Let me start by saying that you should never buy wine at a supermarket or a giant liquor store. The choice on the shelves can seem plentiful, but is falsely abundant, offering mostly industrial wines whose only qualities are bargain prices and perhaps a pretty label.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a winemaking country, go directly to the source: Visit wineries in your area, meet the producers and buy the wines you like the most. I also suggest consulting Slow Food’s Slow Wine guide and buying online.
The next best option is to get to know your local wine merchant. Find a small wine shop, go there often, get to know the retailer and let them know your tastes and preferences so they can help you with your choices.
If none of these options is possible, for reasons known only to you, I guess your only choice left is to go to a supermarket or chain liquor store.
So now you’re in your hour of need. You find yourselves in front of a 50 meter-long shelf and your favorite wine isn’t on it. Before you throw in the towel and move on to the fruit juice aisle, take a deep breath and follow this simple advice.
Don’t buy a wine that costs less than US$9/UK£7. It is practically impossible for a 750ml bottle to cost less than this and still be good, or be produced with minimum standards of quality.
Let’s do a quick calculation in the case of a large-scale Italian wine company. Under €1 per kilo of grapes (the amount needed to make a bottle of wine), it is difficult for a wine company to buy grapes that have been cultivated with a minimum criteria of care in the fields. Add another €1 to cover the cost of production (cellar, machinery, electricity, labor, etc.) and 50 cents for the bottle, label and cork. We’ve arrived at €2.50. Add a bit of margin for the retailer and producer, the distributor’s markup, and VAT which can come to 22%.
For a price below $9/£7, you’ll be getting a wine that has cut costs in one of these areas. Guess which? In my opinion, it is certainly in the purchase of grapes (or more likely, of the pre-made wine).
How is this possible? It’s easy if you exploit desperate farmers and vintners. Wine companies drop by a month before harvest, when producers need to empty the tanks for the new must, and say, “We’ll do you a favor and take this wine off your hands, but we’ll decide the price.”
2. LOOK FOR “ESTATE BOTTLED BY” OR “PRODUCED AND ESTATE BOTTLED BY” ON THE LABEL
This means the wine was grown, produced and bottled on the wine estate. This is very useful as it tells us that it is the result of a production chain controlled by a single winery: Grapes, wine and bottling are in the hands of just one producer and not sold to third parties who have then transformed them. You can make a general assumption that the wine is probably be a bit better because whoever cultivated the grapes, vinified them and then plastered their name on the bottle probably wants to make a good impression.
3. OPT FOR A DOC (DENOMINAZIONE DI ORIGINE CONTROLLATA) OR DOCG DENOMINAZIONE DI ORIGINE CONTROLLATA E GARANTITA), FOLLOWED BY AN IGT (INDICAZIONE GEOGRAFICA TIPICA).
These quality assurance labels require that wine is produced within the specified region using defined methods. Though of course there exist some exceptions–some excellent wines are made outside of appellations–this is a good rule of thumb for supermarket buying. It means that at least you know where the grapes come from, and normally for the DOCs and DOCGs the quality of the fruit is slightly higher.
However, pay attention that the wine has been bottled within the DOC/DOCG zone, because unfortunately there are many exceptions. For example, the Sicilia DOC outsources its bottling, even to other regions. If you see that the bottle of Nero d’Avola with the pretty label you’re holding has been bottled in Verona, Cuneo or Asti, gently place it back on the shelf and run for it. For an IGT, 15% of the bottle’s contents can be made with wine bought in from other regions – not exactly a sign of great care and traceability.
These are my main tips. I suggest you use all three together because each on its own doesn’t guarantee much. If the wine that you are considering meets all three prerequisites there is the possibility that it won’t disappoint.