I was a French major in college and even served as French Club President my senior year. Sadly this did not mean I was the best student. It really meant I was able to come up with the best wines for our nerdy book club to discuss Baudelaire or Sartre. Every school break I was able to purloin several bottles from my parents stock then use them at my parties for French majors. OK, Spanish majors too. Yes, your boyfriend can come. But I digress.
Decades separated from studies in France I no longer speak much French but being a French major taught me at least 3 important things everyone should learn in life. One, there cannot be enough cheese. Two, Existentialism is depressing. Third and most importantly was how to choose a bottle of wine. My professor Dr. Petrossian (may he rest in peace) shared his secrets for showing up with a decent bottle without breaking the bank. I now share these secrets with you. A votre sante.
1) The price point is the starting point. Dr. Petrossian told us we didn’t need to spend more than $7 a bottle if you read labels. That was the 80’s so maybe bump up to $10-12. I frequently find bottles that are excellent at less than ten dollars. This is my first step in the selection process. Look in your wallet and go from there.
2) Look at the label. Look for words that look like Appellation Controllee or Deominazione di Origine Controllata. Australia also has a Label Integrity Program. This means the district that the wine is grown in has approved it and confers a certain level of quality. Without this approval, they are not allowed to add this to their label. Many wine producing countries have a strict system of labeling their wine. These guys don’t fool around. It has to measure up to a certain standard and theirs is higher than most of ours. If it says Table wine orVino da Tavola, Vin de Table or similar words, this is a lower quality “everyday” type wine that you should probably avoid. Also, look for the words Mis en Boteille. This will tell you that the wine was put into the bottle at the chateau instead of being sent elsewhere for bottling. “Grand” reserve will usually indicate a single type of grape being used, more aging and better barrels. If you find “Grand” anything for less than 10 bucks, grab a case.
Look for labels that have many words. Generally this means more commendations and a better wine. Older vines grow great grapes. Remember to look for the region. If it says Bordeaux, say go. Bordeaux is a well-known appellation (wine making region) that is renowned for its wines. I am also a sucker for Rhone wines. Track your favorites and you can use your preferences to choose future bottles.
Look for the importer. Wines coming to the U.S. are chosen by their company and some companies only represent the best. My prof would have sworn by Louis Jadot. Californians wines were not on his radar but this is the section of the wine store where the best value lies these days for me. This is tougher as we are without strict labeling laws but most of the vines were brought from Europe and have been established long enough to compete with the world and win. Most wines from Napa are not going to be a disappointment. Save corks or labels from bottles you like for your next wine buying excursion. I also love red wines from Chile and New Zealand. They tend to have excellent taste for the dollar. The sleeper wine producing country that I am exploring right now is Spain. Great wines and good prices.
3) Use Store Experts. Most liquor stores are owned by someone who must know their stuff; they buy bad wine and they will be stuck with it. If you tell them your price range, and what food you want to pair it with, they can make excellent suggestions. The big box liquor stores have in store experts too and they find treasures. Ask directly or look for an end cap with best sellers or staff selections.