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Wine Buying Guide – Tasting Basics, Types, What to Spend On

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Choosing a wine is like choosing a book: There are a million different options. You can get recommendations from a friend, but unless you really dive in and know what to look for, you’re taking a gamble on whether or not you’ll enjoy your selection.

Even if you rarely imbibe, it’s not a bad idea to get acquainted with wine. According to a Gallup poll, of the 64% of Americans who report having occasion to drink alcohol, 31% of them choose wine most often. That figure trails beer (you can thank the rise of craft breweries and home brewing for that), but solidly beats out liquor.

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You don’t have to become an expert in order to be able to enjoy wine and participate in conversations about it. A bit of basic knowledge about types, varietals, vintages, and tasting notes goes a long way. Basic wine knowledge enables you to review the wine list at a business dinner and know why the Australian Shiraz is a good bet. It lets you join in on that Napa getaway with confidence, and – perhaps most importantly of all – it lets you get in and out of that wine store without worrying that you’ve just wasted your money.

The short answer to “Which bottle of wine should I buy?” is to select something that, first, tastes good, and, second, fits within your personal budget. Of course, the reality of wine purchasing is a bit different. When faced with rows upon rows of mysterious-looking bottles, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But being struck immobile by decision paralysis is decidedly less fun than kicking back with a nice glass of 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet.

How to Read Wine Labels

It’s said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a wine by its label. At least, you can certainly learn a lot about that wine from its label.

Wine labels can seem as though they’re written in code, but all bottles share a few key elements. If you learn how to spot and interpret those elements, you can easily and quickly assess any bottle of wine.

All of the information found below should be present on every bottle, though some producers make these details harder to find than others. Remember, most wine bottles have both front and back labels.

  • Vintage. This is the year that the grapes were harvested. The wine itself may have actually been produced later.
  • Varietal. This is the type of grape or blend of grapes that went into the wine. For example, you might see Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Shiraz, or “Red Blend.” The name of the varietal shares the name of the grape, so Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are used to make Cabernet Sauvignon wine. An exception to this rule is any time a blend of grapes is used to produce a wine. Meritage, for instance, does not refer to a grape named Meritage, but rather to a blend made from specific grapes.
  • Region or Appellation. This references where the grapes were produced. Laws require a certain percentage of the grapes to have actually come from a certain location in order for that location to be claimed on a wine bottle (federal labeling standards put the minimum at 75% of the grapes in a bottle, while California requires 100% of the grapes to be from California in order for the label to read “California). The region might be as broad as a country, such as Argentina; more specific, such as a region like Bordeaux, in France; or it might reference an extremely small and specific appellation.
  • Wine Name/Brand or Producer. Some wines prominently advertise a name or brand (such as Cupcake), while others reference the wine’s producer (such as Robert Mondavi). Whether a winemaker chooses to feature a brand or the producer is generally a matter of which name has more clout with the public. Some wines have an overarching brand name and then another name for the specific wine. For example, Apothic is a brand, and Midnight is one of the wines from the Apothic brand.
  • Alcohol By Volume (ABV). While most wines fall in the 12% to 16% range for ABV, there are outliers. Sweet wines, such as Moscato, carry as low as 5% ABV, while port and sherry can weigh in at 20% or above.

Narrowing Down Your Wine Selection

One of the most important things to know about wine is just how much variation there is. Selecting wine involves a series of decisions that progressively narrow down your options.

Think of wine like a flowchart: First, there are types, such as red or white. Within those types, there are varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Within those varietals, there a number of other factors that influence the taste of a wine, including the region and vintage, as well as the climate in which the grapes were grown and the way the wine is stored, opened, and consumed.

For me, this variation is also perhaps the most exciting thing about wine. It’s not surprising that two bottles of Pinot Grigio from different wineries might taste completely different, but two bottles from the same vintage and the same winery can taste different simply based on the day you opened the bottle. Wine doesn’t stop evolving once it’s bottled and corked.

Some might argue that the most important elements of wine are the type (red vs. white) and varietals. Personally, I think the most important element is how it tastes. After all, whether your wine is red or white doesn’t matter much if it tastes terrible. When you understand the different taste profiles of wine, it can help you know what to ask for when shopping, and how to describe what you’re tasting.

Narrow Wine Selection

Wine Tasting Notes

Really, this section should be called “flavors,” since that’s essentially what we’re talking about. And yet, one of the best ways to look like a wine newbie is to inquire about a wine’s “flavors.” Instead of discussing flavors, oenophiles rely on tasting notes, which include a range of adjectives from the helpful (“chocolatey”) to the huh?! (“fleshy”). An oenophile is someone who loves wine, though by strict definition, it means someone who is devoted to wine and follows strict traditions surrounding consumption.

However, tasting notes allow descriptions that go beyond flavors. A wine might have notes of dark berries and mocha, but it might also be “bright” (usually means higher in acidity), “big” (massive flavor), or have “chewy tannins” (heavily tannic wines essentially dry out the inside of your mouth).

Don’t be intimidated by tasting notes. While oenophiles have a mental wine dictionary from which they can choose descriptions, you can describe wine any way you want. Talk about what other foods the wine reminds you of, how the wine feels in your mouth, and how the sensation changes as you move through the sip.

You might hear a oenophile discussing the following:

  • The Nose. A wine’s nose is how it smells. If you’ve ever seen someone swirl a glass of wine and then stick their nose into the glass to take a big sniff, they’re trying to introduce air into the wine and help release and sense the scent.
  • The Mouthfeel. This is, of course, how the wine feels in your mouth. Is it sharp? Smooth? Bold? Subtle? Complex? Layered? Does it make your mouth water or dry it out?
  • The Finish. Many wines undergo a flavor transformation from the moment the wine enters your mouth, to the taste that’s left over after you swallow. That latter taste is called a wine’s “finish.” You might hear someone say that a wine finishes smooth, or has different notes (“earthy,” “smoky,” “jammy”) that emerge at the end.

Understanding Flavors

A lot of people discovering wine hear mention of a wine having notes of coffee or cherries or dirt (yes, that’s a tasting note) and wonder if those flavors have actually been imparted into the wine in some way. Did the winemaker really put dirt in the wine? It’s a fair question, and the answer is no. A wine derives its flavor from the soil conditions and climate in which the grapes were grown, the time of year the grapes were harvested, and everything that happened after harvest (bottling, storing, opening, introducing air, sipping).

As wine drinkers, we connect what we experience while drinking wine with other flavor-related experiences we’ve had, because that’s where we derive our taste vocabulary. So there isn’t actually moss in your wine, but you know what moss smells like and you might be able to imagine what it tastes like, so you can use the word “mossy” to describe what you’re experiencing when sipping a wine.

Sometimes, the flavors emerge uncannily like something you’ve tasted in the real world. You might swear that there’s vanilla in your wine. That’s simply the magic of wine. (Unless, of course, you’re drinking an infused wine, in which case you should already know that there’s something else in it.)

The Impact of Climate on Acidity

Cool growing climates, such as in Chile, South Africa, Oregon, Germany, and Northern France, tend to produce tart, more acidic wines. That’s because cool weather stunts the ripening of the grapes, and that under-ripeness presents itself as tartness in wines. Warm growing climates, such as California, Southern France, Italy, and Australia produce riper grapes with lower acidity levels.

Is one better than the other? Not inherently so. Some people prefer acidic wines, while others prefer balanced wines.

Just because wine has a lot of moving factors doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. Understanding the basics of tasting notes and how climate affects taste helps you better distinguish and choose between the different types of wine.

Types of Wine

There are literally hundreds of different types of wine varietals, though a significant majority of wine consumed, especially in America, is limited to a fraction of those. Wine generally falls into one of five categories:

  • White. White wines are so named because they come from white (or green) grapes. White wines range in color from nearly clear to very deep yellow. Common varietals of white wine include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Riesling.
  • Red. Red wine comes from red (or purple/black) grapes. Red wines range from pinkish red to extremely dark purple – in fact, some red wines appear nearly black in a glass. Common varietals of red wine include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and Malbec.
  • Sparkling. Sparkling wine is any wine that has been infused with enough carbon dioxide to give it small, fizzy bubbles. Sparkling wine is most commonly made from white wine grapes, though sparkling rosé is becoming more popular, and a few sparkling red wines exist. Champagne is arguably the most famous sparkling wine, but sparkling wine also includes other varietals such as Prosecco, Brut, and Cava.
  • Rosé. Rosé is made from red grapes, but the skins of the grapes (which are the source of a wine’s color) are only briefly introduced. That leaves the wine with its signature pink tint. The type of rosé depends on the type of grape used, and the grape choice affects both the shade of pink and the wine’s taste. You can make a rosé out of any red wine grape. Many people in the wine community have long viewed rosé as an unsophisticated option, but rosé has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last couple of years.
  • Dessert. Dessert wine is a category of wines that are – you guessed it – intended to be served with dessert. Dessert wines include very sweet white wines (such as Moscato and Port) and late harvest white wines. Late harvest wines are made from grapes that have been left on the vine much later into the season than other grapes. Their increased ripeness produces a much higher sugar content.

Within each of these five categories, there are myriad options ranging from mouth-puckeringly dry to sickly sweet – depending on your palate – as well as a range of varietals and blends.

Wine Tasting Notes

Wine Varietals You Should Know

Eating Well offers a list of the most commonly consumed wines in the U.S. Remember, unless it’s a blend, the name of the varietal refers to the name of the grape used. None of the varietals on this list refer to a blend, so these are all types of grapes.

The list from Eating Well didn’t include sparkling wine, but it’s considered a staple of American wine preferences, so it’s worthy of inclusion.

  • Pinot GrigioPronounced PEE-no GREE-jhee-oo. A white wine that typically originates from grapes grown in northeastern Italy, though Pinot Grigio is also grown in Oregon, California, and the Alsace region of France. Most Pinot Grigios are slightly drier (as opposed to sweet) and can be described as “crisp.” Pinot Grigio commonly has strong fruity and/or floral flavors such as pear, peach, lemon, or apple. Italian Pinot Grigios tend to have more of an acidic bite than those from France or the U.S. Pinot Grigio is often paired with salads and fish.
  • Sauvignon BlancPronounced SAHV-in-yon BLAHNK. A white wine made from grapes that are traditionally grown in the Bordeaux region of France, though they are also found commonly in Italy, New Zealand, Northern California, Chile, and South Africa. Sauvignon Blanc is crisp like Pinot Grigio, but typically drier and more acidic than Pinot Grigio. Sauvignon Blanc commonly has flavors of lime, green apple, and grapefruit, and is famously prone to “grassy” or “green pepper” aromas. Pairs well with the same foods as Pinot Grigio.
  • Pinot NoirPronounced PEE-no no-ARE. A light-bodied red wine made from grapes that are notoriously finicky and difficult to grow. Pinot Noir grapes are highly prevalent in the Burgundy region of France as well as Sonoma and Santa Barbara in California. Some Pinot Noir is also grown in Germany. Pinot Noir tends to have medium-high levels of acidity and notes that blend sweet spices (such as vanilla and cloves) with red fruits (raspberry, cranberry, cherry). Pinot Noir that has been aged in oak tends, not surprisingly, to have strong oaky flavors. Pairs well with rich fish, white meats and lighter red meats, and cheese.
  • ChardonnayPronounced SHAR-duh-NEIGH. A white wine made from grapes that are relatively easy to grow, and are grown all over the world – though in highest concentrations in the Burgundy region of France and California. Notably, French Chardonnays are quite different from American Chardonnays, as the former tends to have prominent fruity notes while American Chardonnays are usually aged in oak and thus have strong oaky flavors, which impart a distinctive “buttery” flavor. French Chardonnays typically have notes of tropical fruits, peaches, pears, and apples. While Chardonnay is traditionally dry, climate and soil variations can result in a semi-sweet wine. Pairs well with seafood, white meat, and hard cheeses.
  • Cabernet SauvignonPronounced CAB-uhr-NEIGH SAHV-in-yon. A medium- to full-bodied red wine most commonly grown in the Burgundy region of France and Northern California, though it’s also widespread throughout the world, including Chile, Washington State, Australia, Argentina, and Italy. It is typically dry. A good Cabernet Sauvignon is often layered and complex, with flavors of dark fruits (plum, black cherry, blackberry), warm spices, and sometimes tobacco or leather. Pairs well with red meats and strong-flavored cheeses.
  • Sparkling Wine. Champagne is a sparkling wine, but only refers to sparkling wine that was actually produced in the Champagne region of France. Champagne must have a very good PR team, because there is a widespread belief that any sparkling wine that is not technically “Champagne” is inherently inferior. This is not necessarily the case. Italy produces many very tasty Proseccos, Spain produces Cava, and California is famous for their “cuvée blend.” Sparkling wine varies from extremely dry to extremely sweet, and while it’s usually made from white wine grapes, it can also be rosé or even red. Sparkling wine is traditionally served either as an aperitif or with desserts.

If you’re planning a dinner party or just interested in introducing yourself to wine, these six types of wine are a great place to start.

Wine-Producing Regions

Knowing just a little bit about wine-producing regions can help you score a much better deal on a good wine. This is because if a region specializes in a certain grape, that region is going to produce more of it, and it’s very likely that the soil and climate conditions are well-suited to that grape. That means that you’ll have a better chance of finding higher-quality wine at lower prices by sticking with the region’s specialty.

Think of it this way: Someone in Australia might really want to grow Riesling, but given the climate, it could be incredibly difficult and expensive to do so with any success. At best, they’re likely to end up with a small crop that was expensive to produce. Therefore, the wine, even if it’s not tip-top due to the conditions, could only reasonably be sold at a high cost to cover expenses. However, Shiraz grapes are very easy to grow in Australia, so there are a lot of big vineyards growing Shiraz grapes easily, which produces more product and more competition, which in turn encourages enhanced quality and lower prices.

There are exceptions, of course. Pinot Noir is grown extensively in the Burgundy Region of France, mainly because it is difficult to grow. In addition, since Burgundy region is one of few places where Pinot Noir grows well, French Pinot Noir makers can charge exorbitant prices for their prize product.

Still, in general, it’s a good idea to stick with a region’s specialty. (You’ll notice there are few areas that don’t specialize in Chardonnay.)

  • France: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot
  • Spain: Tempranillo, Airén
  • Italy: Sangiovese, Chianti
  • Argentina: Malbec, Chardonnay
  • Australia: Chardonnay, Shiraz
  • Germany: Riesling
  • Chile: Carmeñere, Cabernet, Chardonnay
  • South Africa: Chenin Blanc, Bordeaux-style blends
  • Portugal: Port wines
  • United States: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay

Vintage – Why It’s Important

Vintage is nothing more than a fancy way of saying the year that the grapes were harvested. It’s important to pay attention to vintage for two primary reasons:

  • To determine how old the wine is and whether or not wine experts would still consider it good to drink
  • To know whether the year the grapes were harvested was a good year for grapes in that particular region

In the movie “Sideways,” the character Miles brags about having a bottle of 1961 Chateaux Cheval Blanc in his wine cellar. To be sure, a wine that has been carefully preserved for that long is probably special to the person who kept it, but the age alone doesn’t assure that it tastes good or has any particular monetary value.

Miles’s bottle is exceptional for a couple of reasons: Chateaux Cheval Blanc is indeed a very prominent producer in Bordeaux and commands extremely high prices for its wine, and 1961 happened to be an extraordinarily good year for Chateaux Cheval Blanc. So, yes, Miles’s wine is actually quite a treasure – but not simply because it’s old.

Aging

All wine will go “bad” eventually if it ages for too long, though some wine has the capability of aging (also known as “cellaring”) for decades or even centuries if the storing conditions are flawless. And yet, some wines shouldn’t be aged at all.

At the risk of getting too technical, a wine’s ability to age is contingent on its:

  • pH level. Wines with lower pH levels (such as Pinot Noir and Sangiovese) tend to get better as they age.
  • Tannins. Wines with higher level of tannins tend to be able to tolerate aging better than wines with low levels of tannins.

The quick rule of thumb is that most reasonably priced wines (such as those priced $30 and under) should almost all be drinkable right away, and may not need aging, let alone withstand it very well. If you’re buying $100 bottles, there’s a higher likelihood that the bottle would benefit from aging, though not always.

When in doubt, ask a knowledgeable wine sales representative or search online for a wine’s current “drinkability” or “drinkability window.” Often you’ll see a range of years during which a certain wine is best consumed, such as “Drink now through 2020.”

Production Year

Since weather patterns change every year, so do the quality of grapes produced from year to year in the same region. Years that are slightly cooler, warmer, wetter, or drier than normal can have gargantuan effects on the taste of the wine. That’s why there’s often such a significant difference between the cost of a wine produced in one year compared to the wine produced from the same winemaker just one year later.

That’s why 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons from California are ridiculously expensive. 2007 was a once-in-a-century year for wine-growing conditions in Northern California. And while the extraordinary conditions facilitated heavy production levels, the wine was so much better than it had been in recent years that demand drove prices through the roof. The same thing happened in 2005 with wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. On the other hand, if someone tries to impress you with a bottle of 1975 Cote de Beaune from Burgundy, you can stick up your nose and say, “No, that year was appalling.”

If you’re considering a bottle, ask a sales representative, “Was this a good year for this wine?” And if you’re looking to save money, perhaps ask for a vintage that was “above average but not extraordinary.” Once you’ve considered type, varietal, region, and vintage, one glaring factor remains: How much are you going to have to pay to get a decent bottle of wine?

Wine Production Year

Wine Prices and Getting the Most Value

Cost vs. Value

Price matters, but only because of your budget. A $100 bottle of wine is only valuable if it actually tastes good.

Don’t be swayed by price. If you find a $5 bottle of wine that you love, buy it, drink it, enjoy it, and don’t listen to what anyone else tells you. A true wine lover loves tasty wine, not just expensive investment-grade wine.

Dropping a ton of cash on an expensive bottle simply because you think it’ll knock people’s socks off will, in fact, not knock anyone’s socks off as much as a bottle of wine that tastes good. Remember – you’re supposed to decant wine anyway, so if you’re self-conscious about producing a bottle at a dinner party with a label or name that suggests that it’s not a particularly expensive bottle, simply decant the whole bottle and hide the evidence. Decanters make every bottle look fancy.

How Much to Spend

As for how much you should spend on wine, the answer is completely up to you, and it depends on your budget. According to The New York Times, the “sweet spot” is around $20 per bottle. Of course, that’s a lot of money to risk on a bottle you’ve never tried – especially if you’re just getting introduced to wine. Food & Wine Magazine has a whole list of excellent wines priced at $15 or under, including two priced at just $8 (2009 Lindeman’s Bin 40 Merlot and 2009 Bodegas Nekeas Vega Sindoa Tempranillo).

You can certainly find wine priced even cheaper than $8. Charles Shaw, a.k.a. “Two Buck Chuck,” famously sells wine for $2.99 at Trader Joe’s. I’ve had it, and it’s not as bad as you might think it would be for the price.

Tips for Saving on Wine

  1. Buy Big. If you find a wine you enjoy, buy it by the case. Many wine sellers offer case discounts.
  2. Compare Prices. Wine prices often vary dramatically from retailer to retailer. If you have your heart set on a certain wine, call around to a few places to check prices. If you’re just browsing, make a note of a few prices and then check somewhere else. While I’m a major proponent of independent wine stores, it’s true that major importers (such as Costco) can often score a deal on bulk purchases and thus offer the same wine at a lower price. This isn’t always the case, however, so don’t forget to try your neighborhood store too.
  3. Be Wary of the Over-sell. While most wine sellers are very well-intentioned, they also have a business to run. If an employee is putting the hard sell on a certain wine, it’s possible that the store is overstocked with the wine and is simply trying to get rid of it.
  4. Sign Up for Sales Alerts. In spite of what I just warned you about above, overstocks often lead to major price reductions. Thus, if there’s a wine you’re already familiar with and interested in, it’s worth asking the staff when it might go on sale, and sign up to receive alerts if they’re offered.
  5. Buy a Cheaper Alternative. There is often a cheaper alternative to a popular, expensive wine. Unless you’re committed to a specific varietal, consider making a change to a wine with similar qualities that’s from a region or varietal that makes it more affordable.
  6. Buy Online. Wine is increasingly available online, though restrictions on the shipment of alcohol affect several states. Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota ban direct shipping from wineries, and all of these states (except Mississippi) restrict shipments from online wine distributors. Many other states restrict the amount of wine you can receive per month or per year. As long as you’re within the laws of your state, you can potentially save time and effort shopping online. NakedWines.com is one option – it advertises 40% to 60% savings on all bottles, and supports independent wineries by funding them up front and then selling their wine at wholesale prices to online customers.
  7. Join a Wine Club. If you imbibe on a regular basis, subscribing to a wine club might make sense for you. Most wine clubs ship a certain number of bottles (often 12, though some ship as few as one bottle at a time) each month, and you pay a flat fee for the wine. Typically, you provide information about your wine preferences, and the wine club curates a selection based on your parameters. It’s important to take into account the cost per bottle to make sure it’s worth your investment. Some wine clubs also charge for shipping – which might be in the fine print and run $10 or more per month. While it’s not uncommon to pay $30 or more per bottle, there are affordable alternatives, such as Club W Wine. It ships as few as three bottles per month for a total of $39 ($13 per bottle).

Buying for a Party

It can be intimidating to be tasked with providing wine for your own party – or someone else’s. Hosts often feel pressure to cater to many tastes without breaking the bank.

To start, you’ll likely want a combination of red and white wines. When in doubt, make sure one of your choices is a French Beaujolais. A recent vintage, such as one within the last three years, is better than an older vintage, because French Beaujolais is intended to be consumed while it is “young.” Try George Duboeuf for a foolproof option.

It’s always a good idea to over-purchase wine for a party, though you may end up needing to confiscate car keys at the end of the night. Estimates vary dramatically, and it really depends on the drinking habits of your group, but if eight people (including the hosts) are attending a dinner party, it’s a good idea to have at least three glasses of wine available per person. That would mean six bottles in total – plus, it’s not a bad idea to have a backup bottle on hand.

Consider the food you’re serving with the wine. If you’re serving a cheese course, try a white wine, either sweet (such as Riesling) or rich (like Chardonnay), or perhaps a sparkling wine. Remember that dry white wine (Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, for example) goes well with salad courses and fish, though rich fish and heavier seafood pairs well with lighter reds, such as Pinot Noirs or Grenache.

If you’re serving chicken, try Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Grenache. Red meats pair well with medium to heavy reds such as Merlot, Tempranillo, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Smoky meats go best with the heaviest reds, such as Syrah and Zinfandel. Finally, desserts call for (you guessed it) dessert wine, including Port, Sherry, late harvest whites, or Moscato – and, of course, sparkling wine is always a nice way to end a meal.

Smart Swaps

One of the best ways you can save money is simply by avoiding high-demand, high-priced options – and you don’t have to sacrifice quality and taste to do so.

  • Grenache Instead of Pinot Noir. As mentioned previously, Pinot Noir is very difficult to grow, meaning that good Pinot Noirs tend to be more expensive than other varietals. Expect to pay $20 or more to secure a decent bottle. You should probably steer clear of cheap Pinot Noir because it is almost certainly made from the grapes that the high-end producers turned up their noses at. If you’re looking for Pinot Noir but don’t want to spend a lot of money, try Grenache. Grenache is another grape commonly grown in France that has similar qualities to Pinot Noir but is easier to grow, so it tends to be less expensive. Grenache is known as Garnacha in Spain. Recommendation: Bodegas Borsao Monte Oton Garnacha 2008. Cost: $7.
  • Prosecco, Cava, or Cuvée Instead of Champagne. Remember, Champagne benefits from the well-known name and can be priced higher accordingly, but it only refers to sparkling wine grown in the Champagne region of France. However, there are plenty of other good options for sparkling wine. When your guests hear the cork pop, they won’t care where it’s from – as long as it tastes good. Recommendation: La Marca Prosecco (any vintage). Cost: $14.99.
  • South African Bordeaux-Style Blend Instead of Bordeaux. Authentic Bordeaux wines, by their very name, need to come from the Bordeaux region of France. But a Bordeaux blend simply refers to a combination of grapes, typically Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, or Petit Verdot. In theory, a Bordeaux-style blend can be produced in any region where those grapes are grown. Parts of South Africa mimic the climate and growing conditions of the Bordeaux region well enough that they can produce an impressive Bordeaux-style blend for a fraction of the cost. Recommendation: Glen Carlou Classique 2010. Cost: $17.99.
  • Chianti Instead of Any Other Full-bodied Red. Poor Chianti. It never did have a particularly elegant reputation, and then Hannibal Lecter had to pine after Chianti in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Chianti’s fate was sealed. But if you’re just getting into wine, Chianti is a great option. It’s usually not particularly complex or layered, which is exactly why there’s no need to spend a lot of money on a Chianti. In most cases, a $60 bottle of Chianti won’t give you anything that you couldn’t get from a $15 bottle. Chianti is on the fruitier side, which makes it a good introductory wine for people new to wine (or just new to red wine). Recommendation: Piccini Chianti 2011. Cost: $10.

How to Properly Serve Wine

You’ve made your selection and determined whether or not your wine should be aged. Now it’s time to enjoy.

Temperature

Red wine is intended to drink at warmer temperatures than white wine and sparkling wines. It’s common to drink red wines at room temperature and white or sparkling wines straight out of the fridge, but this is a mistake. Room temperature is too warm for red wines, and the fridge is too cold for whites and sparkling wines. Temperatures that are too warm or too cold mask the flavors of a wine, which defeats the purpose of all the work you’ve done to pick out a good bottle.

Unless you have a temperature-controlled wine fridge (which can easily cost $200 or more), it’s important to remove your white and sparkling wine from the fridge about 20 minutes before it will be consumed. The 20-minute rule applies in reverse to red wines. Put a room-temperature bottle in the fridge for about 20 minutes before serving.

Glassware

There are different types of glassware for just about every imaginable wine varietal. Not only can buying all these glasses get awfully expensive, it also takes up an enormous amount of space. Unless you find yourself becoming a wine connoisseur, you can get away with a basic red wine glass and a basic white wine glass – and maybe a champagne flute if you want to feel fancy.

Red wine glasses tend to be rounder at the base of the bowl to allow more air to circulate in the glass, while white wine glasses are slightly narrower and tapered at the base of the bowl. White wine glasses are almost always smaller than red wine glasses, and the primary reason for this is to encourage smaller servings so that the wine stays appropriately chilled. Champagne flutes are narrow and cylindrical.

If you have even less room in your cupboards or your budget, opt for a single, versatile wine glass with a neutrally shaped bowl. You should be able to get a four-pack of wine glasses for $20 or less from a big box store such as Target.

One thing to note: Stemless glasses, or tumblers, are popular, but they force you to hold the glass by the bowl rather than the stem. The heat from your hand influences the temperature of the wine.

Decanting

Decanters (containers – typically glass – that wine is poured into before serving) aren’t just a snobby wine accessory. The purpose of decanting is the same purpose for swirling wine: introducing air. Air interacts with the wine and helps it “open up.” Think of it like reintroducing the grapes to the air after they’ve been cooped up in a bottle for weeks, months, years, or decades.

Decanting is more often used for red wine, though you can decant a white wine as well. You don’t have to save decanting for an expensive bottle either. While decanting is arguably most useful for older wines that have been sitting, deprived of air, for a long period of time, decanting can also help “mellow out” the harsh and astringent tastes common among cheaper red wines and young red wines.

Feel free to conduct your own science experiment: Decant a small amount of wine from a newly opened bottle and let it sit for an hour or so. After it has had time to “breathe,” pour another bit straight from the bottle into a glass. Taste both and see if you can tell the difference.

If you don’t have a decanter, you can simply open your bottle of wine a few hours prior to serving to let it breathe, or you can simply encourage guests to emphatically swirl their glasses of wine before sipping. (Everyone feels fancier when they swirl wine, anyway.)

Aerating

While decanting is a relatively delicate way of introducing air to wine, there’s a more aggressive option: aeration. An aerator is a small, typically conical device that can be temporarily affixed to the end of a wine bottle. Instead of pouring wine directly out of the top, an aerator forces the wine through the cone shape, rapidly introducing air. You can aerate wine directly into your glass and drink it right away.

Young wines especially benefit from aeration, as the forced introduction of air helps open up flavors and mellow out harshness. Fans of aeration claim that it can instantly age a young wine – and a bit of extra age is usually a good thing when it comes to wine. Aeration is a good option if you don’t have the patience to wait for a bottle to decant, or if you only want to drink a single glass out of a bottle.

Storing Open Wine

Keep in mind that, while air is important to improve wine, extended exposure to oxygen will start to deteriorate the wine. It’s always a good idea to re-cork any wine you aren’t going to drink in a single evening, and if you regularly leave wine in the bottle, you might want to invest in a wine preserver. Basic wine preservers are simply fancy corks that create a stronger seal, and can easily be purchased for $10 or less. For a few more dollars, you can purchase a vacuum sealer that purports to pump air out of the bottle before corking it.

As for how long wine lasts, every bottle is different. Some will last weeks, while others will go bad after only a day or two. Younger wines tend to last longer than older wines after they’ve been opened, and sweet wines also hang on longer due to the high sugar content acting as a preservative.

You’ll be able to tell if your wine has gone bad by tasting it. Bad wine takes on a sour taste akin to vinegar. Some people get the flavor of wet newspaper. In addition to properly sealing, storing your open wine in the fridge can help extend its life.

Store Open Wine

Final Word

Wine can seem intimidating, especially if your only real encounter with it involved a box of cheap, terrible wine at a college party. And yet you don’t need to be a connoisseur to enjoy a good glass of wine here and there – and you don’t need to break the bank either.

I highly recommend attending a wine tasting or two, which are frequently offered at wine stores or at a discount on daily deals sites like Groupon. Discover what you like and what you don’t like. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the employee you ask doesn’t have the answer, ask someone else – or take your business elsewhere.

I truly believe that your taste preferences are what matters most, but if you truly want to rely on an expert opinion, Wine Spectator offers a respected rating system that can help you identify “top” wines. From light, fruity, and sparkling, to bold, rich, and spicy, wine offers something for nearly every taste bud.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? How much is too much to spend on a bottle of wine?

Ellen Gans
Ellen Hunter Gans is a full-time writer who loves highbrow books, lowbrow TV, late afternoon sunshine, Oxford commas, adding to her "countries visited" list, and the three Cs: cabernet, coffee, and carbohydrates. She's also a fifteen-time marathon finisher and Ironman triathlete. Ellen lives with her awesome husband and adorable son.

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