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Since “good wine” is so subjective, knowing how to choose the right wine means considering several factors — including occasion, flavor preferences, labels and price points. While the combination of these factors is different for each person, the tips below will help anyone in search of that perfect bottle of wine.

1. If you are new to wine, start with a white or rose.
Just as your food preferences evolve as you mature, the wines you enjoy are also likely to change over time. However, a study of consumer palates by Sonoma State University found most people first enjoy a sweet white or rose wine, then later fall in love with dry reds or wines with more distinctive flavors. Fifty-four percent of respondents in the Sonoma State University study said they preferred semi-sweet or sweet white or rose wines when they started drinking wine. While each person’s experience is different, an early distaste for drier wines or wines with high tannins may be due to their unique flavor and sharp bitterness.

If the thought of drinking a sweet wine makes you cringe, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should jump to reds. Instead, opt for a dry white or rose. Beginning with a lighter-bodied wine can be a step to learning to enjoy a variety of wines.

2. Reflect on other flavors you enjoy.
Wine flavors are unique, but that doesn’t mean the flavors you enjoy in other drinks and food don’t influence what you’ll consider a good wine. On the contrary, your other taste preferences can be a great identifier of which wine you will enjoy. For example, if you have a sweet tooth, chances are you will enjoy a sweeter wine. If you thrive on the sharpness of bitter black coffee, a more acidic wine may be perfect for you. It can be that simple. Here are two questions to help get you started:

Do you prefer apple juice or grapefruit juice? Apple juice lovers are more likely to enjoy sweet white wine, while grapefruit juice enthusiasts will likely find their match in dry white wine.
Does your favorite dose of caffeine come in the form of a latte or black coffee? Black coffee drinkers are more likely to fall for an Old World wine — that is, wine that comes from one of the places where winemaking first began, such as France, Italy or Spain. If you prefer a latte, try a New World wine, such as something from the United States, Australia or South Africa.

3. Consider the occasion.
Are you selecting a wine for yourself to enjoy, or are you sharing with friends? Will you be pairing your wine with a meal or using it to prepare a recipe? Wines can serve different purposes, and different occasions can influence how you choose a wine. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when shopping for a bottle of wine:

Are you searching for a crowd-pleaser? If you want to satisfy your friends or family, and pairing with food isn’t your primary objective, consider picking up a bottle of white and a bottle of red. Since wine preferences are so subjective, having one of each will cover plenty of palates. You can also opt for wines that fall closer to the middle of the spectrum on sweetness, acidity and body. More balanced or moderate flavors are likely to appeal to more of your guests.

Are you pairing with a meal? If you want to find a wine that complements your carefully crafted dinner, the general rule of thumb is white wines for lighter dishes, like chicken and fish, and red wines for heavier dishes, like beef and lamb. Read on for more specific ways to pick the perfect wine for your meal.
Will you be mixing the wine or drinking it on its own? If you are mixing your wine into a cocktail or summer sangria, the subtle flavors of the wine aren’t as important. If you are using your wine in a recipe, the flavors will blend into the sauce or meat and serve as an accent. Consider choosing a less expensive bottle of wine when you are mixing a cocktail or cooking with it. If you plan to enjoy your wine on its own, you can be more critical in selecting flavor notes you will enjoy.

4. Be sure to read the label— and learn what you’re reading.
Eye-catching illustrations, pretty fonts or a clever name can sometimes sway a person into purchasing a wine that may not be the best choice, especially when all the options seem overwhelming. However, it is essential to read the label, rather than just admiring it. While all the information may seem daunting, reading a wine bottle label can be fairly simple when you know what to look for, and you don’t need to know the precise definitions of all of the words on the label, either. First, look for the amount of information the label has listed — does it seem like there’s quite a bit of specific information about the region, valley and grapes? The general rule of thumb is the more details, the better.

Next, know what you’re looking at on the label. You will find the winery name, a variety of grape, the year the winery harvested the grapes, the region where the grapes grew, the alcohol percentage and, on the back, a description of the wine. Refer back to the definitions of those five basic characteristics: sweetness, acidity, tannin, body and alcohol. If you understand those, the wine descriptions will be much easier to decipher. The description of the wine may also list notes or aromas that will include familiar flavors, such as citrus, black cherry, apple, plum or chocolate. If you enjoy the flavors in the description, there is a good chance you will enjoy the wine.

While the information on wine labels is fairly standard, it may not always be in the same place. More prominent wineries may list the name front and center on the bottle. Other bottles may show the variety of grape in the center, with the name of the vineyard in smaller text at the top or bottom. The more you familiar you become with reading wine labels, the easier it will be to find the information you are looking for.

5. Look for “second-label” wines.
When vineyards harvest grapes, their very best, fully matured grapes go into the primary batch of wine, which they call their “first label.” These wines are often the ones connoisseurs praise, and overwhelmingly have two qualities in common — they are often available in limited quantities and, therefore, can be very expensive. Your search for amazing wine may lead you to some of the big-name vineyards, and rightly so. However, if you are just getting started and aren’t confident in what wines you enjoy, the price tag can be tough to justify. That is when second-label wines can be a great alternative to pricey first-label bottles.

As a vineyard pursues perfection in winemaking, they become more selective in the grapes they use for their first label. In this case, more grapes that may not be as mature or polished don’t make the cut. Rather than selling these grapes or disposing of them, the vineyard will often put them through a winemaking process that is nearly identical to the first label, but sell it under another name, or a second label. Because these wines come from the same expert vineyards, these second labels will still give you a taste of high-quality wine, but at a fraction of the price.

If you are familiar with some of the big-name wineries, you can usually spot a second label, as it will incorporate some part of their winery name. Some brief research can also point you in the right direction for finding a notable second label to try. Second labels are an excellent choice for budding wine enthusiasts, as they will help you decide which more expensive wines you want to splurge on in the future.

6. Don’t stress over the age of the wine.
While it’s a common perception that older is better when it comes to wine, this is not the case. Only some wines taste better with age, and different wines are best after different aging periods. Properly aging wine depends on many factors, including the region the wine is from and the amounts of tannins, sugars and acids it contains. In general, aging is more important for red wines than white wines, but any wine you purchase at the store will be ready to drink. In fact, most wines are not meant to be aged, and you should consume them within five years of purchasing them. However, if there’s ever a time to take a close look at the year on the bottle, it’s for red wines. If you’re looking for how to choose a good red wine and find yourself stuck between two different years of a variety, you may want to opt for the older.

7. Don’t let price dictate your choice.
If the wine is on sale, it is likely because it is not in season or it has been sitting in the store’s inventory for a while. These reasons do not mean the wine is of lower quality or won’t still taste great if it is a type of wine you enjoy. These discounts can even be a great opportunity to find a good deal on wine. Choosing an expensive wine for its price point may also lead you astray — a more expensive bottle of wine does not always mean it is going to be a better bottle of wine. When selecting the wine you want to buy, start with the flavors and characteristics you prefer, as well as the occasion, then allow price to be a secondary consideration.

8. Don’t write off bottles with screw caps.
While wine bottles with screw caps can get a bad reputation, they can still hold delicious wine. These caps are for bottles of wine to be consumed in the same year — due to freshness and acidity. So, if you are interested in a wine without a cork, don’t be afraid to take a sip. Screw caps can also be more convenient for occasions such as a picnic, where you might forget to bring a wine opener, and are easier to pack up and take home after an evening out.

9. Keep track of the wines you try.
Once you’ve made your purchase, be sure to make a note of the name of the wine, the region and the variety of grapes. Many wine apps for your smartphone allow you to record your perception of a particular wine. As we have said from the start, finding a “good wine” is really about what you prefer, so tracking what you like and dislike will help you pick better and better wines for you! Keeping these notes handy on your phone also means they are sure to be with you the next time you make a purchase.

Whether you love or hate the wine you try, you’ll have a handy list of great or not-so-great wine purchases you’ve made. When you find a wine you enjoy, go for something similar next time. Try the same region, but a different variety of grapes, or vice versa. Soon, you’ll begin to get a feel for exactly what your preferences are, and choosing a good bottle of wine will be easy.

10. Every once in a while, try a new variety of grape.
While your wine notes will be valuable in teaching you more about the kind of wines you enjoy, it’s important to branch out now and then. As you try more wines, your tastes may change, but without experimenting occasionally, you might miss out on your new favorite wine. When opting for something new, consider moving to the next step in Sonoma State University’s “Wine Palate Life Cycle Wheel” we mentioned earlier. Wine Folly also has a humorous article on the “Evolution of Your Wine Palate” that can direct you on your next step of wine-drinking. Or, check out Food & Wine’s helpful “Find Your Wine Style” illustration that helps you compare wines you enjoy to others that may be similar in some ways, and different in others.

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