5 Tips to Help You Select a Great Wine

I’m not a sommelier, although I wish I were.  Luckily for me my first gig as an event planner was at a high-end steakhouse that not only served excellent wines but believed in training their staff about excellent wine.  When I started I only knew that there was red and white wine. I couldn’t even tell you what types of wines were what color (was a cabernet red or white?).  Thankfully I was able to supplement the wine training with help from the sommelier who took me from “eh, I don’t drink that stuff” to understanding what I liked, what wines were what, what wines went well with which types of food, which wines should be served for cocktails versus a heavy meal, how the region where the grapes are from affected the taste, etc.  I don’t know details about every kind of wine, I couldn’t list you every winery and what were the best years for a particular type of wine, but I can tell you that I bought a lovely South African Sauvignon Blanc the other day because I know that South Africa is an up-and-coming area for wine and the climates there create wines that, in my personal opinion, are a bit softer and smoother.

It’s important to know about wine if you plan events because people are going to be drinking it and many events planned, be them social or corporate.   So in case you’re also not a sommelier, here are 5 tips to help you select a great wine.

Veuve Clicquot is fancy, tasty stuff.
Veuve Clicquot is fancy, tasty stuff.

1. Price Doesn’t Always Mean Quality.  Just like clothing, there are “designer” wines.  You’re paying for the name.  While you can be rest assured it is a quality wine it does not mean that’s the only reason it’s a good wine.  A brand that comes to mind for me of a “designer” wine is Veuve Clicquot.  It’s a great wine – they make beautiful champagnes with equally beautiful bottles that present well but at a restaurant, you’re often going to be spending around $100 per bottle for the yellow label (they make gold label which will cost you even more).  This can also be true for wines that are in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.  No one will really ever tell you this, but some wines are $5,000 because there are people out there who want to show off their money and “splurge” and pick the most expensive thing on the list and who wouldn’t want to make $5000 off the sale of one bottle?  A good wine is determined by a combination of what you’re drinking it for, your palette and your wallet.  You can get an appropriate wine for under $50 at a nice restaurant and if you’re at the store, under $20.  What I will say for wines that are a little pricier is that they tend to be a little more consistent.  They may not be as consistent from year to year – the vintage of the wine is reflected in how the crops were that year (if there was a rain storm, if it was colder or warmer, etc) and that ultimately will determine the profile of the wine, but the wine makers still aim to be consistent each year with the flavor and quality in each bottle.  Cheaper wines (say a merlot that’s $5/bottle) care more about mass production than the quality of what they are bottling.

2. Match Colors.  When it comes to food, you want to pair white wines with a white entree like alfredo pasta, fish, chicken (lighter game type of meats) and red wines to red sauces and red meats.  White wines go great with lemon-based and lighter dishes as well.

3. Dry or Not?  Check the alcohol volume.  The higher the alcohol volume, the dryer the wine.  If you find a bottle with 14% alcohol, you’ll be smacking your tongue on the top of your mouth and needing a glass of water with dinner because that will be a very dry wine.  Some wines have only 3 or 4% alcohol, so if you’re not sure just how dry that cabernet is, check the label for alcohol content.

4. Drinking VS Eating.  If you don’t know your crowd, go middle of the road on everything.  Usually it’s not as noticeable if the wine you’re drinking is a bit more dry if you have food to go with it.  Likewise, the flavor of your food can be brought out with the right wines.  However, if you’re at a cocktail party and you might have had a bite of something, you’re main staple at that event is going to be the wine in your hand.  Therefore softer, more drinkable wines are better.  However, I will tell you hands down, most events I got to people consistently pick Chardonnays and Cabernets when they do a red and a white.  This makes me crazy because I don’t like either one and if you don’t like wine very much – unless you’ve chosen a nice, well rounded version of either – the I’ll-get-wine-because-it-seems-classier-and-at-least-it’s-not-hard-liquor drinkers aren’t going to like it either.  I have noticed that older people tend to like dry wines, which I’m guessing is because your palette changes as you age.  Notice how little kids can take a cup of sugar and pour it down their throats and it’s the best thing ever?  I was that kid who couldn’t get enough of pixie sticks and now if I have half of one I’m like “ugh, no more!”  So if your crowd is older overall, you may want to stick with a cab(ernet) or chardonnay.  Also, women tend to drink more white wine than men.  So if you have a crowd of young women, you may want to go with a Sauvingon Blanc or Pinot Grigio for whites and a Pinot Noir or Malbec is always a cocktail party hit.  Moscatos, which are more popular thanks to modern day rap singers, are very sweet and are often served with ice as dessert wines.  Dessert wines are very sweet and meant to complement a decadent dessert – or, depending on the guest, to be their decadent dessert.

5. Champagne Problems.  Champagne has been branded this super-luxurious, fancy-people stuff.  And while it certainly can be so can any type of wine.  Fact: Champagne can only be called Champagne if the grapes were grown in the region of Champagne, France.  Otherwise it legally must be called a sparkling wine.  Italian Champagne is called Prosecco and tends to be a bit cheaper than Champagne.  Also, Champagne is still a wine but it is really, really bubbly.  Never be afraid to get a bottle and use it.  There are so many great types of this white wine and I personally love wines with effervescence (I noticed in my year abroad that Portugues and Spanish wines have a bit of this and they are actually a go-to for me).  A way I check to see how bubbly a wine is?  If you can see liquid in the bottle I quickly tip it upside down and see how much it looks like the wine is bubbling. I can’t guarantee it will work because this is something I’ve made up, however, much like a can of pop, if it’s more bubbly you’ll be able to see it at the top of the bottle compared to say, if you tipped a bottle of water upside down.  This works better with regular wines if you’re trying to see IF there’s any effervescence to it, however I don’t really suggest this with Champagne bottles because everyone knows those things are ready to pop anyway.  Speaking of sparkling whites and Champagnes, one of my favorite cocktails are Champagne cocktails.  These are easily made with a crisp, brut champagne or prosecco and St. Germaine’s Liqueur you can add in various flavorings and mixtures as you like such as a Peach Puree, or even a sprig of mint.  Trust me, you can never go wrong!

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