Picking A Winner: Buying Wine At Restaurants, Bars And Bottle Shops

We've arrived at the final part of Lifehacker's wine guide. You now know some basic wine terminology, some of the best varieties grown in Australia, the ins and outs of the wine award system and some of the best imports from international wine superstars. It's time to put that knowledge to the test. Here's how to choose the perfect wine that will impress your friends, family and — most importantly — yourself.

All wine images by Shutterstock.com

A little aside on how I came across my wine knowledge — I've spent the last couple of years working in a large bottle shop with an impressive premium wine section, and a just-as-impressive premium wine manager who taught me her ways. The perks were a little bit like you would imagine: seriously good discounts on wine for "education", huge team-tasting nights and free access to some of the bigger Sydney wine events.

I also got to know the customers who came in. I traded recommendations with them and learned a little about how they bought their wine. Many of them ended up buying the same thing every week — I even chatted with them about it once or twice, finding that it often came down to a lack of confidence in their ability to choose a wine that they were definitely going to like. For most of them, it was more worthwhile to go with the safe option than splash out on something new.

This last instalment in my wine guide is intended to guide you through the scary process of blind picking a new wine — whether it's at the bottle-o or off the wine list of your favourite restaurant. Of course, you probably won't like everything you buy, but variety is the spice of life and you're never going to discover the best wines without stepping out of your comfort zone.


Parsing The Label

While all wine labels are designed to tell you that they are the best, most amazing wine you'll ever taste, there is still some useful information to gained amongst all the marketing hype. These are the main things you should be keeping in mind, although taste and aroma descriptors can also be helpful if you are craving something specific.


Winemakers

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Most bottleshops will have a near 50/50 split between big name winemakers like Jacob's Creek, Penfolds, Brown Brothers and McGuigan; and small, lesser-known or boutique winemakers. Restaurants will often have more of the latter than the former, and can often carry restaurant-exclusive wines that you won't find for sale in any liquor store. So what's the difference? In my experience, big name winemakers are dependable but usually unsurprising, whilst the smaller ones are more of a risk with the chance of a better payoff.

Put simply: the big brands will almost always provide a good wine, but rarely an exceptional one, whereas lesser-known brands have more leeway to experiment, and have the potential to be either the best or the worst wine you've ever tasted.

If you're catering for a lot of people — for a function or a dinner party — you're best to stick with the former. Big wineries often set out to craft wine with the broadest appeal, while sacrificing the chance to add anything special or noteworthy to the wine. Of course, once you get above a certain price-point the same doesn't hold true — Penfolds' Bin range, for example, can often include some of the best Australian wines released in any given year.

One other advantage of going with big names is that you can have some idea of where their strengths lie. Penfolds, for example, makes some incredibly strong red wines, while not being so focussed on whites. Brown Brothers is known for making some of Australia's favourite sweet wines, such as their ubiquitous Moscato and the fruity red Cienna.

McGuigan's incredibly popular Black Label range (which includes one of the top selling wines in my former store) usually sits somewhere between $5 and $10 for a bottle, and is one of your safest bets for nice wine on a budget. If you don't know much about the winery itself, of course, you can always look at the region instead.


Regions

While some great wines come out of left field, by and large each region will have a certain type of wine it specialises in. We covered this briefly in Part 2, but as a quick recap here are some of the regions you may like to look for.

  • •Barossa Valley for Shiraz
  • •Coonawarra for Cabernet Sauvignon
  • •Marlborough for Sauvignon Blanc (although if you're like me and dislike the intense fruitiness of Marlborough Sauvs, you might want to look to the Adelaide Hills instead)
  • •Hunter Valley for Semillon, Verdelho and Chardonnay
  • •King Valley for Italian varietals like Prosecco and Sangiovese
  • •Clare Valley for Riesling
  • •Central Otago for Pinot Noir
  • •Tasmania for Pinot Noir or méthode champenoise sparkling wine
  • •Yarra Valley for Chardonnay and sparkling wine

As with everything to do with wine, however, you'll find the exceptions can sometimes be… well, exceptional. A softer Shiraz from regions like NSW's Hunter Valley can be just as enjoyable as its big, South Australian cousins (some of Hunter Valley winery Brokenwood's offerings are of note here) while Chardonnay, being such a versatile grape variety, can be produced in unique and beautiful ways in almost every region.


Vintage

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I'm going to start off this section by correcting the old adage — fine wine doesn't always get better with age. In fact, some are made to be drunk young, and may lose some of their appeal after too long in the bottle. It all depends on the amount of barrel fermentation involved in the winemaking process, as the inclusion of oak is one of the key factors that makes a wine age well.

Entirely unoaked wines should be drunk within about three years of bottling, ideally within the first year. This includes white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc and unoaked styles of Riesling, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Semillon and other white varieties. Interestingly enough, some styles of Pinot Gris, Riesling and Semillon — alongside the ubiquitous Chardonnay — do sometimes get barrel-fermented, and can thus be aged up to ten years and potentially even longer. The aged Semillon is a notable example, being a famous style unique to the Hunter Valley.

It's less common to find a red that is made to be drunk young, although as a general rule most wine in sub-$20 price ranges aren't really made to be aged for too long. Even some wines above this price are made to be enjoyed within a couple of years, however — Teusner's Joshua red blend is a notable one: without any oak, it's made to be drunk while it's still young and vibrant.

While we're on the topic of vintage, have you ever wanted to point at a wine and say "oh yes, that was a good year" like a proper wine snob expert? To give you some idea of what to look for, I've rounded up some of the better vintages for each Australian region — so soon you may get to live out that dream.

•2010 is one of the most notable vintages for Australian Wine, and one of the older years you're likely to find in your standard bottle shops without spending a fortune. Across most of Australia (except for NSW wine regions and Heathcote in Victoria) this was one of the best years for wine quality. The 2010 vintage of Penfolds Grange is considered to be one of the best releases since the much lauded 1990 vintage. •2011, on the other hand, is one of the worst vintages for Australian wine in any region. Avoid at all costs. •2012 was another good year, being especially strong in South Australia and Victoria. Even though they're still young, I've tried some amazing 2012 Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from these regions. •2013 has New South Wales regions such as the Hunter Valley creeping back into favour after a few bad years, with an all-round strong year from Western Australian regions as well. •2014 was another good year for New South Wales, being one of the best years for the Hunter's ubiquitous Semillon in some time. For most oaked red wines, a 2014 vintage is still too young to bother drinking — but it may be worth putting a bottle or two away for a few years' time.


Ask For Help

If all else fails, don't worry — you're not in this alone. One of the best ways to discover great new wines is to listen to other people's recommendations. It's even better if you can find someone with similar tastes to yours.


Apps

An increasing number of apps now exist that will tell you everything you might want to know about any given wine. If you have your phone on you, then you have a shortcut to thousands of reviews, easy information and user ratings. One of the top wine apps available is Vivino, which has you take photos of a label or a wine list to scoop the data and bring up information and user ratings. I tested it on a recent shopping trip, and found that its Australian wine database is far more impressive than I expected. It'll even bring up an average price so that you can tell if you're getting ripped off or not. Vivino has a whole heap of features, including social features so you can track other people's recommendations and ratings. It's up to you how many of these you utilise, of course, but it can also be a great tool for discovering and keeping track of the wines you like.

Dan Murphy's also recently released an app, which has their entire catalogue loaded in it. It operates on a similar label-scanning system to Vivino, but isn't quite as strong as the former, lacking the useful wine list scanning feature and huge user-generated database. Still, Dan Murphy's has always proved to be good at curating quality wine with an Australian focus, so it's definitely worth a look.


Staff Recommendations

Who knows more about wine than the people who deal with it all day? Of course this can definitely be hit and miss — the staff at one restaurant may be able to recite the entire wine list back to front, whereas another may not even know what Sauv Blanc is — but it's always worth a try. You can most often tell the staff members who are passionate and interested in their product, and it's worthwhile to listen to these people when you find them.

Written staff recommendations on the shelves can't always be trusted, but again you can usually tell the sincere ones from the 'I'm just doing this because my boss told me to'. Words like "fruity" or "popular" are generally staff shortcuts for "I've never tried this wine but I need to find something to say about it", while listing specific notes or tastes that stood out usually means this is a wine that the recommender has actually tried and enjoyed.

If you're picking from a restaurant wine list, you can always ask for a taste (if it's a wine that's sold by the glass) before you buy a whole glass or bottle. Not all restaurants will do this, but it's definitely worth a try. In most fancy restaurants, the waitstaff will usually give you a small taste before leaving the bottle or pouring the glass — this is so you can make sure that the wine isn't off or oxidised before you commit to the whole thing. If they do this and it tastes odd to you — say something!


Well, that's it! Thanks for following along with Lifehacker's Wine Guide — I hope it gave you a stepping stone into the wonderful, but often intimidating, world of wine. Did we miss anything important? Let us know in the comments!


Comments

    Worth mentioning that you should expect to pay 100% or more markup on wine at a restaurant versus retail. And likely double that if buying by the glass. I'm not stating this as a criticism ... they have to cover overheads ... but it's worth being aware of.

    Price doesn't always correlate with quality ... but as a general rule there is some proportionality. So don't expect a $40 wine while eating out to be the same as a $40 from a bottle shop.

    This is where BYO and paying corkage can be worthwhile ... you're not restricted to their wine list and will probably wind up saving money. If possible, look for places that charge corkage by the bottle, not the number of people drinking it.

      Good tip! I always tend to splash out a little bit in restaurants, because I find that the markup is less on the expensive wines (of course it helps that I know bottle shop prices pretty much off the top of my head). I've found that say $10 wines get marked up to $25, while a $30 will be marked up to $45. So you're spending more, but you're getting more value from what you are spending.

    Have you seen WineMinder (https://www.wineminder.com.au/)? It's a locally produced device and app combination recently funded on KickStarter that monitors the storage conditions of your wine collection and will tell you which wine in your collection is best to drink right now based on the conditions and how they affect the shelf life.

    I'm not involved with WineMinder other than backing it on KS.

    Last edited 13/10/15 3:08 pm

      That's pretty cool! I haven't invested much in cellarable wines myself as I'll probably be renting for the better part of the new decade, but one day I plan to actually get into that side of things.

    Your region list is incomplete. How come Margaret River in WA gets no love?

      I've actually never really tried many wines from WA. What varietals do they do best?

        McLaren Vale in SA > Barossa Valley for REDs (just an opinion) but also not on your list

          True! I just have a huge soft spot for big Barossa Shiraz, they've always been some of my favourite wines.

        Cabernet Sauvignon absolutely. The weather is slightly cold for Shiraz but you get occasional good hot years for a rich peppery Shiraz like '09 and '11
        There is a lot of SSB around as well, nearly every vineyard plants it. I'm not a huge white drinker so I don't know how it compares to elsewhere in the nation.
        Do yourself a favour and grab a Vasse Felix Cab Sav. You can't do much better in the region :)

    Good advice on the whole - note that the Hunter Valley definitely isn't a cool climate region though. It's one of Australia's hottest and wettest regions with a Mediterranean climate. Hunter Shiraz is a great option if you want a wine to have with a meal and don't want to be punched in the face with the high alcohol, heavy versions (still tasty) from SA etc.

      Whoops, getting my climates mixed up. Thanks for the pick up!

    Excellent info, certainly going to ask to try wine at a restaurant now. What is your thoughts on house reds or whites, I tend to ask for one at bars and restaurants (if only getting a glass not a bottle), but what makes it the house brand, are they cheaper to buy in bunk? They are often the cheapest on the wine list but don't taste too bad generally.

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