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How to Buy Wines Whose Labels Confuse You!

I fully admit that Iberian wines are not always the most friendly wine labels to decipher; which explains our logic in writing an entire series on how to not only interpret Spanish wine label but also the Portuguese wine label, and finally Port wine labels! But when you’re roaming your local wine shop two hours before your date arrives and you’ve failed to peruse our advice on reading the labels, what do you do? With only 10 bucks in hand at your local wine shop, you find yourself moving towards your old standby Merlot which sits comfortably on the shelf like an old friend. When suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you see wine labels with fancy scripted letters, strange foreign words and funky looking bottles! If only you knew which bottle to grab so that you might appear a bit more cultured to your date than you actually are. First and foremost, forget the tired merlot and let’s move on to the scary looking foreign shelf. Here are a few basic steps to getting a wine that both you and your date hopefully will enjoy.
    1. Staff: The best way to start this process is to determine if the staff at the your wine shop knows a Chateaunuef from a Chateaupoof. Begin by asking for help. Some shops love this and your problems are solved. You can describe what you like, give them a price, and if the shop is any good, you’ll end up a hero at dinner! On the other hand, if the guy at the register is lighting up his second cigarette while sipping on a 40 of Shlitz, you might be on your own. If this is the case, don’t worry. We can still make it through this together!
  1. The Basics: Time to go solo. Hence, ask yourself these few simple questions, all easily answerable by either the wine section or the bottle regardless of the country: What color do you want? Is there a country you wish to explore? How much do you want to spend?Color is easy enough, just look at the wine. In dark bottles you probably need to hold it up to a light. Here is a simple trick that you can do in any wine shop: take the cigarette lighter that the staff was using earlier and use it to see the color of the wine through the bottle. This technique works beautifully other than with Rose, which can be difficult to decipher at times. But rest assured because typically they in clear bottles.

    What countries wines do you want to sound like your educated in? By law in the USA, all wines need to have the country of origin written in English on the label. As for countries other than the USA, they typically apply the same law, but if your country doesn’t have this law, let me know and I will do some research for you.

    How much you want to spend? Most, if not all wines you will encounter, are .750 of a liter, while dessert wines are often in bottles half this size. On rare occasions you may be looking for a large bottle of wine. Remember unless in your in a shop where they help you select a wine, the large bottle are probably of a lower quality, though not always.

  2. Grapes: Some countries allow their wines to be labeled by grape variety like they do in the US, Australia, parts of Spain and Portugal, and South American wines. For our hypothetical “date night”, we know we like Merlot. Hence, look for a wine with the word “Merlot” on the label. Another option is to put a tiny bit more effort into your wine choice and do some research. Merlot is a fruit-forward wine often slightly sweet and easy to drink. What other wines fit the bill? You would discover that a wine from La Mancha, Spain uses Tempranillo which has some of the same qualities as a Merlot from Australia, or you could go to a French wine where the bottle has the name St.Emilion on the label. Any wine with St.Emilion on the label from France will have a considerable amount of Merlot in it. If you didn’t do the research beforehand, look at the alcohol content of the wine. Red wines with an alcohol content around 13% tend to be softer and easier to drink by themselves or with lighter foods. Move to 14 or 15% and you have a wine that needs some meat or something rich and flavorful. With whites anything above 14% tends to be over the top and very rich, while crisper whites with nice freshness tend to be in the 10-12% range of alcohol.

These are just a few tips to guide you to the right section/area of your wine shop. The catch is that to be truly savvy it helps to do your research. Keep in mind that you don’t need to be a Master Sommelier to find a good bottle of wine that you will enjoy; you just need some curiosity and willingness to ask questions. I realize how annoying this label issue can be, but as time goes on, the more you support countries with labels that you understand, the more both wineries and retailers will notice and will consequently abide by easier labeling requirements. The old labeling laws do have a place in this world where they call attention to place, a important concept in wine. But on the other hand, it does make selling wine harder as you need to then educate your consumer.

In the end, I believe the most important thing you can do to expand your wine knowledge and to impress future dates is to find a wine shop with good service. Sadly, these shops are far and few between, but they do exist; and like buying the wines that are easier to understand can lead to easier to read labels, becoming a loyal customer at one of these shops rewards behaviors that we all want to see in our retailers. In the past I’ve chosen to go out of my way, or even pay a higher price in order to get service that includes a smile, and where the sales person takes the time to remember my name! Good service is invaluable!

Till soon,
Ryan Opaz

This post was inspired by a post on Problogger.com