Well, there are some tricks you can use to guess what the wines will be like. I’m getting better at this all the time. Having a baseline knowledge of geography and world climates is actually extremely useful.
As a very general rule of thumb, regions with warmer, sunnier climates will produce bolder, more intensely flavored wines. This is because, (and this is especially true of red wines) the sun and heat causes a concentration of sugar, color and flavor compounds in the berries. This leads to juicier, fruitier flavors, higher alcohol, darker colors, and, depending on how the grapes are treated and whether they’re aged in oak, yields spicier, more tannic wines. Take, for example, Pinot Noir. Pinots from cooler climates tend to be more acidic, lighter in color, not especially fruity, and are earthier and funkier, with more of a wet leaves flavor. Whereas Pinots from warmer regions tend to have more of a jammy fruit flavor up front. They may have some earthy funk underneath, but they’re going to be much bolder with the fruit, darker colored, lower acid, and often, higher in alcohol.
You can make some similar assumptions about white wines (though the distinctions are sometimes less obvious.) Wines from cooler climates are going to have more acid, more subtle fruit flavors (more apple and stone fruit notes) and wines from warmer climates will often have bolder, more tropical fruit notes, due to the concentration of flavor and aroma compounds.
There’s actually a lot more scientific reasoning behind this having to do with respiration of the vines, etc. But it is complicated, and I don’t feel like going into it.
It also helps to know a little bit (and this takes research and experience) about what styles of wine are made in a particular region. For instance, California likes to oak the shit out of their Chardonnay. Very smoky and oaky. (Not my thing, but you know…) Whereas France like to let a little bit of bacteria produce a compound called diacetyl. This gives the wine a buttery flavor. Therefore, French Chardonnay has a more rounded, buttery flavor in your mouth.
So, say you see a red wine from Spain. What, generally would you expect it to be like?
What about a Rhone red blend? Sicily? Northern Italy? Southern France?
What could you expect from a Sauvignon Blanc from Australia versus one from France?
See? You can start to make some educated guesses there. And, once you start to figure out what you like in wines, you can start to order based on those guesses! Not bad, eh?
Did You Know?
Diacetyl, the compound that gives wine its buttery flavor, is also used in laboratories to give foods a fake butter flavor. Yep, your popcorn and jelly beans have bacterial byproducts in them. Yum!