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Tips and Tricks to Picking the Right Wine

For the casual wine consumer, it can be daunting to pick a good wine at a restaurant, wine shop, or grocery store. There are literally thousands of different wine grapes, wine styles, and wine producers in the wonderful world of wine. It can be daunting to pick a good one. If you are on the hook to pick the right wine, don’t fret, you need NOT be a Sommelier to pick a good wine.

In today’s blog, we’ll offer some easy and useful tips and tricks to improve your odds at picking just the right wine for whatever occasion that may require you to pick the wine.

First things first, though, just to define what the right wine means. The right wine is the one that you and your company can enjoy together. It’s as simple as that.

Ask for a Sommelier

If you’re in a restaurant with any decent wine list, chances are good that they have a Sommelier on staff, or a wait staff that should have reasonable training to at least walk you through the restaurant’s list. That is one of their primary purposes. They expect you to ask for their help so don’t fret, and don’t be embarrassed. Just ask for some recommendations.

They will ask you a couple of questions to help them help you pick a wine you’ll enjoy. One of the first questions will be, “what’s a wine that you like?” The Sommelier will know what wines on their list map to the wines familiar to you. Even if they’re not familiar with the producer, they will be familiar with the wine region and grape, and can map pretty easily from there. 

They may ask what price point you’re comfortable with as well, and you should never feel embarrassed to just say, “can we keep it under $100 please?” or whatever price point you’re comfortable with. They cater to all price points and if it’s on their list, they want to sell it.

They may ask what you plan to eat for your meal. Chances are they have recommended pairings for each of the items on the menu even if those pairings aren’t listed. Again, don’t be afraid to ask, “what’s a good wine to go with the duck?”

If you don’t want to ask or maybe want to trust but verify, there are some basic guiding principles for pairing wine and food. Call them....

The Old Rules of Thumb for Wine Pairings

If you don’t have that Pro readily available, here are a couple of loose rules on food and wine pairings:

Sommelier Guide to Excellent Food Pairings:

  • Progress from lighter to fuller wines and from drier to sweeter

  • Match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine

  • Acidity needs acidity

  • Fish oils love acidity but hate tannins

  • Tannins love fat, except for fish oils

  • Acidity cuts saltiness

  • Sweets need sweets

  • Alcohol + spicy = fire

  • Spicy + sugar = no fire

  • Local wines are usually best paired with local foods

Easy Wine Pairings for Various Meats:

  • Red Meats = Syrah / Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Sirah

  • Pork or Veal = Merlot, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, GSMs

  • Poultry = Grenache (Garnacha), Pinot Noir, Chardonnay 

  • Shellfish = Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier

  • Seafood = Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Albariño

Easy Wine Pairings by Types of Cuisine:

  • Asian or Spicy Foods - Rieslings, Grüner Veltliner, or off dry/sweet Pinot Gris or Chenin Blanc

  • Sushi - Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Albariño

  • Mexican Food (not spicy) - Tempranillo, Grenache (Garnacha)

  • Italian Food - Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera

  • American BBQ (not spicy) - Zinfandel, Syrah

  • Desserts - Port, Vin Santo, Muscat / Moscato, Sherry, Madeira, Sauternes, sweet Chenin Blanc

Now if you neither want to ask for help nor care to keep these old rules of thumb in your head, don’t fret because…

Try a Wine App on Your Phone

It used to be that a week would not go by when someone was texting us a picture of a menu or a wine shelf in a wine or liquor store asking us which wine they should pick. Well we’ll tell you what we’ve offered to all of them…

Download the Vivino app on your iPhone or Android. Once you have that on your phone, all you need to do is take a picture of the wine label and voila, it will give you a user score and other useful information related to price, the grapes, flavors and aromas, food pairing, etc. It’s a game changer!

As an added bonus, Vivino has added a Wine List Scanner to its functionality that works the same way as it does one bottle at a time. Simply choose “Wine List” instead of “Wine Label” when opening up the camera on the app, take your pic of the wine list and voila, you get scores for each wine on the list, and just touch one of the wines you’re interested in and more information will present itself at the bottom of the screen.

A pro tip, if the score is 4.0 or better with 100+ ratings, you likely won’t be disappointed. If it’s 4.2 or better, you’re in for a treat. At 4.4+, we’re talking cellar worthy gems that likely carry price tags in the hundreds. If you find a $20 bottle with a 4.4 or better score, you should buy every bottle in stock. Hint, you will not find those unless there are too few ratings to trust. 

NOTE: These are user scores, not professional wine critic scores, but we’ve found that there’s a pretty strong positive correlation between critic scores and Vivino ratings, so we use them both at Occasional Wine. There may also be erroneous information in the ratings, or related to some of the detail related to the wine, but overall, the information is directionally correct and useful.

Another great app we use at Occasional Wine is the Wine Searcher app. We use this to benchmark retail pricing, as well as to check on professional critic scores by vintage. Just type in the wine and bam, loads of useful information.

What’s in a Wine Label?

Wine labels can be everything from deceiving to downright confusing. Just for French wines, there are a gajillion blog posts on just how to read their wine labels! But here are a few simple tips to help navigate the wine labels at your local shop.

US Wines

Look for specific geographies on the label. The more the label pinpoints the location of the source of the grapes, the more likely your wine will be quality. Look for the name of a Vineyard, the words “Estate” or “Estate Bottled” and expect that those wines will be top tier.

At the next level, or in many cases at least equally as good as the aforementioned single vineyard or estate wines, look for the specific sub-American Viticultural Area (AVA) on the label, like Dundee Hills, Oakville, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, etc. These are part of larger AVAs that you are likely familiar with, like Willamette Valley, Napa Valley, Sonoma, etc.


Conversely, steer clear of labels that have broad geographies listed, like California or worse still, American or USA wines. These can be sourced from anywhere within that broader geography and are likely bulk grapes best suited for boxes, jugs, or cooking.

One other note of caution is on the word Reserve on US wine labels. There are no actual governing rules on its use. As such you might get a great wine or you might just get a well-marketed wine. Buyer beware.

French Wines

For almost every wine region in France, you will NOT find the varietal listed on the bottle, and unless that wine with the varietal on the label is coming from Alsace, steer clear. It’s garbage. The good news is that you will not likely find those wines in a US wine shop. Still, if there’s no variety on the label, how do I know what I’m buying?

There are entire wine certifications associated with understanding the French village-to-grape variety mapping, and even then you’ll need to reference additional information on the label to really know whether or not this is a quality bottle. We’ll offer a separate blog to cover French labels more thoroughly. Until then, here are a couple of tips to help better understand them:

  1. Any bottle with the words “Cru” on it means that it’s quality and likely will offer an impressive wine - Premier Cru, 1er Cru, or Grand Cru. These will not be cheap, but they will likely impress.

  2. If money is an object, when in doubt go for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape (red) or Sancerre (white) options. These are never fail wine options that just seem to consistently deliver a solid wine drinking experience.

Italian and Spanish Wines

Spanish and Italian wine laws are similar to each other in terms of protecting the reputations of the sub-region and the specific wines produced in those areas. As such our recommendation for making can’t miss selections is pretty similar. 

For Italian wines, look for a wine with a DOCG on the neck or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita on the bottle’s main label. This means that the wine comes from a quality vineyard or region and is subject to following several practices to ensure the integrity of the product bearing the region’s name. 

The most consistently solid Italian DOCG wines include Barolos, Barbarescos, Brunellos di Montalcino, Chiantis Classico, and Vinos Nobile di Montepulciano. The first two are from a Nebbiolo grape, which is quite elegant, but brings lots of with mouth drying tannin. The others are all Sangiovese, perhaps the best variety for food in the world.

Akin to the DOCG recommendation for Italian wines, you likely will not go wrong when picking up a bottle of Spanish wine with the classification of DOCa or Denominación de Origen Calificada on the bottle. This can also show up as DOQ for wines from the Catalan region of Spain. There are only 2 regions that fall into this category in Spain - Rioja and Priorat, which makes it easy to narrow your search. 

When in doubt, though, go for a Priorat wine. Much like the aforementioned Châteauneuf-du-Pape recommendation, it’s going to be an easy drinking Garnacha-heavy wine with great ripe fruit flavors and a lush mouthfeel. It’s pretty much a crowd pleasing slam dunk. 

Unlike in the US, the term Riserva (Italy) or Reserva / Gran Reserva (Spain) actually means something. These are more prestigious and in many cases better than their non-reserve counterparts, but they are definitely BIGGER, as the Reserve label means required extended aging in wood. So if you’re looking to up your game, a Riserva or Reserva / Gran Reserva is a great option.

If you need to pick up a white wine, there are several DOCG Italian options, but most are from grapes you may have never heard of. The most popular Italian white wine of course is Pinot Grigio. Most of these come with the DOC classification, but there are outstanding examples from Friuli-Venezia-Giulia or Trentino Alto-Adige. Use your Vivino app, but start with the DOC Pinot Grigios from these regions.

For sparkling wine, we’d rarely recommend the sweet Proseccos that are better off with your Sunday brunch, but there are a couple of notable sparkling wines from Italy, perhaps being a sparkling DOCG called Franciacorta, which is produced in the same manner as Champagne and largely made from the Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Noir) grapes. It’s a much higher quality wine than most of the sweet Proseccos you see for under $10 at your local liquor store.

For the never fail white wine from Spain, look no further than an Albariño wine with Rías Baixas on the label. It’s light, with bright fruits, minerality, and a hint of salinity, and it goes with all manner of seafood or just to provide a refreshing respite from a warm afternoon.

Wines from Australia and New Zealand

The biggest bit of advice we have for trying to pick the right Australian or New Zealand wine is choosing the right sub-region for the variety you’re looking to pick up. This is definitely not as reliable as using the DOCG / DOCa standards from Italy or France, but you would be missing out on some world class wine options if you didn’t venture down under on your wine journey. 

Shiraz, Australian for Syrah, is a stalwart grape for the entirety of Australia, and the country’s best Shiraz comes from the Barossa Valley. Not all of these are created equal, so it is best to cross check with your Vivino or Wine-Searcher app, but to narrow your Vivino search, start with the Shiraz that has the Barossa Valley on the label.

We are surely not doing justice to so many of the fantastic wine regions that proudly produce world class wines across a plethora of varieties here. There are other stunning wines from Australia that we urge you to try. Rieslings from Eden Valley or Clare Valley are amazing for instance, and for Chardonnay, try offerings from Margaret River. Delicious!

For New Zealand, just think Sauvignon Blanc, and of course if you’re thinking New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you need to start with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Much like in Australia, there is so much more going on in New Zealand as it relates to great wine making, but Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc is really where they have made their mark and as such, it’s probably the best place for you to start.

Enjoy Your Wine!

We hope this was helpful and has you well on your way to enjoying a great bottle of wine. We’d like to thank our sources for this and so much of the education we’ve pursued over the years: The International Court of Sommeliers, the Society of Wine Educators, the Wine Scholar Guild, Jancis Robinson, Wine Folly, and so many more publications.

Uniquely Curated Subscription Plans and Fine Wines by the Bottle

At Occasional Wine, we are passionate about wine and love sharing our knowledge with others so they too can enjoy the pleasures of an exceptional wine.

We offer three different tiers of biannual wine subscriptions, each with curated selections of six wines from six wine regions delivered each Spring and Fall to give you and yours samples of some of the best wines in the world.

We also offer fine wines by the bottle from our private stock, a constantly updated wide selection of top rated wines from around the world.

Stay tuned for more helpful content in finding that next great wine for you, and as always feel free to contact us with any questions.


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