1. What does the bottle look like?
Start with appearances: If a bottle has dust all around its shoulders (not just on one side), it may have been stored standing up for a long period. This might mean that the cork has dried out and let oxygen seep into the bottle, which can oxidize the wine — giving it an unpleasant odor and flavor.
Another thing to watch for is the level of the wine when the bottle is upright. The wine should rise to between a quarter and a half an inch below the bottom of the cork. If it’s lower than that, wine might have leaked out, again possibly causing the wine to oxidize. (Neither factor is a consideration, incidentally, with wines sealed with screw caps â increasingly common even for the good stuff.)
2. Where does the wine come from?
You’d be surprised at some of the places that produce wine — sometimes very good wine — today. Experimentation is always fun, and if you have a spirit of adventure and happen to run across it on a wine list somewhere, go ahead and try that Maltese chardonnay or Thai syrah.
On the other hand, if you want to increase your chances of getting a good bottle, it’s probably safest to stick to the places best-known for high-quality wines. That would mean France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Austria; California, Washington, Oregon, and New York; and South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.
3. What grape or grapes is the wine made from?
Many wines are labeled with the principal grape variety they’re made from, though many others are not. (Wine-lovers know that red Burgundy, for instance, is made from pinot noir, but the grape name doesn’t appear on the label.)
Though a skilled winemaker can produce something worth drinking from almost any grape, relative novices might have the best luck with one of the six so-called “noble” grapes — cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and riesling. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider wines made with other varietals, but be aware that some — like the intensely aromatic gewÃ¼rztraminer or torrontÃ©s — have unique characteristics that may not appeal to everyone
4. How does the cork look and smell?
As noted, screw caps are becoming more and more prevalent. About two-thirds of the wines out there are still cork-finished, however. Corks that are dried out, moldy, or disintegrating might (though don’t always) suggest a problem with the wine.
In addition, an estimated 1% to 5% of cork-sealed wine bottles are “corked,” meaning that they’ve been tainted with a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole — TCA for short — that gives them an unpleasant aroma often likened to wet newspaper or a moldy basement. That’s why sommeliers in fancy restaurants proffer corks to diners before pouring the wine. If the cork smells funky, the wine almost certainly will too (and it’s OK to send it back).
5. How does the wine look in the glass?
Whether a wine is red, white, or rosÃ©, it should be clear, not cloudy. (Wines described as “natural” or “biodynamic,” meaning that they’re minimally processed, are sometimes an acceptable exception.) Color is also an indication of possible problems, especially in white wines. If they’re dark yellow or brownish-yellow, they might be oxidized or maderized (maderization is a form of oxidation, usually caused by exposure to heat). A brownish rim around the edge of red wines doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem, but is a common sign of age.