New to wine:
Being a savvy wine buyer
I was recently asked by a national newspaper to give my 'insider
advice' on smart strategies for buying wine. I was glad to be asked,
but it was tough to condense all my thoughts on the subject into just
300 words, which is all they had room for. Here's a slightly less
condensed set of tips to turn you into a savvy wine buyer.
- How much do you want to spend? At £5 and under, branded wines
dominate the shelves. The likes of Lindemans, Penfolds, Hardys and
Jacobs Creek offer accessible, tasty, consistent wines that are
real crowd-pleasers. However, the cost of this consistency is
dullness: brands can lack character and variety. If you really
must go for brands, two tips. First, Aussie branded wines tend to
be better than their Californian counterparts. Second, brands rely
on regular promotions as part of their sophisticated marketing
strategy, so wait for these until you stock up.
- But cheap wine doesn't have to be dull. You can still drink
interesting wine without breaking the bank; you'll have to buy
smartly, though. For a start, avoid well known regions: cheap
Bordeaux and Burgundy is almost always a disappointment. Instead,
head for the South of France, a brilliant source of characterful
inexpensive wines. Hot on its heels are southern Italy (Sicily and
Puglia), Portugal and the lesser known regions of Spain.
- Spending more? Let's say you're looking for a brilliant wine for
up to £25. Now this is quite a challenge: there are plenty of
very good expensive wines, but the very best examples are keenly
sought after. The increasing popularity of wine has meant that
it's now getting difficult to find the good stuff, which simply
isn't produced in large enough quantities to satisfy the
supermarkets or high street chains. You'll need to take your
custom to the smaller specialist merchants. The very best wines
are limited-production, and there often isn't enough to go round.
- If you are located near a reliable independent wine merchant,
then capitalise on your good fortune by developing a relationship
with them. They'll get to know your palate preferences, and you'll
be first to know of any special parcels that arrive, some of which
probably won't make it to the shelves. Many independent shops are
run by interesting people with a real passion for wine, and
purchasing this way can be an extremely satisfying experience.
- Remember, with wine, smaller is often better. This applies to
producers, as well as retailers. Fine wine isn't manufactured: it
has its origin in the vineyard, and so production of the leading
wines is not scaleable (unless you plant new vineyards, which is
only feasible in certain situations and takes a lot of time, money
and effort). Because of this, it's often the smaller producers,
making wines from individual vineyards, who do the best work. And
it's the smaller retailers who tend to stock these sorts of wines,
which are often of limited availability. Leave the beaten track.
- Critics are useful, but don't follow them slavishly. Learn which
critics have palates that match yours reasonably closely.
Remember, wine is not an exact science, and even the best critics
aren't as fallible as they would like to believe. And most of them
take themselves too seriously. I'd add that the newspaper critics
spend their time providing shopping lists of mostly industrial
supermarket wines: it's not always that they lack imagination,
rather that their section editors won't let them do anything else.
As I said earlier, most of the really interesting wines are made
in very small quantities and are hard to get hold of, so the
newspaper critics can't write about them.
- Make use of the internet. Wine is an information-dense subject
and it's taken brilliantly to the web. Mind you, if you're reading
this, the chances are you already know this.
- If you are fairly new to wine, try not to stock up too heavily
at first. Your palate will no doubt evolve, and it would be a
shame to be left with a cellar full of Aussie Shiraz if your true
passion in life turns out to be domaine-bottled Burgundy. Or vice
- Buying from France can be a good idea. Two options. First, the
classic booze cruise, which is now a more attractive option since
Majestic crossed the channel to join Oddbins, Tesco and Sainsbury.
There are also decent French merchants in striking distance of the
ports, such as Perdadel and Milles Vignes. Second, you can buy
directly from the producer, after tasting. If you travel in
summer, beware cooking your wine in transit. You're allowed to
import, tax-free, an unlimited amount for personal consumption,
but in reality customs will get cross (and possibly nasty) if you
try to bring in more than their guideline of 90 litres of wine.
- Finally, remember to plunder the bin end sales. Most merchants
get rid of their excess stock twice a year, in January and August.
It's a good time to buy, but the decent stuff will disappear
quickly, so getting on as many merchants' mailing lists will pay
dividends as you'll be the first to hear about the bargains.
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