Everything You Need to Know to Navigate the Wine Aisle
We asked Kendall-Jackson's Master Sommelier to help us start choosing wine on what matters, not just the logo.
I’d like to make a confession to everyone on the internet: I love to drink wine, but I have absolutely no idea how to pick it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve aimlessly wandered the wine aisle, hoping something would literally leap off the shelf into my basket. In fact, after extensive time spent skimming labels, I usually select my bottle based on which logo I like best. And if it’s a gift? I select the one at the peak of my budget with a sophisticated-looking label. It’s shameful. I might as well be blindfolded playing pin the tail on “how I’m going to spend my evening."
That’s why when Kendall-Jackson reached out and offered the knowledge of Emily Papach, a Master Sommelier with the Kendall-Jackson family winery, I jumped at the chance to cover it. A Master Sommelier is the highest level of trained wine professional, who specializes in all aspects of wine, from global producing regions, service, as well as wine and food pairings. With countless words used to describe wine, things can get confusing—fast. I wanted to navigate the grocery store wine aisle with tools other than, “Oh, I saw my mom drinking this once—and that lush has good taste." I asked Emily to help breakdown the process, and have compiled what I learned into the following nifty guide.
These are the 3 most important details to look for on a bottle:
- Varietal labeling: The varietal is the type of grape used to make the wine. Is your wine a pinot noir or chardonnay? Understanding the different flavors with each grape varietal is essential to choosing the right wine.
- Price point: This one is self-explanatory, but having a price range in mind before you go shopping is important. Sometimes all you need is a $10 bottle of wine to watch with this week’s "Mindy Project," and other times you need a $30 bottle to gift to friends.
- Region: Where the wine comes from determines its flavor profile. Climate will impact the types of grapes grown in the area, which will produce vastly different wine styles.
Understanding Varietal Labeling
Chardonnay: A neutral grape variety with a flavor dependent on the winemaker. Oak-aged chardonnay has vanilla and cinnamon attributes with toasty, buttery notes, while steel-fermented has a more crisp, clean flavor with a tart apple profile. How it’s aged won’t necessarily be on the bottle, so look for label descriptors to help you out, like "toasty" (oak-aged) or "crisp" (steel-fermented).
Pinot Gris: Very crisp and dry; refreshing with a bit of lemon and lime zest that is easy to drink.
Riesling: Dry with residual sweetness. The grapes are very aromatic so it will smell pretty and have elements of stone fruits and florals.
Sauvignon Blanc: Very floral and citrus with green grass notes.
Moscato: Sweet, bubbly, peachy, and the most perfumed and fragrant choice.
Merlot: Rich with elements of dark fruit (plum, blackberry), usually fresh and smooth on the palate. Unlike other reds, merlot doesn’t contain as many tannins, which produce the drying sensation on your tongue.
Cabernet Sauvignon: A regal grape variety with rich dark fruits and broader tannins (expect to experience the drying sensation). Ages well so you can hold on to it for decades.
Zinfandel: Directly between cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir in terms of flavor profile and intensity. A combination of black and red fruits, zinfandel doesn’t have the tannins of cabernet sauvignon but isn’t as light as pinot noir.
Pinot Noir: Floral with notes of red cherry, red licorice, cherry coke, and tart fruits. A light choice with less tannins.
Syrah: Berry oriented with smoky, black pepper flavors and savory characteristics. It is highly pigmented and will always be a dark purple/magenta color.
Red Blend: By law in the U.S., a varietal needs to be 75 percent of one grape type. A blend uses a combination of grapes to create a specific wine style or taste.
Neither white nor red—Rosé is a category of its own. Dry rosé is the most popular in the U.S., so expect soft cherry and strawberry notes with a crisp and refreshing taste. Overall, it smells like a red but drinks like a white.
What causes the difference in price?
The grape’s growing region, known as an appellation, can be a major factor in wine price. This is important because the same grape varietal will encompass different flavor profiles based on where it’s grown, due to climate, weather patterns, and the soil. For example, if a Pinot Noir grape is grown in Southern California where the temperature is hot, the grape will likely taste sweeter. The same Pinot Noir grape grown in Oregon, where the weather is generally rainy and cooler, will take on more earthly flavors.
Some wines are made with grapes grown in multiple areas (e.g. Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara), and combining them allows the winemaker to develop a unique flavor. For example, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, which has a California appellation, combines Chardonnay grapes from Monterey County to provide citrus and lime flavors, Santa Barbara to impart mango and pineapple flavors, and Mendocino County to bring green apple notes to the wine. Using grapes from multiple growing regions can also ensure consistency year-after-year, making it a less risky bottle to produce and a more affordable choice for consumers.
However, a smaller and more unique area (e.g. chardonnay grown from one, single-vineyard, such as Kendall-Jackson’s Jackson Estate Camelot Highlands Chardonnay) may offer great expression to the wine, but there can be more risk in producing it.
The bottom line, grapes are a crop. An area may have a tough growing season due to weather or drought, be located in a sought-after, but difficult place to farm (like a hillside), and sometimes, there is simply less fruit available. These factors cause the wine to retail at a higher price.
So is the more expensive wine always the better choice? According to Emily, no, not at all. Just because a wine is more expensive doesn’t mean it will automatically taste better. You can always find amazing value at every price point.
Terms you might see that will impact the price:
Estate Bottled: A term designated by law; the grapes in the bottle must be grown in vineyards owned or controlled by the winery.
Growing Region: 85% of grapes must come from the named growing region.
Vineyard Designation: 95% of grapes must come from the vineyard named.
Special Designation: In the U.S., these are names, such as “Reserve” or “AVANT” created by the producer to represent the style or quality of wine.
If the wine doesn’t say estate or reserve, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a good wine; these are simply descriptive factors.
As a winery, Kendall-Jackson grows along coastal regions in California—from Mendocino County to Santa Barbara. The highest-quality grapes are produced in coastal regions, which are an ideal growing environment for a multitude of grape varieties. In addition, their vineyards are located on mountainsides, hillsides, and beches, which yield less grapes with more flavor development.
Founder Jess Jackson was very selective about quality and believed the best vineyards grow the best grapes, thus producing the best wine. Turning to Kendall-Jackson for a bottle of wine, you can rest assured that there was a specific, well-thought-out approach to creating it.
Taste varies greatly by region and producer. Some grapes can only grow in a certain region, while others can do so all over the world. According to Emily, “The dynamic and interesting part of wine is that there are a multitude of options to choose from. You can choose to be overwhelmed or you can experiment.”
The good news? You can always go back to your favorite choice or branch out and compare options to it.
Other Things to Look For
1. Alcohol by Volume (ABV): Alcohol is generated from sugar in the grapes. Higher alcohol value has more glycerol—the element that adds “weight” in your mouth. A wine with a higher ABV will be a fuller-tasting wine.
2. Vintage or non-vintage: By law for a wine to be labeled as vintage, 95 percent of the grapes must come from that vintage and that harvest. Weather patterns affect the quality and taste of each year's harvest. Vintage is important when selecting a table wine, but not in other varieties like Champagne, which is a high-quality wine made in a non-vintage capacity.
3. Cork vs. screw cap: Technically this one isn't on the label, but a common misconception is that a screw top denotes a lower-quality wine. In fact, there isn't much of a difference between the two and it all boils down to producer preference. The main reason producers choose screw tops over corks is to reduce the chance of faulty corks and resulting problems. When I asked Emily if either affected which wine would last longer once opened, she said no. The most important factor is temperature. The colder the storage, the less evolvement you have in the bottle once it is open.
4. Wine score: Think of a wine score like a critic movie review. Just because the Academy Awards determines the “best” movies, doesn’t mean you will always love them or that your personal favorite will make the cut. In much the same way, a panel or a person’s palate may deem that a wine deserves a specific score, but every single person has a different palate. Because a score is largely opinion-based, it's not something you should follow exclusively. Emily advised testing different varietals and determining your preferences based on what you actually enjoy instead of a score.
After speaking with Emily, I took my newfound knowledge and headed to the wine aisle. I tried a varietal I don't normally select, looked for key descriptors in the paragraphs on the back, checked the region, and ended up with a bottle whose labeling wasn't my favorite. Turns out, I loved it and finished it off in one night—OK, that part isn't new. Gone are the days of choosing the same wine over and over.
This post is sponsored by Kendall-Jackson, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everygirl editorial board.