Updated on 12.21.06

Buying A Bottle Of Wine And Don’t Know What To Get? Some Tips For Selecting A Good, Inexpensive Bottle

Trent Hamm

Many people like to enjoy a bottle of wine with a meal, but have no idea how to select an appropriate and inexpensive wine for the occasion. I know I went through years of picking wines, even spending a lot on occasion, and regularly picking something completely inappropriate and often bad.

Because of this, I prepared a very simple wine buying guide for those of us who like an occasional glass with a meal (or are even a first-time wine drinker) and want something good and appropriate without spending much money. Tomorrow, I’ll give some under-$10 recommendations to pick up for Christmas dinner that you should be able to find by hitting a few stores.

The color of the wine should match the color of the meal. If you’re looking for a wine to match a meal, the first thing you need to do is match the color of the wine to the color of the meal. Are you enjoying poultry, pork, seafood, or pasta with a light-colored sauce? Select a white wine. Are you enjoying beef, venison, or pasta with a tomato sauce? Select a red wine. Although it’s not perfect, it’s a great way to help you choose if you’re new to wine; this rule of thumb quickly reduces your possible choices.

Complex wines can be very hit or miss. Some varieties can vary hugely in flavor from bottle to bottle due to the grapes, so if you’re just starting out, it’s probably a good idea to avoid these until you can investigate them on your own.

So what should I buy? If you’ve decided on a red wine, pick a Merlot or a Pinot Noir, or a Riesling if you’re looking for a dessert wine. If you’ve decided on a white wine, pick a Pinot Blanc or a Chardonnay. These choices are generally fairly consistent from bottle to bottle, meaning one Merlot is not hugely different from another. This minimizes the amount of knowledge you need to have about vintages and brands.

Ask! If you go into a liquor store right now, you’re perfectly equipped to ask for what you want, rather than coming in confused. Visit a wine retailer and tell them you’re looking for a $15 or less bottle of one of the two varieties you’ve decided upon. With that type of specificity, a good retailer should be able to quickly point you towards an appropriate wine.

What if I’m alone? If you don’t have a guide available, examine all of the wines in your selection area and price range (if you’re just starting, spending much more than $15 on a bottle of wine is a lost cause – it’s hard to really appreciate the expensive wines without having tasted a wide variety), see if any of them have posted descriptions, and use the descriptions as a guide. The number scores are useful, but don’t take them to be law (they’re the subjective opinion of someone who has tasted a lot of wine, usually Robert Parker); if a wine with a lower score has a more interesting description, get that one.

Tomorrow, I’ll toss up a few sub-$10 recommendations for a Christmas dinner wine, something that’s a tradition with my family.

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  1. D says:

    How about helping with the scale of Fruity to Dry? I never know where a wine is at and have often wished that all wines came with a little line graph displayed.


    What I have discovered, which surprised the heck out of me – I didn’t even like wine, when I found an out of the way wine shop is that I prefer wine right near the middle or a block towards Dry. This particular shop, is owner run and he filled me with samples, helping me to see that there is a wine I would enjoy.

    The problem is, when we go out to eat or just out, I can not enjoy a glass of wine, because of an inner fear that it will be too dry. I don’t want to pucker.

    So, can you help with this?

  2. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    There’s no easy way to judge the dryness of a wine without trying it. The ones I recommended were in the middle on that scale.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Mmmm, wine. Unfortunately this is an expenditure in our budget that always gets blown out of proportion. We love wine and drink it regularly (Hey, they said it is good for us in the news!)

    I’m a Cabernet Sauvignon guy myself. I’m not much of a wine snob like I am when it comes to fine whiskey, so generally speaking if the bottle doesn’t have a screw on cap it is safe for consumption ;)

    I generally do my wine shopping by the biggest sale that week at the store. Around here a few supermarkets have a tremendous wine selection and there are always some great sales. Sometimes you can get $5 or more off per bottle. Then it is easy to pick up a 10-15 dollar bottle for under $10.

  4. Rich says:

    I’m a bit of a DIY’er, so I like to make my own wine. It’s a LOT easier than it sounds and once you’re past the initial equipment cost, you really start to save money. My initial costs were in the $80 to $100 range.

    If you really want to learn about wines, find a wine tasting and ask a ton of questions.

    If you don’t buy wine now, find a place that sells wine and ask for the name of a local wine sales representative. See if they’ll provide a wine tasting for you and a group of friends. Sales reps love to show their products to interested groups because they know it will lead to more sales.

    As always, the Web is a great resource….as The Simple Dollar consistently shows.

  5. Adda says:

    You say:
    “If you’ve decided on a red wine, pick a Merlot or a Pinot Noir, or a Riesling if you’re looking for a dessert wine.”

    Rieslings are white, and as there are many different grades of riesling that indicate the level of sweetness, it is best to know the differentiations since not all are appropriate for dessert. Also, the cheapest rieslings can be all but undrinkable. Instead, for desserts, try a Moscato D’Asti.. they are sweet and fruity, lightly sparkling, and lower in alcohol than champagne. If you can’t find a Moscato D’Asti, try a Asti like Tosti or Ballantine. They make good mimosas (mixed with a touch of orange juice) as well, and are quite inexpensive (under $8, last time I checked).

    I would also like to point out that many respectable wineries have begun selling by the box- Rosemount in Australia, for example- and this is an excellent way to save a bit of money if you would like to have one glass every now and then, as the wine is not exposed to air and therefore will keep indefinitely. Also, it cuts down on waste, as there are no bottles to recycle. In France it is quite standard to buy wine by bulk this way, and to decant a bit at dinner time.

    Finally, if you are looking for good drinkable red wines, try a Chilean or Argentinian. They are priced a bit lower but are really starting to come into their own.

  6. rodgerlvu says:

    you are right…There’s no easy way to judge the dryness of a wine without trying it. The ones I recommended were in the middle on that scale.

  7. Erin says:

    I was told by a “wine guy in the store” that the “dryness” depends directly on the alcohol percentage. The higher the percentage, the dryer the wine.

    ie – A 17% wine is dryer than a 13% wine.

    I just found your site and have been going through the archives and have really been enjoying them.

  8. Nikki says:

    I don’t think dryness is necessarily related to the alcohol. You’d have to know how much sugar was there before it was fermented to know how much sugar was left in the wine. And since not all wines start out with the exact same amount of sugar, you wouldn’t be able to tell just from the amount of alcohol.

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