Tips on Shopping for Wine

Tips on Shopping for Wine

Unless you set out for the wine shop with a specific bottle of wine in mind, you will have to make a buying decision based on limited information. Your goal is to bring home a wine you will like, at a price you feel comfortable with. Sometimes you may end up with a bottle you've had in the past, just because this was the most informed selection you could make.

Getting Information

You can find reviews on wines on TV, in newspapers and magazines and on dedicated wine websites, but sharing your experiences with friends is one of the best ways of gathering recommendations.

Some shops have informative cards on the shelves and many wines have detailed descriptions on the back label. However, these are often composed by the wholesaler or the wineries themselves, and may be little more than marketing hype. Sometimes they might be written by the staff in the shop itself, based on personal tasting and recommendations - these are far more trustworthy, after all, they want you to value their opinion and return there to shop as often as possible.

If you want to know about any of the wines in a shop, ask. If you shop in a merchants with enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff, they will be delighted tell you about their wines.

Many wine merchants hold regular wine tastings. Some are formal occasions, others simply a matter of opening a few bottles for customers to sample during shop hours. Surprisingly few merchants will pressure you to buy any of the wines being tasted, and its certainly a worthwhile opportunity to be able to taste a wine without having to buy it first.

Making a Choice

If you can't get any good information from a shop worker or display, here are some good tips:

  • Know a Grape: If you like Pinot Noir but can't find your favourite bottle, you could try a bottle from a different producer.
  • Know a Region: If the Chardonnay you like is from Gisborne, New Zealand, try a different Chardonnay from that same region. Climate and soil, terroir, play a big part in winemaking.
  • Know a Producer: If you like Cono Sur Pinot Noir from Chile, you may like Cono Sur Cabernet Sauvignon, since the two wines are made by the same producer, using the same philosophy.

Shop Styles

Although every wine shop is unique, there are two variables that might help you decide which type you should choose.

The first variable is money. Big shops can take advantage of huge-quantity discounts at the wholesale level. The bigger the shop or chain, the bigger the discounts it is likely to receive.

The second variable is expertise. Assistants with expertise cost more money to employ than unskilled personnel. The greater the level of expertise in a shop, the higher the labour cost. Wine shops of any size with excellent service generally cannot afford to offer much of their stock at rock-bottom prices.

1. Specialist Merchants

These companies have built up their contacts with the world's top winemakers, and so are often the best place to go if you're looking to buy fine wines. They will often sell premium wines made in limited quantities, which means that they can sell out of in-demand wines very quickly.

Another potential downside to buying from a specialist merchant is that you have to buy by the case (although some allow mixed cases). So, unless you've got an empty cellar and some serious money to spend, a specialist merchant may not be the best choice for the wine novice.

2. Big Shop with Expertise

This style of shop has considerable purchasing power, and may offer an interesting choice of wines from all over the world. There will also be a host of neatly dressed assistants helping customers and offering expertise. The discount the shop receives for buying in bulk may be partly off-set by their high labour cost, so this won't be the cheapest place to shop.

However, this style of shop is a good place to find wines that you can't find any-where else, such as:

  • Older wines, particularly red Bordeaux and Port
  • Hard-to-find Champagne, such as Blanc de Noirs or Brut Rose
  • A good selection of Alsace and German wines
  • Wines from countries that don't export much wine
  • An expensive wine that no one has heard of
  • The perfect gift for a knowledgeable wine buff

3. Big Shop without Expertise

This style of shop includes supermarkets, which have an extremely strong purchasing power. They buy single brands by the lorry-load, and such a shop can buy for less and afford a smaller markup on their inventory (30-40 %, rather than 50-60 %), because of the volume of business they do. In fact, some of the wines at such a shop sell at prices below what the smaller shops pay wholesale for the same wines. They are popular with the wine-buying public for their great prices and good selection.

However, these shops may not have as wide or interesting a selection as the big shops with expertise. On the other hand, if you are looking for popular branded wine such as Moet et Chandon, Jacob's Creek and Blossom Hill, this is a great choice, especially if you want to buy in bulk.