We've all bought a bottle of wine based solely on the fact that we liked the label. And while that strategy may win you "funniest wine name" or "coolest-looking bottle" honors at your dinner party, the taste is what counts. So the next time you're buying a bottle, follow these timeless tips from winemakers and you can't go wrong. (P.S. We have the truth about wine's health benefits.)
1. Great wine doesn't always mean expensive wine.
"Look for wines in the $12 to $20 price range that come from winemakers who also make expensive wine," says Charles Smith, winemaker and founder of K Vintners. "They'll also make great affordable wine to uphold their reputation." And no, the more expensive bottle isn't always better. "A $100 bottle of wine doesn't usually taste five times better than a $20 bottle of wine," says Pat Henderson, Kenwood Vineyards' chief winemaker.
2. Search on the right shelf.
"At your eye level, you'll find the most popular products at a medium price range (least expensive wines are at the bottom, most expensive at the top)," explains Chandon's head winemaker, Pauline Lhote. "This is also where retailers will place their favorite wines and the brands they believe in the most."
3. Think regions, not countries.
"When looking for a varietal, consider looking for specific regions as opposed to countries," says Paula Borgo, winemaker for Bodegas Septima. (Read: Not every single bottle of French wine will be amazing.) Choose malbec from the Uco Valley in Argentina and garnacha from Priorat in Spain. Dennis Cakebread, vintner and owner of Mullan Road Cellars, adds that you can't go wrong with cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, sangiovese from Chianti (that's right, it's not just a wine, it's also a region in Tuscany), and pinot noir from Anderson Valley. "For red wines in general, check out Columbia Valley in Washington," he adds.
4. And explore new regions.
"Expand your horizons by trying a wine from a new region (appellation) from a familiar variety," Henderson suggests. "If you like a particular wine like chardonnay from Monterey, consider trying one from Sonoma County to see how its taste is different."
5. Match your wine to your cuisine.
"If I'm in a pizzeria, I'm going to drink a Chianti. If I'm going to eat a steak, I'm going to drink an Argentinian wine," Smith says. "The cuisine of a country probably goes really well with its wine."
6. Buy current-vintage whites.
"Always look for white wines that are on current vintage ," says Bob Bertheau, Chateau Ste. Michelle's head winemaker. "Whites that linger are not normally being stored at ideal temperatures," which affects the quality of the wine.
7. But buy older reds.
"If you see a mix of 2014 and 2015 red wine vintages, go for the older one," says Sarah Cabot, head winemaker for Primarius and Battle Creek Cellars. "Reds are more aromatic and flavorful when they've had more time in bottle."
8. And read the labels of sparkling wines.
Look for the term "methode traditionnelle," Lhote says. "This tells you that the wine was made using the same methods as they use for Champagne—and that's a great indication of the quality of wine."
9. Ask for help.
"Understand if you like dry or sweet, then talk to the person in the store," says Nicole Carter, Hess Collection's director of winemaking. "Then they'll get to know you and your preferences, and when they get something in that they think you'll like, they'll tell you."
10. Or ask Siri.
"If there is an unfamiliar wine that looks interesting, look it up on your smartphone to read reviews and see what it tastes like," says Henderson, who personally looks for real brick-and-mortar wineries that are experts on a specific region or area.