How to choose wine? This is one of the most frequent things I get asked. Well, the truth is, it’s a bit like asking where you should go on holiday; how much do you want to spend? What do you like? What mood are you in?
But even with that said, there are some good rules of thumb, a few myths and even a few marketing tricks that it's good to be aware of.
These tips apply mainly to buying wine in a shop, as opposed to a restaurant, and regardless of the ‘style’ you’re looking for, which are both topics I’ll write about soon.
So here goes:
Many of us look at this first, and I’ve had people admit this to me as if it were a guilty secret. It’s not - it’s a great, logical starting point.
Try if you can to spend at least £10. This is actually impossible in most supermarket locals, so try if you can to go to a wine shop or a bigger supermarket. Bear with me; it’ll be worth it I promise.
Why spend a tenner or more? Because if you’re buying wine under £10 on the UK high street, congratulations, you have just bought approximately 47p worth of actual wine. The rest of your hard-earned money has gone on the bottling, the labelling, the marketing (particularly with some supermarket wines), the shipping/distribution and the taxes/duties payable in the UK. The thing to be aware of is that most of these costs are a standard amount - not proportionate to the value of the wine. That means by spending £10 or more you’re getting so much more actual wine for your buck.
If it seems like a lot, just remember you can easily pay £20-25 for an entry level bottle of wine on a restaurant wine list, which might only be worth £5-10. So actually, if you frame it that way, you’re getting a bargain!
IS MORE EXPENSIVE ALWAYS BETTER?
Fortunately, no. Some wine experts will tell you that over around £20-25 the correlation between price and quality, for the majority of wine sold on the high street (that is, mostly non-aged wines) becomes less clear cut.
Over £25 we are entering into the potential territory of marketing-friendly “icon” wines, which may or may not be anything more than marketing gloss. And/or we may be in the land of very grand wine regions that can charge a huge premium, regardless of quality, just because they have the ‘posh’ name. Think Bordeaux, Burgundy and so forth. No doubt these regions produce some of the finest wines in the world. But is every single producer of wine from Bordeaux or Burgundy making guaranteed excellent wine? No. But can every single producer from Burgundy or Bordeaux charge just a little bit more than their less well-known neighbours? Yes. You get my point.
HANG ON, SO WHEN IS IT WORTH SPENDING MORE THAT £20/25?
Age-worthy wines that have been stored in known conditions. Aged wine is of course rarer to find. Most wine that’s on sale is more or less the current release vintage, give or take a few years. Most retailers simply can’t afford to hold on to bottle stock and age it, because it just wouldn’t be viable from a business perspective. Occasionally you come across wines that are released to the market once they’ve had some bottle-age, such as relatively rarely found Hunter Valley semillon. Once that has around 10 years of bottle age it transforms from light, citrusy, to lemon curd on buttered toast.
It’s also worth noting that most wine produced around the world is intended for drinking young and fresh. And just as well, otherwise we’d all run out of patience. It’s the smaller end of the market that’s focused on producing age-worthy wines.
A properly stored (as in, not something that’s been languishing in the shop window!) bottle-aged wine at the peak of its drinking window is worth paying more for. You are paying for the rarity of that bottle and its storage provenance and you will be rewarded with exciting tertiary flavours and aromas (tertiary means the characteristics that develop from bottle aging) adding a whole new dimension to your drinking experience. Maybe you’ll find leather, tobacco, chocolate and dried fruits to add to your fresh fruit character in red wines. Maybe you’ll find buttered toast, truffle, marzipan to add to your citrus and apple as I did at a recent tasting session with a 2011 Chardonnay.
For properly-stored, aged wines, typically you would need to source from specialist retailers or marketplaces like Fine & Rare, where wines are kept in bond under perfect conditions.
SUPERMARKET & RETAILER DISCOUNTS:
Don’t fall for them. Sorry but there’s no such thing as a free lunch; with wine on the UK high street, you get what you pay for.
WHAT ABOUT BOTTLE & LABEL CLUES?
Myths and unconscious priming abound here:
Does a heavier bottle mean a better quality wine?
More age-worthy wines do tend to be put in heavier, darker bottles to better protect it from heat and light and make it more durable for its long journey into maturity. But equally, there’s nothing to stop a marketing-savvy producer putting a mediocre wine in a heavy bottle and raising the price. Proceed with caution.
The deeper the punt, the higher the quality?
Deep punts - the concave part at the bottom on the bottle acts as a gunk catcher for big, tannic, deeply coloured red wines that are likely to throw a lot of sediment over their life. The same rules apply as above.
Fancy looking paper seals?
Occasionally you see Italian wines with these little paper labels wrapped round the top. These confer a certain prestige onto the wine, but what do they really mean? DOC and DOCG stand for: Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita - ‘designation of controlled origin’, and ‘designation of controlled origin & guaranteed’.
These are, in theory, quality assurance seals for the best Italian wine producing regions like the famous Chianti. But in practice, they can be understood better as an indicator of winemaking style: it means the boxes have been ticked against a set of criteria - where the wine was made, what from and in what type of vessel it was matured. In theory this should be a precursor of quality but there is still a huge variation from producer to producer. One producer could fulfil the minimum criteria, while another could do that and go far, far beyond. They both get to be called Chianti and stick a DOC label on. And don’t forget the rubbish producer still gets to charge a little more than his equivalent in a non-DOC area simply because the name Chianti, just like Rioja, acts as a brand; a name people are familiar with and so consumers will pay more for it.
DOCG (e garantita) goes one step further as it has more stringent criteria and is taste tested by the ministry of agriculture (wonder which lucky person has that job). This new designation was partly in response to the rather liberal handing out of DOC status, which undermined what it was trying to do.
SPOT MARKETING TACTICS VERSUS MORE MEANINGFUL TERMS
“Reserve” is a commonly seen term on wine labels. It suggests a wine that’s had additional aging, either in barrel or in bottle, before being released. To be worth holding back and ageing, rather than getting it promptly into the shops to be drunk young, the wine has to be of a high quality in the first place. It simply wouldn’t make business sense for a producer otherwise, since a simple wine will not improve with ageing, in fact it’s more likely to deteriorate.
However, not all ‘reserves’ are created equal.
For Italian wines, “Riserva” is a regulated term. Each region has a minimum requirement to be labelled a "Riserva", hence it’s a more meaningful term. For the fashionable Barolo Riservas and Brunello di Montalcino Riservas it’s as much as 5 years. Trust me there are no producers putting mediocre stuff in a bottle for 5 years before they can sell it.
In Spain, “Reserva” is also regulated, designating at least 3 years of ageing.
But mostly, especially in New World regions, it’s unregulated. Marketing terms like Winemaker’s Reserve, and Winemaker’s Selection abound. Check the back label to see how they qualify this.
‘Vieilles Vignes’ or Old Vine
These are also frequently seen, though unregulated terms that can be useful to understand. As a vine ages and becomes more established in the ground, it produces fewer bunches of grapes. That means the vine’s efforts of ripening and phenolic (flavour) development from the nutrients and sunshine it receives are concentrated into just a few bunches, rather than spread thinly between a great number of bunches. The received wisdom is that this results in more complex wines. The term is unregulated in as much as there is no minimum age for a vine to be considered “old”. It could be 25 years, it could be 80. But again, like Reserve, it can give you some clues.
The short answer is that there is no ultimate shortcut when it comes to choosing wine. It’s as much art as science, and even for so called experts it’s a constantly evolving, endless journey of learning and discovery. There are hundreds of thousands of producers in the world. But I suppose that’s kind of the point. Isn’t that exactly what makes it so wonderful?
I hope you find these tips helpful - and I’d love to know your thoughts. Do you have any other great tips and tricks? What other ‘myths’ have people told you about choosing wine?