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Wine Buying Guides

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Consumer Reports has no relationship with advertisers on PriceGrabber

Getting started

Food and wine are natural partners and, when they're compatible, they can be more than the sum of their parts. The problem is finding a perfect pairing. Consumer Reports' wine experts will not only help you find the best wines at a reasonable price but can also choose the best food-and-wine combination.

To pick the right cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, red blend, red zinfandel, ros, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, or sparkling wine, follow our advice here.

Consider the flavors you favor

Wines of a given varietal share basic characteristics. Merlot, for instance, typically has varying degrees of ripe fruit aromas--cassis, raspberry, black cherry, and plum--along with vegetal or spicy "notes." But within a varietal, wines can differ quite a bit because of their style: characteristics derived from the wine-making process. For example, some merlots have a woody or smoky/char flavor resulting from the toasted oak barrels in which they're aged. Pinot grigio typically has a dry and tart Old World style. Pinot gris, made from the same grape as pinot grigio, typically has a fuller-bodied, and sometimes sweeter ("off dry"), New World style. So don't write off a varietal because of a few bottles you didn't like. You might not have experienced its range of styles or quality.

Consider other taste attributes

Bitterness and astringency from grape tannin are among the qualities of "taste" that characterize the total effect of the experience of a wine, and might affect your preference.

When wine experts speak of structure, they mean a combination of alcohol, sweetness, acid, tannins, and flavors--the wine's basic sensory components--that create an almost three-dimensional sensation in your mouth. In general, better wines have a more detectable and pleasing structure.

Finish relates to how long the wine's taste and texture linger after swallowing. While all wines have alcohol, some create an undesirable sensation of heat in your mouth when the wine's alcohol level is too great.

Consider the food being served

Full-bodied wines (such as most cabernets and merlots) generally complement rich dishes, while fruity-style wines (such as chardonnays) work with lighter fare, such as grilled fish. Fairly simple wines work well on their own as aperitifs. The more complex a wine, the wider the range of food flavors that will complement or enhance it.

Although particular wines are often associated with particular foods (as in the proverbial white-wine-with-fish rule), good wine pairing often has as much to do with sauces or a food's preparation as with the underlying fish, meat, or fowl. For example, spicy dishes can work well with off-dry wines that are low in tannin (those mouth-puckering compounds pair best with basic and fatty foods) and a classic pairing for rich, fattier foods, including red meat, are tannic reds such as cabernet sauvignon.

Consider when you'll drink the wine

Most wines are fine for immediate consumption, but our tests have identified a few red wines with qualities (including the presence of mouth-puckering tannin) that could soften and improve if they're aged a year or two.

Don't automatically equate high price with high quality

It's true that many pricier wines are superb, and that the world's best wines rarely cost $5 or $10. But in our tests, some of the best wines are often relatively inexpensive. Conversely, some $20 or even $30 wines have mediocre scores.

Don't depend on consistency

Some producers, including many of the biggest California and Australian wineries, produce a wide range of varietals. While some such brands score well across their lineup, just as many have bottles that vary widely in quality among, say, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, and sauvignon blanc.

Wines in the price range of those we test aim for, and often achieve, consistent quality from one vintage to another. If a wine we've rated highly isn't available in the vintage we tested, try the newer one. But wines can falter from one year to the next. Taste the new wine before you order a case of it based on enthusiasm for an old vintage.

Consider brand records, but with care

We seek, and often find, consistent quality within our prescribed price range. That means that year to year, quality can be quite similar. But as with stocks and bonds, past performance is not a perfect predictor.

Consider brand records, but with care

We seek, and often find, consistent quality within our prescribed price range. That means that year to year, quality can be quite similar. But as with stocks and bonds, past performance is not a perfect predictor.

How we test wine

At competitions, judges often taste a wine once before rendering a verdict. At Consumer Reports, our tests are more rigorous and should more accurately reflect the tasting experience most people will have.

Our judges are two wine-industry experts who have spent a total of 60 years professionally tasting a wide range of wines. They begin each of our tests by spending a day or so calibrating their palates to the varietals they'll be testing. That involves blind-tasting everything from so-so to superb examples, to help set standards for what constitutes high quality. They're looking for the set of flavor attributes that best define excellence for each varietal.

Then the real tests begin, one varietal at a time. Presented with filled glasses that are numbered and placed in random order, the experts taste each of the wines from four different bottles, in four different sessions. Every time, for every wine, they fill out a ballot describing about 25 potential attributes and scoring the wine's overall quality. Consumer Reports food experts and statisticians analyze the ballots to arrive at the Ratings.

And now, the answer to the question on everyone's mind: After sniffing, sipping, and swishing, the tasters spit out the wine.

Read more about Wine myths and facts.

Visit ConsumerReports.org for our latest information on Wine

Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

Getting started

1. Getting started

2. Types


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