So much wine, so little time. Or at least that’s how I feel when perusing bottles at my local grocery store.
Identifying the perfect vino can be as overwhelming and confusing as I felt at my first middle school dance. (“Do I slow dance with the girls or bust out a choreographed Spice Girls routine?” — 1998 me.)
With literally hundreds of options to choose from and potentially zero knowledge regarding grape quality, varietals and characteristics, it’d be beneficial for many of us to have an in-store sommelier helping to finalize decisions.
But since Kroger and Publix don’t seem to be investing this type of money into their workforce, we’ll have to settle with the tips and tricks in this article.
Sheila Richter, head sommelier at Bistecca in Sydney, Australia, says the best way to narrow down the right bottle is to simply sample what looks appealing.
“Keep trying and keep tasting until you get a sense of the style you most like,” she recommends, though anyone in a pinch will likely be content with one of these four common types (with explanations and ideal pairings provided by Richter).
Cabernet sauvignon: “Generally a powerful wine with a full figure and plush mouthfeel. Expect flavors of plum, dark current, warm baking spices, vanilla, and cedar. With its big structure, think of pairings with roasted meats and peppery sauces.”
Pinot noir: “A delicate grape, ranging from a very light, fresh wine, to a more medium-bodied, soft wine. Expect flavors of raspberry cranberry, fresh forest floor, mushroom and even graphite. With its elegant tone, think of pairings with cheese, grilled salmon or smoked duck breast.”
Tempranillo: “The jewel of Northern Spain, this is a medium to full wine. Expect flavors of dried fig, red current, cigar box and fresh dill. Ranging in flavors, think of pairings with a rack of lamb, eggplant and roasted vegetables.”
Nebbiolo: “A wonderfully complex grape that can be bright and crunchy more like a pinot noir or more medium, savory and spicy. Expect flavors of ripe cherries, strawberry, rose petal, tar, anise and leather. An incredible grape to pair with steak, truffle and risotto.”
Of course, there are plenty of other options, including unique blends, so I’ve rounded up seven tried-and-true bottles that you can look for if you’re in a rush or perplexed by the selection. That said, here are a few helpful things to keep in mind:
- The flavor of wine is nuanced, so these aren’t necessarily “the best.” Different wines work for different palates and meals, so it’s ultimately important to heed Richter’s advice and sample as much as you can before you find something that tickles your fancy.
- The vintage will obviously have an effect on the outcome. You can log on to every winery’s website for detailed information on flavor notes and how a particular year’s weather may have played an impact in its harvest.
- Most supermarket bottles will come from the United States to keep costs down. Imported wine is more expensive.
- Don’t shy away from stores like Trader Joe’s, Costco and Aldi which carry bottles that are not only exclusive to their shelves, but also affordable.
Smooth? Check. Delicious year-round? Check. Priced affordably at under $25? Check. There’s nothing to dislike about La Crema’s pinot noir from Sonoma, which has emerged as a supermarket must-try in recent years. It’s elegant but approachable, distinct yet versatile and, most importantly, readily available to the masses. Enjoy the plushness of cherry, plum and pomegranate with a subtle hint of herbaceous tea leaf for a libation that tastes just as good on a neighbor’s porch as it does in a fancy restaurant.
Best for Everyday Drinking: Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon
As the company’s first wine in its award-winning portfolio, this juicy sipper boasts notes of blackberry, toasted hazelnut and cinnamon to create a well-balanced bev that goes down with all too great of ease. Pour it out after a long day of work in the summer or pair it with a winter chili for a casual date night in. No matter the occasion, Josh always deserves an invitation.
Best Full-Bodied:Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast
If you’re looking for something bold and hearty to stand up to red meats, dark chocolate and sharp cheeses, this is the bottle for you. The palate is rich with flavors like blackberry, dark cherry and cassis, but won’t overpower the cooking you spent time, money and energy on. Let the bottle breathe for a bit and serve it for special dinners, especially in cooler months.
Best Budget: Apothic Red Winemaker’s Blend
Ultra fruity with whispers of mocha and chocolate, this velvety blend of zinfandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon has developed a cult-like following. And it’s not just because you can find most bottles for under $10 — all of Apothic’s library tastes great. Cheers a glass of this winemaker’s edition on its own or pair it with dishes that have a bit of spice like barbecue or pasta with red sauce.
Best Imported: Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages
Leave it to the French, of course, to offer a wine from Burgundy that is equal parts luscious and inexpensive. The gamay grape lends itself to more mild and delicate foods like puff pastry appetizers, chicken and soft cheeses, though this bottle also shines when splashed into stews, short ribs and Bolognese. (Pro tip: Don’t put foul-tasting wine into your food and expect it to be camouflaged by spices and other ingredients. A good dish deserves a good vino.)
Best Zinfandel: Bogle Family Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel
Fully ripe zinfandel grapes get a bad rap for being overly sweet and exclusive to dessert, which means many shoppers will overlook these bottles for something more “dry.” But old vine varieties like this beauty from Bogle put forth complex, spicy flavors that will have you reconsider your go-to glass of cab or pinot.
Best Blend: Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Red Wine Blend
Kendall-Jackson may be most commonly associated with chardonnay, though its red blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and a hint of petit verdot has not only caught the attention of everyday shoppers, but also sommeliers and winemakers from all over the world. And at an average price of under $15 per bottle, it’s also a win for the pocketbook. Pair this one with practically every pork-based meal you can think of, which will highlight its red fruit-forward notes.