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Monday, 31 December 2007

10 Tips on How to Select a Good Wine within Your Budget

New Year's Eve festivities are all about sparkle, glamour and class - right down to the bubbling champagne we drink to mark the occasion. But there's nothing classy about spending your whole January budget on champagne and cocktails. And no matter how you look at it, beer just isn't glamorous. So what's the budget-conscious party-goer meant to do? More often than not, we end up in the wine aisle of the supermarket, wondering if we should take our chances with the $6 bottle with the fancy label, or splurge on the $20 bottle just to be sure we aren't the laughing stock of the party.

Buying wine doesn't have to be so difficult or expensive. Believe it or not, I've found some pretty decent bottles around the $5 mark (and spent $15+ on some pretty awful ones too) and every time I go to buy a bottle, I find it's easier and easier to spot the gems among the disappointments. I've never taken a wine-tasting course or moved in the circles of swirling glasses and slurping sips, but I've collected enough tips here and there over the years that I almost always end up with a respectable bottle at a respectable price.

Here are 10 tips that have helped me:

1. Make a wish-list.
If you've got the time to do a little research before you hit the store, do it. Making a wish-list of wines you'd like to try is a great place to start. Visit sites like Wine Spectator to get an idea of what's out there and read reviews of particular wines. About.com also has a good list of value wines you might want to consider. If you're new to wine or are selecting a bottle to please a large crowd, it's probably best to go with tamer, more universally-liked varieties like Merlot for reds and Riesling for whites.

2. Learn the vocab.
While you'll probably find something off your wish-list at your local supermarket, there's no guarantee that what you've written down will be there, so it helps to familiarize yourself with wine jargon so that you can make some educated guesses based on the descriptions on the bottles.

Most wines will have a short paragraph describing the wine's flavour on the back label, usually placing it somewhere on the continuum between sweet and dry and/or the scale from thin to full-bodied. If you know what these terms mean, they can really help you pick out something you'll like. The term sweet isn't a huge mystery and dry is pretty much it's opposite - a wine without a lot of sweetness. A little more mysterious are the terms thin and full-bodied. Full-bodied generally implies a heavier wine containing more alcohol and usually having a stronger flavour, with thin at the other end of the spectrum. In addition to these terms you'll probably come across a whole range of descriptive words, from berry to oak to leather. If you're interested in these sometimes over-the-top adjectives, check out this glossary of wine-tasting terminology for explanations.

If you're buying wine for a large crowd or simply aren't sure where to start, I suggest going for something that falls in the middle range of both scales, that way everybody's fairly happy. Another tip is to learn which wines different regions of the world are famous for. If a certain area is famous for a certain kind of wine, there's a reason for that. Also, don't assume that all wines get better with age. Some wines are best when they're young and it helps to have an idea about a wine's lifespan before you buy.

3. Ask the store reps for help.
If you're short on time, you'll probably end up going straight to the store without a plan or a clue. If you find yourself in this position, fess up to it and ask for help. If you're really short on time, your best bet is to go to a wine speciality shop. Their knowledgeable staff will be more than happy to help you find something in your price range. Don't be embarrassed to say that you want a decent bottle of wine that most people will like with a price tag around $10. Chances are, you're not the first one to come in that day with the very same question.

Speciality shops do, however, have higher prices, and you can find knowledgeable staff at small grocery stores too. I've even found some good advice at large supermarkets, but remember to use common sense regarding who you approach for help - the 16-year-old boy stocking selves probably doesn't know much about selecting wine.

4. Go for small vineyards.
If you're buying wine for a party or a gift and have gone to a speciality shop, ask the store clerk for something a little unique, new or unknown. It's always more exciting to try something new and this way it's less likely that people will recognize the name and know that you only spent $10 on the bottle. If you're on your own in the grocery store, consider being adventurous and grabbing a different bottle.

5. Look for award labels.
A different approach is to place your faith in award labels. Vineyards that consistently win awards year after year produce reliable, decent wines. You can be certain that whatever you choose will be drinkable and there are always a few decent, award-winning wines under or around $10 to pick from. The downside is that you probably won't win any points for creativity, and it will be obvious how much you did (or didn't) spend.

6. Decant older wines.
If you're serving the wine yourself, you can help it out by pouring it into a decanter an hour or so before you plan to drink it. Decanters are designed to let air flow over the wine. A little breathing time can work wonders (particularly on older wines) and investing in a glass decanter can add value to an indefinite number of bottles for years to come. Decanting is generally considered only necessary for older wines with sediment, but I've found that it can also have positive effects on the flavour of younger wines, plus it just looks classy!

7. Serve at the proper temperature.
Make sure that you're serving the wine at the recommended temperature. The proper temperature for each wine is usually written on the back label. You can purchase special wine thermometers or just approximate. It will probably be difficult to get the wine to the exact recommended temperature anyway, but getting it in the right ballpark can make a difference. Reds are generally served warmer than whites.

8. Invest in proper glasses.
Wine does not taste the same out of a plastic cup, so if you can, try to invest in some proper glasses. Your guests will be more much impressed with whatever wine you decide upon if it's served in an appropriate glass. Whatever glass you choose, remember never to fill it more than half way so that you leave room for the drinker to swirl the wine and fully enjoy its aroma.

9. Start a label collection.
When you find a wine you like, keep the label or write down the name and year so that next time, you can just throw the labels or notebook in your pocket and consulate them at the store. Also, it helps to write your own notes about a particular wine on the back of the label or in your notebook to help you remember what you thought of it. It might also be wise to make note of wines you disliked so that you're sure not to buy them again. Once you've collected a handful of labels or notes, reviewing them can reveal patterns in your preferences regarding variety, vineyards, sweetness, body and other descriptions, helping you determine which kinds of wines you might want to try in the future.

10. Keep a stash on hand.
Finally, avoid last minute scrambles to the store by keeping a few bottles in storage at home. Store the bottles on their sides so that the corks do not dry out, otherwise you risk spoiling the wine. The ideal storage temperature is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, so a dark closet is usually a good place to keep your spare bottles.

For a great introduction to wine selection, storage, serving and drinking check out these wine basics.

Wishing you 365 days of better wine, starting tonight!

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