PARTIES ARE EXPENSIVE. It doesn’t matter if it’s a soiree for four, 10 or 100 — costs can mount quickly, especially the cost of alcoholic beverages. Buying wine for a crowd can be tricky — hosts are trying to accommodate different tastes and pair different wines with the food while staying on a budget. There are plenty of inexpensive bottles out there, but without tasting them all, it’s difficult to select a wine that’s easy on the palate and the wallet. Brenda Maitland, a wine, food and spirits writer, explains how to choose the wine that offers the best bang for your buck — and suggests a few picks.
So, where are you from?
Maitland says most consumers shop for wine with a “New World” sensibility. They choose a bottle based on the basics — is it red or white? What grape? She says the “Old World” palate is more concerned with the provenance of the grapes, which can tell you more about the wine’s flavor. A California chardonnay has a very different flavor profile than a French Chablis, despite being made from the same grape. Different growing regions have different soils and climates that infuse the grapes with their own terroir, changing the wine’s taste, smell, acidity, sweetness and even its texture in the glass. Shoppers can benefit from some due diligence before a trip to the store. Start with a grape you know you like and do a little research on the best growing regions for that varietal. For example, Maitland likes sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley in France, pinot noirs from Dundee Hills or Willamette Valley in Oregon and Central Otago in New Zealand and cabernet grapes grown in California’s Napa Valley.
Don’t fall for the window dressing
Many bottles are labeled with buzzy terms like “select” and “vin de pays.” While these sound fancy, they often have little bearing on the quality of the wine itself. “Select” is meaningless in viticulture, and vin de pay” simply means “country wine.” Be wary of overpaying for a wine because it seems more elite than it is.
“In the U.S., anyone can call anything a reserve or an old vine or something like that,” Maitland says. “You can have good and bad wines in any place, but one of the reasons you can trust the wines from places like France and Italy is because there’s more (regulation), and those words actually mean something.”
Know your ABCs (or AVAs, DOPs, etc.)
Classifications such as AVA, or American Viticultural Area, the French AOP, or Appellation d’Origine Protegee, and the Italian DOC, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata (among other acronyms) exist to give consumers confidence that the wine they’re purchasing was produced according to standards that dictate specifications such as percentages of particular grapes allowed in a certain wine and the regions in which those grapes are grown. There are dozens of classifications — some denoting extremely subtle differences — but understanding what a few of these mean can help consumers make an informed decision when selecting a bottle.
You can have too much of a good thing
Check the label for the wine’s alcohol content. Wine with a high alcohol by volume (ABV) will taste overly boozy (in this case, it’s a bad thing) and won’t pair well with food. ABV in wine can vary from 5.5 to 23 percent; 15 percent is considered high by many standards, so you may not want to stray above that benchmark, especially for a drinking wine (as opposed to a fortified sipping wine such as port or sherry).
Bright and bubbly
Welcoming guests with a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine as they enter is a classy, celebratory way to kick things off. Maitland found a surprising array of $20 sparklings, including some genuine Champagnes made in the French methode traditionelle. If budgets are tighter or tastes are pickier than a bargain Champagne, a cremant might do the trick. It’s made in the traditional Champagne method as well, in eight approved French wine growing regions including Alsace and Savoie. Champagne is made exclusively from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes; cremants often contain local grape varietals as well.