Wine stores and restaurant wine lists can present a daunting array of unfamilair labels from around the world. But the basics of finding a wine you like remain the same. The key components to choosing a wine are: knowing what you enjoy, deciding how much you want to spend, considering what you will eat with the wine and knowing some useful terminology.
Drink what you like
When you know what you like, you can use the knowledge to find preferred or similar wines. To learn what you like, you have the enviable task of drinking as many different types of wine as possible.
"Every time you encounter a wine you really enjoy, take a picture of the bottle or inquire about the name so you can refer back to it, and that will help you the next time you order wine," says Gary Wollerman, owner of French Quarter seafood restaurant GW Fins.
Restaurants that offer many vintages by the glass help diners taste their way around the wine list. Diners should be aware that glasses of wine have a higher mark up than bottles.
How much do you want to spend?
Most wine lists are arranged with wines in descending order of price within categories, but diners don't need to spend a lot to buy a good bottle.
"Price doesn't necessarily indicate quality," Wollerman says. "You can get very drinkable bottles for $25-$30."
What goes with what
The old rule of wine selection dictated drinking red wine with red meat and white wine with seafood. Current wisdom, however, suggests balancing wine and food. For example, order a light wine for a light dish and a heavier wine for a heavier dish.
"In a steak restaurant, you might want to go with a Washington state or Napa Valley merlot," says Dan Davis, the officially titled "Wine Guy" at Commander's Palace and its sister restaurants. "But if everyone is having seafood, you might want to go with a light-bodied white or red such as a chardonnay or pinot noir."
Useful wine terms
Knowing key wine terminology helps diners communicate the wine characteristics they want and don't want to sommeliers and restaurant servers.
Varietal refers to the type of grape used, or on a label it may refer to the most dominant grape in a wine. Many wines are made with blends of grapes.
Dryness is an indication of how much sugar is in a wine: Dry wines have less; sweet wines have more, though the terms are relative and a wine can be considered sweet without tasting sugary. Most wines are dry, but there is a place for truly sweet wines, such as the sparkling red wines of Italy's Piedmont region, on the dining table.
"Sweet and (spicy) heat go together nicely," Davis says. "As do sweet (wines) and desserts."
Tannins are naturally occurring compounds found in grape skins and other plant matter, including oak barrels. Red wines generally have higher levels of tannins, or are more "tannic." Tannins add bitterness and complexity, which can make a wine intriguing.
"Tannins create a dry wine," Wollerman says. "A novice might be happier with a wine that is a little softer, such as a pinot noir."
If a wine seems tart or fresh, what diners are tasting is acidity. Wine grapes grown in colder climates, such as the grapes used for German rieslings, tend to be more acidic.
Big wines are wines that have strong flavor while round wines are balanced, meaning individual elements, such as tannins, don't overpower other elements. Vintage refers to the year the grapes were grown and harvested.