Have you ever found yourself wandering up and down the wine aisles at a liquor store wondering what to choose? How do you separate the good wines from the terrible ones? What’s the secret to buying good wine at great prices?
Well, one thing you can do is check out my reviews and top picks but beyond that, is it possible to identify a bad wine just by looking at it? The answer is both yes and no. The only sure fire way to know if you like a wine is to taste it. But, the good news is there are some ways to dramatically improve your chances of picking up a good quality wine without spending a lot of money.
DONT: BUY WINE BECAUSE YOU LIKE THE LABEL
It’s not quite a universal truth, but generally the more elaborate the packaging, the more overpriced the wine. Wines are like people – it’s the ones trying too hard for your attention that you need to watch out for. These Crafters Union Pinot Gris cans are some of the prettiest on the shelves, yet they are absolutely terrible. The same goes for these Rolling wines with their whimsical labels. And even if the wine inside the bottle happens to be good, expensive packaging will push the cost up so much that there will always be better value alternatives. That’s the case with this Gerard Bertrand Côte Des Roses Rosé, which could have been a good value wine if not for the fancy bottle.
Note that this rule mostly applies to the wines you find in the major liquor stores. It’s an entirely different story when it comes to boutique wineries, where the label, like everything else, is often a labour of love. The Adelina wines from the Clare Valley, for instance, are generally excellent and have some of the most beautiful labels going around.
DON’T: BUY BECAUSE IT HAS A CATCHY NAME
An appealing wine name is a sign of a good marketing team, not (necessarily) a good winemaker. Don’t be lured in by sweet and whimsical names and never trust a pun. Good wines can have good names of course, but there is no broad correlation between the two.
DON’T: BUY BECAUSE IT’S FROM A FAMOUS REGION
It’s a Bordeaux, so it must be good, right? Nope. Yes, Bordeaux is home to the likes of Chateau Lafitte and Chateau Margaux, which have been at the apex of fine wine for centuries. But that doesn’t put some magical quality assurance over the whole region. The truth is Bordeaux produces more than 700 million bottles of wine in a good year and most of those are nothing special.
Despite that huge output, Bordeaux is a terrible hunting ground for bargains. The reputation of those great Chateaus casts an aura over the whole region that allows winemakers to sell their product for more than they would if they were from somewhere else. The result is often over-priced wine, and there are some absolute shockers out there, like this Chateau Chantemerle. The same goes for Burgundy and, to a lesser extent, Champagne. If you’re going to buy wine from those regions, I’d strongly recommend doing some research first. That brings me to the next point.
DO: READ REVIEWS
Yes, everyone has subjective tastes and, yes, the fact someone else likes something doesn’t mean you will like it. That’s all very true, but reviews are still a good place to start your wine-buying journey. Hopefully, the review, whether it’s from a professional or just a wine lover on Vivino, will at least give you an independent view of a wine that’s free from marketing guff. Of course, wine reviewers all have their biases, whether or not they acknowledge or realise it. But if you start to follow a reviewer closely these will become apparent pretty quickly and you’ll be able to take them into account when deciding whether to buy a wine based on one of their reviews.
Once again, feel free to check out my reviews, or search this site to find something you might like.
DO: FIND OUT WHICH VINTAGES ARE BEST
A rising tide floats all boats, as they say. Great producers with great sites will be able to produce top quality wines almost year in, year out, though they will usually come with a correspondingly high price tag. Most producers, however, are more or less slaves to the weather. In great years they will make great wines, in poor years they will make lesser wines. Good winemaking and vineyard management can make a huge difference of course, but buying wine from a great vintage is usually a sure bet while buying from a lesser vintage is a much riskier proposition. There is a wealth of information out there on vintage conditions for every region. A simple google search and you’ll be on your way.
DO: FIND OUT WHAT YOU LIKE
Quality is one thing, taste is another. If you hate sweet wine, there’s no point buying a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, even if it scores 100 points. Likewise, a highly rated Chardonnay is no good to you if you don’t like Chardonnay, and so on. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try new wines, you absolutely should. But understanding your own preferences is a good way to avoid disappointment.
DO: SHOP AROUND
This seems like an obvious one, but it’s worth stating anyway. There’s always a wine being sold on special somewhere. If you keep your eyes open and have some patience you’ll pick up some very good wines at great prices. Champagne, for instance, is often more heavily discounted around Christmas, so if you’ve got any spare cash amid all the present shopping it might be a good time to stock up for the year.
Generally, the big box retailers – Dan Murphy’s and First Choice Liquor – have the lowest prices. But don’t ignore the likes of Liquorland and BWS, which run deeper discounts to lure customers in. And of course, there are a huge number of great online and independent retailers out there as well. My reviews include links to the major retailers so you can easily click through those to compare prices.