.
- "Produced and Bottled by": Produced and Bottled by isn't quite as restrictive in that only 75% of the grapes need to have been fermented by the winery itself. The other 25% could be finished wine that was purchased and blended in. Most of the time; however, this label simply means that the winery is purchasing grapes and making the wine themselves, a very common scenario.
- "Vinted and Bottled by": This means the wine was mostly made by someone else, but the winery selling it did some cellar treatment (which could be as little as just aging it) or much more involved such as blending wines together.
- "Cellared and Bottled by": This means the entire wine was made by someone else.
Generally "Estate Bottled", "Grown, Produced and Bottled by" and even "Produced and Bottled by" can be good signs indicating a high level of involvement by the winery in growing and making the wine.
This does have some caveats. Some large corporations control tons of vineyards so they can label everything as "Produced and Bottled by". Some smaller wineries who make excellent wine, cannot, so their wines are labeled as "Vinted and Bottled by". And even wines labeled as "Cellared and Bottled by" could be excellent, they just weren't made by the winery selling it.
One final note on the producer -- if you're in a store like Trader Joe's, Aldi or even Costco where many of the wines are private labels, we've got more tips and tricks for you on those pages. Article continues below...
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The Alcohol %
Alcohol levels can vary quite a bit for wines, but this is mostly related to the region, variety and style of the producer so I would focus more on those things rather than the absolute number here in your quest to choose a good bottle of wine. However, a really high or low number that goes contrary to what is expected for the style of wine could be an indicator that this particular wine may be made in a very different way than you are expecting (i.e. Pinot Noir at over 15% alcohol or California Zin at only 12%).
The vintage reflects the year the grapes were harvested. At the under $20 price point I wouldn't stress too much about the age. Anything within the last few years is fine for reds. If you know nothing else about the wine I'd generally stay within the last 2-3 vintages for whites and roses. Chances are if you're at the store using these tips on how to pick a good bottle of wine, it is for immediate consumption anyway. If you're looking for wines to cellar you'll probably want to do more research before you head to the store.
The sugar level on sparkling wine
The sweetness/sugar level of sparkling wine is typically noted on the label according to the following chart. (Note that these are not the same classifications as red wines and the terms here really reflect the perceived level of sugar which is determined by the acidity levels as well.)
- Brut nature (Brut Zero): 0-3 grams per liter (g/L), and no sugar added
- Extra brut: 0-6 g/L
- Brut: 0-12 g/L
- Extra dry: 12-17 g/L
- Dry (Secco): 17-32 g/L
- Demi-sec: 32-50 g/L
- Doux: 50 g/L
Imported wines must include the name of the importer on the back label. Tracking the importers of wines you enjoy is a great way to find new wines you might like as the rest of their portfolio is likely to be similar quality. For example, we can pretty much guarantee we're going to love anything imported by Kermit Lynch or European Cellars.
A few things outside of the wine's label that I wouldn't worry too much about when choosing a good wine
If you're reading this then you're probably shopping for wines under $20 but even within that range a higher price doesn't necessarily mean a better wine.
Don't worry about whether the wine has a cork or a screw cap. While a cork may seem more traditional the type of enclosure used is not a good indicator of the quality of the wine.
Other things you can do in the store to help you choose a good bottle of wine.
Ask for help!
If you can give the store associate an idea of other wines that you like most of the time they can point you in the right direction.
Take full advantage of store tastings when they are available. This is a great way to contrast and compare several wines at the same time.
If you've got a phone/computer then obviously you'll have much more info available. This will be key if you're in a store where virtually everything is a private label and the true producers are often hidden. This applies to Trader Joe's, Aldi and the Kirkland Signature wines at Costco.
Here are a few helpful places to check on your phone:
- Check for online reviews. You'll want to start with Reverse Wine Snob of course!
- Check rating sites like Vivino and Cellartracker. Vivino is definitely the most popular but we've found the reviews and ratings to be wildly inconsistent (often one tasting note often directly contradicts the next). This is to be expected when you have all kinds of different people with different tastes and preferences and experiences rating the same wine. (We've also found the pricing on the wines that Vivino offers for sale to be quite high, wine-searcher is a much better indicator of competitive pricing.)
- Go to the producer/winery site for the wine in question and look for a "Tech Sheet" (often in the Trade section of the site) for info on exact amounts of varieties (this is especially helpful for red blends), aging, even residual sugar although they often don't like to include this.
- Another trick for finding the residual sugar is to check the LCBO website in Canada as they often test the wines they sell and publish this info (just google the wine name + LCBO)
Finally, after all the research is done, our best advice is to experiment with new wine! It's how we've found some of our very favorites.
And those are our best tips and tricks on how to choose a good bottle of wine! We hope you can put them to good use.
One last note, don't be disappointed or discouraged if you try a wine that "everyone" loves and you just don't like it. This journey is all about finding your own preferences for wine, not somebody else's. Just remember there are no right or wrong answers. Happy exploring!