How to Choose Good Wine

by | Dec 16, 2020

As your friendly neighborhood wine professional will tell you, great wine is made in the vineyard. Without quality grapes, making the kind of different wines conscious consumers crave is just about impossible.

So first and foremost, wine lovers on the hunt for a great wine will want to select a good bottle of wine made from grapes stewarded with the highest standards in place. Those standards provide for great taste and an enjoyable experience. They also offer an opportunity to learn more about best practices and share that insight with friends…over a delicious glass of wine.

Tablas-creek-logo

Meet Our Partner: Tablas Creek Vineyard

The first step to change is letting people know about the cause, and our partners at Tablas Creek Vineyard are all about making change in the world of planet-saving agriculture!

Tablas Creek Vineyard is the first Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) vineyard in the world. That means that in addition to producing top-of-the-line wines we love, their agricultural practices help reverse climate change.

Instead of extracting from nature to increase agricultural productivity and causing great harm to our ecosystems, soil, and communities, Tablas Creek Vineyard is working with nature and giving rise to big picture farming.

Check out our friends at Tablas Creek Vineyard, or learn about other Grow Ensemble partners here.

What is a “Good” Wine?

Good wine is more than a delicious adult beverage that delightfully engages the senses—one that might be vibrant on the nose, fruity and silky on the palate, and long and graceful on the finish, though that’s important. Good wine is an experience. 

Good wine is an opportunity to endorse attentive agricultural techniques that not only make for memorable flavor, but keep ecosystems healthy and don’t waste finite resources. We’re looking for winemakers that embrace the connectedness between climate change and agriculture and are consciously working to be on the solutions side of that relationship. Good wine treats the environment, livestock and workers with respect, and is crafted in a way that can be cultivated for generations to come—a must for us wine appreciators. 

Good wine harmonizes with the earth and Mother Nature. The wine in your glass is the product of these on-the-farm efforts. And once it’s poured, its rich story provides conversation that all can participate in, that will guide your path to expertise, and will keep you coming back for your next taste.

In sum, a good wine is one that brings deliciousness and enjoyment with the bottle. How do you choose such a wine? Use the guideposts below, and we think you’ll find your way!

how to choose good wine header

Good Farming=the Best Wine

The first and best strategy in choosing a good wine is to opt for one that’s made with planet-first farming methods. Of course, this warms your heart and your belly, but, important, it also makes for the best experience on your palate. The highest standards for environmental mindfulness when it comes to farming and winemaking are regenerative organic practices, which not only prioritize soil, animal and human health, but capture the terroir wine lovers live for (see terroir definition below when you’re going through the importance of location!).

What makes this the high water mark for sustainable wine? It’s just so dang comprehensive from the soil that gives life to the vines to the hands that harvest the grapes, everything is thoughtfully accounted for. This means creating a unique winemaking ecosystem. You can learn the specifics of the regenerative organic agriculture practices at the Tablas vineyard yourself if you need more convincing.

Tablas Creek Fog lifting and owl boxTablas Creek Vineyard is the first winery to earn Regenerative Organic Certification™. Standing on the top of a hill overlooking sweeping vistas of dry-farmed vines at Tablas Creek, beneath an owl box that houses predators that abate pests naturally,  Ian Consoli—area native, wine enthusiast, and Tablas marketing chief—pauses to take it all in.

He points out that, yes, the myriad things they do to earn their certification, from water conservation to biodynamic fertilizations to composting to mob-grazing sheep, benefit winery health and the wider environment. But it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t make tastier grape juice.

“We do blind tastings of each block of the vineyard,” he says. “We all agreed that one glass was the best. And it was our biodynamic block.”

When you taste the deliciousness of these bottles, you’re getting a taste for what the earth can create. And as always, the planet, when allowed to do so, can produce so well what humans can only dream of creating on their own.

But here’s the thing: Vineyards like Tablas are a long way from the wine shop or grocery store aisle. Who’s able to follow winemakers, vineyard managers, and field workers around to assess what they’re doing with their grapes?

ROC Logo BlackFortunately there are some strategic aids in selecting a quality bottle of wine when you need that homework help. Look for the certifications that indicate healthy and sustainable habits are being employed in the growing process.

You can always look for Tablas Creek themselves and—ideally coming soon—other wineries with the Regenerative Organic Certified™ seal. (Tablas may be the first, but hope they won’t be the only for long.) ROC is the newest form of certification, and also the most comprehensive. ROC evaluates soil health, animal health and social welfare across numerous subcategories, measuring everything from crop rotations to employee empowerment. Tablas Creek earned the certification in 2020. 

Tablas is also certified organic and biodynamic, so let’s look at what those certifications mean so you’re ready for that shorthand when you see it. 

demeterDemeter International and Biodyvin Biodynamic Wines certify biodynamic for operations that take a whole ecosystem approach to winemaking, building a self-sustaining ecosystem without the use of chemicals, GMOs, sulfites or additives along the entire winemaking sequence. This is the low-intervention strategy that let’s the earth do what it does best. These practices overlap rather fully with the soil aspect of Tablas’ approach.

Organic is a common label we see across the food and beverage industry, and that just means meeting the USDA standards for chemical and additive regulation, often requiring none at all.

You may also see a few other more narrow certifications like Sustainability in Practice (SIP), which is committed to standards based on science and expert input, independent verification and transparency. Or perhaps, Napa Green, which does its comprehensive sustainability certification program for vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley with an emphasis on protecting and restoring the Napa River watershed, conserving energy and water, reducing waste, limiting carbon footprints, and conducting fair labor practices.

Certified Sustainable is another you may run into. It’s managed by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which was hatched in 2003 by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Once you’ve explored these third-party certification possibilities, there are a few other factors to choosing a wine that will hit the nail on the head for you and your occasion whether dinner, party, celebration, or just for a nice reading companion.

Location, Location, Location

tablas creek limestone soils in dry farmed grenacheTerroir, a sense of place or as our friends at Tablas describe “somewhereness,” is fundamental to wine.

It captures the sum natural environment where a particular wine is created and translates it to color, aroma, mouthfeel, and aftertaste. “Long before anyone had any idea about labels, brands, and marketing,” winemaker Chris Howell told Wine Enthusiast, “certain wines were identified with where they grew.” This is terroir.

It follows that if you have a clearer idea of what place your wine hails from, you have yourself a better wine. 

Not many wineries are able to claim all estate grapes like Tablas Creek. Estate means all the grapes were grown on property, which is a good sign.

In lieu of “estate” wines, a helpful way to gauge how good a wine will be is the territory from which it’s harvested. The more specific the place (and resulting terroir), the better: A bottle that announces it is from Adelaida American Viticultural Area (or AVA) in Paso Robles (like Tablas) is likely better than one listed as from Paso Robles and even more likely preferable from one that says California. Drawing from more places typically means less specific attention to the vineyard.

Varietal Familiarity is Your Friend.

Getting familiar with your favorite types of grapes, or “varietals,” is a helpful process. There are more than 10,000 different types of grapes (!!) out there, from well-known wine grapes like Cab or Pinot to obscure grapes like Rkatsiteli and Xinomavro. So it’s good to make your acquaintance with the most common—and best selling—wines in the world, and some of the qualities to anticipate, listed below in alphabetical order.

  CONSIDER

Exploring the possibilities is a major part of the fun! If you’re looking to put some intentionality behind your wine drinking, consider joining a Wine Club from a vineyard whose growing practices you like. This will give the chance to easily track what you’re drinking, have clear comparisons as you develop your preferences, and since most come with member only discounts and deals, it’ll save you on quality wine!

Cabernet Sauvignon

Originally hailing from France’s Bordeaux region, year-to-year this is often the most popular varietal in terms of sales, period. Flavors of dark fruit like cranberries and black cherry is common, as is a full body, noticeable tannins (see good terms to know, below). A lingering finish helps seduce red wine lovers, as does its friendliness to food. A classic red with robust flavors that’s great for a night of grilled goodies.

Chardonnay

The most adored white wine out there is a native of Burgundy and tends to share fruit flavors of lemon, pear and apple, and sometimes hints of banana and pineapple. Vanilla, butterscotch and caramel can figure in too. Oakiness and toasty essences are influenced by time in barrel, contrasting with lighter versions that are aged in stainless steel and don’t impart those wood qualities. Chardonnay is a great daytime sipper, and plays well with cheeses.

Grenache

The grape known as Grenacha in Spain likes to pleasure people with striking candied fruit like ruby red grapefruit combined with baking spices that belie its mellow light red color. Grown in Old World regions such as Côtes du Rhône and Sardinia, some of its nicest expressions draw from herbal notes of tobacco leaf and Italian oregano. A soft and versatile grape that’s so approachable you want to cozy up with it.

Malbec

Malbec is a deep purple wine originating from Bordeaux and huge in Argentina that tends toward juicy fruit notes and captivating aromas. It’s typically dry, full-bodied, big on dark fruits like blackberry and plum notes to go with a touch of tobacco and oak. Modest acid and tannins go well with food. Outpaced in sales by only Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of red wine sales in the U.S. Serve it slightly cooled for a friendly Syrah alternative that will keep your taste buds guessing.

Merlot

Cult wine movie hit sensation Sideways took its toll on Merlot while elevating Pinot, but it’s one of the top-selling wines out there for a reason. Make that several, including rich red fruits, soft tannins and a long finish. Black cherry, plum, and raspberry tend to appear on the palate, with accents of clove, cedar, and even chocolate, but the most powerful quality may be its smoothness. A huggable wine.

Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio)

Burgundy-born Pinot Gris is commonly planted in France, Italy, and Germany. This is a zesty citrus white that, when done well, sings with floral, apple and pear freshness. Most Pinot Gris is light to middle-bodied and easy drinking, balanced with a pop of almond. One of the more refreshing wines out there, which makes it great for a warm day.

Pinot Noir

Like every wine, Pinot Noir can express itself with dramatic range depending where it’s grown. But overall partakers can anticipate elements of earth, cherry, cranberry, rose, and even rhubarb. Compared to other reds, it’s lighter and more delicate, often with a nice acidity and minimal tannins. Pinots can be like drinking a flower, in a good way.

Riesling

This pale aromatic white can share either fruit-powered or perfumed flavors (if not both), with qualities that gravitate toward nectarine and white peach. Sweetness can vary widely, from dessert range sugary to noticeably dry and acidic. A light and gentle option.

Rosé

Fair enough, this isn’t a varietal, as it’s a type of wine made from a number of red grapes—from Pinot to Syrah to Tempranillo—given contact with the grape skins that furnish the namesake pink tint. But rosés are usually light, lean, and surprisingly versatile.  

Sauvignon Blanc

Frequently grassy, grapefruit-vibrant or green bell pepper-esque, Sauv Blanc is a light white that can also skirt into melon, mint and kiwi-flavored places. It also covers a swath from sweet wine to dry wine, with a touch of tart commonly coming along for the ride. Consider Sauv Blanc quite the interesting, but friendly, character.

Syrah

Normally one of the biggest—in other words, full-bodied—reds in the flavor rolodex, inky Syrah (which goes by Shiraz in Australia) embraces tastes like black pepper and blueberry. It’s also a Rhône product that is popular in blends too. An exciting endeavor.

Vermentino

tablas wine and oystersIntroducing you to your edgy wine friend. Vermentino admittedly isn’t on the most-known/most-bought wine list, but it’s worth a mention. Not commonly grown in the United States (as in almost not at all), I was smitten to indulge in a bottle from Tablas with oysters recently.

Underrated, with floating citrus flavors, and a delicious lightness, Vermentino is a light-bodied Sauvignon Blanc with a leather jacket. Smooth upon the sip and bitter in the finish, this is a great departure from your normal white when you’re looking for an adventure in your wine life. Bonus: as all cool things, Vermientino is a less popular option, which often means you can get high quality at a reasonable price.

Zinfandel

Another typically big and bold red, Zinfandel can tend to carry aspects of blueberry, raspberry, spice and leather. Originating in Croatia, it’s reliably strong on fruit, depth and length. Its pink variation, White Zinfandel, is also popular. Zins are legendary for their weight.

Food Pairings are Fun and Functional.

There are some time-tested assumptions out there on how to pair your best wine with food. Some are helpful. Some aren’t. Here are the best to run with in our opinion. One preliminary rule to pay homage to: Go with what you like. Take a cue from famed Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot producer Gary Pisoni. When asked “What’s your favorite wine?,” he’s fond of saying: “The one in my glass.”

   Tip

We took Ian Consoli’s advice on what to pair with local Morro Bay oysters from west of the vineyard, and the Tablas Creek Vermentino, with its fresh and citric spark, was a wise call.

Red meats, lamb, smoked meats: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Bordeaux blends, Syrah

Chicken, pork, veal, duck, cured meat, Thai, Indian: Pinot, Pinot Gris, Zinfandel, Grenache, Carignon, red blends

Lobster, crab, shrimp, cream sauces: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc

Alcohol Content Varies.

Tablas Creek Tasting RoomWine can range from as mellow as beer ABV (6 percent) to more than 15 percent. The alcohol isn’t merely present to get the tasting room crunked, by the way. It empowers those who understand alcohol content to discern how and where a certain wine was produced.

Famed wine critic and Wine Spectator veteran James Suckling has said, “Alcohol…plays an underappreciated role in the structure of wines, and understanding alcohol content can help you understand more about how a given wine was made and where it came from.”

For most wine drinking mortals, this won’t be something you’re denoting in your day-to-day wine experience. It can make a wine a little “hot” if done poorly, but generally we think paying mind to the alcohol content is most likely to come into play when you’re treating yourself and guests. Worth a thought if you’re concerned about anyone being caught off guard.

To help keep things simple, here are the most popular wines out there, sorted into ascending alcohol content, with help from WineFolly.com:

  • 5-6.5% Moscato d’Asti
  • 7-8% German Riesling
  • 10.5-12% Most American, Austrian, and Australian Riesling
  • 11.5-12.5% Lambrusco (sparkling red/rosé)
  • 12-13% Most Pinot Grigio
  • 12.5-13% Most Beaujolais
  • 12.5-13% Most Sauvignon Blanc
  • 13%-14% Most Pinot Noir and Red Bordeaux
  • 13.5%-15% Malbec
  • 13-14.5% Most Chardonnay
  • 13.5-14.5% Most Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and French Syrah
  • 14-15% Most Shiraz and American Syrah
  • 14.5% Sauternes (sweet white dessert wine)
  • 14-15.5% Most Zinfandel
  • 14-15% Most Grenache
  • 15% Muscat (sweet dessert wine)
  • 15.9% Rombauer and Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel
  • 16% Mollydooker Shiraz
  • 17-21% Port, Madeira, Sherry, Other Fortified Dessert Wines

A Few Wine Words can Help too.

As we mentioned in another part of this series, Beyond Sustainable: Tablas Creek’s Regenerative Agriculture Sets a Higher Standard, there are near-infinite ways to describe wine, in ways that might be subsequently described as everything from helpful to poetic to superfluous. (Some we cited: Round. Acidic. Herbaceous. Lean. Leggy. Lively. Lovely.)

Often all these wine-specific terms can scare someone off from narrowing in on their perfect bottle, but it certainly needn’t! In the hopes of making the expansive terminology manageable, here are a few top terms for you to consider, in alphabetical order:

three tiers of tablas creek blendsBlends: Some of the best wines in the world are a combination of varietals, basically a mix, as is the case with many of Tablas Creek’s most celebrated creations, like the Cotes de Tablas, with a combination of Grenache, Syrah, Counoise and Mourvédre

Body: One way to consider body is the weight of the wine as it hits the chamber of your mouth. Is it light? Heavy? Round? Full? Body can run from light to medium to massive.

Dry: This word is super-common in the wine world, and super-easy to misconstrue: Dry doesn’t mean chalky or without lush characteristics, it means not-so-sweet. Terms like dry (unsweet), off-dry (partly sweet), or sweet (sugary!) are great guide posts for wine lovers.

Earthy: Fruity wines are good. Wines with vegetal, herbaceous, soil-tinged character are too. The latter are often described as savory and/or earthy. Some wine lovers like the word “funky” to evoke elements of mushroom and forest understory. This can bring some liveliness to your glass that will keep you coming back for more.

Tannins: That evaporation sensation all around your mouth, frequently featuring a tightening of your tongue on its edges, is produced by tannins. Put differently, tannins are the type of pleasantly bitter elements found in pure dark chocolate, clove, grapefruit, and tea leaves.

Finish: Fair enough, this isn’t in alphabetical order. But it’s an appropriate way to end this dossier on language to choose a good wine. A wine’s finish refers to the joys that activate in the mouth after a sniff, swirl and swallow of wine, but also in the imagination. The residual taste—or is it a gentle film?—on the palate can be fast-evacuating, lingering, smoky, sweet, tart, bitter and, hopefully, silky. It’s also the way to understand a truly memorable wine. A good finish means you’re now inspired to be back on brand and confident to find the next best wine of your life when you’re back in the market.

Sip for the Sake of the Whole Experience!

There’s a refrain among those who wordsmith for a living that goes like this: “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It’s all material.” Something similar could be said for people new to wine—nothing bad can happen, because it’s all about the experience, trying interesting things and learning as you go. 

But as you go through the process, making sure to honor Step One above, you’ll better ensure your experience will be a wonderful one for you, your guests, and the planet. Think of that first step as a go-to for finding a wine you can justify bringing to any occasion.

Mark C. Anderson

Mark C. Anderson

Grow Ensemble Contributor, Author, Explorer

Mark C. Anderson has been a professional writer, editor and photographer for 15 years, from Malaysia to Morocco to Mexico City. His nomadic base is Seaside, CA, but he finds home anywhere with a decent WiFi signal, access to good people, and avenues into the great outdoors, particularly the ocean. You can keep up with Mark via Twitter and Instagram.

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