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Photograph: Kristy Bone

A beginners' guide to wine, part one: conquering the bottle shop

The wine world can be daunting, so we're giving you a few pointers for your next shop at the bottle-o

Elizabeth McDonald
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Elizabeth McDonald
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“Can you grab a bottle of wine on your way?” Such a simple request, on the surface. So why does it fill many of us with dread? It’s a cliche to the point of being a punchline, but wine can be intimidating. Why are we swirling our glasses? Why is she sticking her nose into her glass like it’s an oxygen mask? Should I just order from the bottom of the list? Will they laugh at me if I just buy the cheapest?

In truth, while there are a great many guidelines to buying wine, there are no hard and fast rules and the wine world can seem full of contradictions. Sure, you can dedicate your life to learning the ins and outs of wine, but flavour is entirely subjective. You do you. That being said, we have put together a cheat sheet for absolute beginners to give you a launching-off point.

Set your budget

There are a few things to keep in mind when crossing the threshold into the bottle shop. The first thing to remember is that you have a budget. Great wines can be $10 or $1000, so first, decide what you can afford to spend on a bottle and try not to sway too far from that. The next thing to consider is the purpose of the wine you’re buying. It could be for a certain meal you’re eating, a special occasion, or to sip on while you binge a TV series. 

What's for dinner?

If you’re planning on pairing your wine with food, consider a few principles. Bright, fresh, high acid wines like an alborino or sauvignon blanc tend to go well with clean and delicate flavours like seafood or chicken. Bigger, bolder wines like a shiraz or cabernet sauvignon traditionally pair well with richer, beefier flavours. This is where we get the trope that white wine goes with white protein and red wine goes with red protein.

This, of course, is not always the case; a light-bodied pinot noir goes great with oily fish like salmon or trout. If we’re talking about serving like with like, bear in mind that sweeter wines often go better with sweeter foods, as there isn’t an aggressive and conflicting interaction between flavours, thought sweet and salty are perfection (salted caramel, chips and ice cream, it just works).

The nitty-gritty science of pairing wine with food comes down to how flavour profiles interact on your palate. Wines with high tannin or acid will cut through fat. Wines with high sugar content will bring out the spiciness in food which is why a Riesling might be the right choice if you’re having curry for dinner, and herby snags would be great with an aromatic Viognier.

What flavours do you like?

There are a few main factors that make a wine taste the way it does. The first is what kind of grape is in the wine. All grape varietals have different characteristics. Some are far more intense than others, some have very thick skins that will make for a more tannic wine (not always, as we know by now there are no rules and this is all nonsense). Some ripen very slowly and may not have high sugar content, so will be lower in alcohol. Considering the grape will give you an idea of what to expect from the bottle.

Secondly, check where the wine comes from. By getting familiar with wine regions, you will learn what is typical of each destination. This can be as broad or as niche as you like. For example, the Barossa Valley has become synonymous with big, bold, high-alcohol Shiraz wines. Shiraz thrives in that climate and many large commercial winemakers come out of the region, as it has high yields and is one of Australia’s oldest wine-making areas. However, an hour's drive either way of the Barossa are the Basket Ranges and the Adelaide Hills – spawning grounds for indie winemakers challenging the perception of what South Australian wine looks like.

Always take the weather with you

The vintage of the wine may also play a role. This literally means, 'what was the weather like that year (vintage)?' A year with a lot of rain may mean softer, less intense wine. A very dry year means that grapes had to work harder, resulting in higher sugar and thus sweeter wines. This plays into the terroir, essentially the environment that the wine was produced in. Lastly, it’s down to the individual who made your drop. Winemakers are human. They make decisions, whether that be to pick the grapes early or late during harvest, how they treat the juice once the grapes are pressed, how far they’re willing to push fermentation, and when they deem a wine ready to bottle. 

When in doubt, just ask

At the end of the day, contradictions aside, you can always ask. Bartenders, waiters, bottle shop attendants all spend a lot of time learning about and drinking wine. It’s literally their job to know more about this than you, and they want to help. Just because a bottle has a whole load of gold stickers and medals attached to it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the one for you.

Establish a few keywords to describe the wine you like and this will go a long way in asking for recommendations. If you like fruity, oaky, savoury or sweet wines, there is no limit to the possibilities. People who are into wine love to talk about it and the second a receptive audience asks a question they'll relish the chance to nerd out. The key is to choose your bottle shop wisely. One that specializes in wine is ideal as staff training is ongoing. Make friends with someone at your favourite bottle shop and they'll hook you up right every time.

Looking for Sydney's top bottle shops? These are some of our favourites. 

Wine not your thing? Try out these beer subscriptions instead.

Heard of the sober-curious movement? It's ok to do things in halves.

Need more ideas? Here are some things to do this week.

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