In the final part of her wine course, Christine Austin looks at how to rack up the right bottles for you.

If you have been following this rapid tour of grapes, regions and tasting techniques, you are probably wondering how you remember it all and whether this information actually helps you find the right wine?

Here are a few tips to help you steer around the shelves and find the right wine for you.

Spend more

The UK has some of the highest levels of alcohol tax in Europe. Duty and VAT accounts for at least £3 of the price of every bottle of wine sold. By the time someone has grown the grapes, made the wine, bottled it and transported it to the shop, allowing for tiny margins along the way, the probable cost of the wine inside your £5 bottle of wine is just 37p. Water costs more.

But because duty, packaging and transport remain largely the same no matter what is in the bottle, the value of the wine in a more expensive bottle is much higher. Spend £7.50 and you get around £1.50 worth of wine. That is 4 times more quality than the £5 bottle. And if you step up to £10 then your wine is worth £2.76 while a £20 bottle of wine contains over £7 worth of wine.

What do you get for your extra money? Quality.

The producer can afford to use higher quality grapes, probably from vines that have been pruned to produce fewer grapes so flavours are more concentrated. The grapes may have come from a more select area, where the soils and climate produce better flavours, and then the winemaking will be better, to make a more specialised, flavourful wine. Up to a point, price marks the difference between mass production and artisan. Once you hit the dizzy heights of £35 and more per bottle of still wine, on retail shelves, you could be paying for rarity or fashion, rather than for quality.

Sorted grapes make better wines

Taste

Taste wine whenever you get the chance. Try those little plastic cup offerings in the supermarket; look for details in this column about tastings at wine merchants, and try to buy different wines each week – just to experience different flavours. Majestic always has a few bottles open for tasting, so pop in there when you are passing.

Lots of wine merchants organise tastings like this one at Bon Coeur

Matching food and wine

There are no absolute rules about this, but following a few guidelines may make the overall experience better.

Think about the weight of flavours on your plate and match them to the weight of flavours in your glass.

Starting with plain grilled fish and salads, then on to chicken, pork, duck, red meat and roasts the weight of flavour increases with sauces, savoury ingredients and spice adding more layers of flavour. Match this intensity with wine of the same weight.

Lighter wines include Pecorino, Touraine Sauvignons, Albariño and unwooded Chardonnays, followed by lightly oaked Chardonnays, Pinot Grigio and Viognier. As the flavours on the plate increase switch to lightish reds such as Pinot Noir and Beaujolais, then move on to Cabernets and Merlots. With seriously flavourful food head to the big end of the spectrum such as Shiraz, Grenache or Rhône-style blends.

If you want to match desserts, make sure your wine is sweeter than the pud – just to keep the flavours in balance.

Decanting

Just the word ‘decant’ makes some wine drinkers break out in a sweat. There is the initial moment of panic when you realise that you only have great granny’s cut glass decanter which has been at the back of the sideboard for decades. Then you discover that it is covered in dust, inside and out and it really doesn’t look nice.

There are only two reasons to decant a wine. The first is to separate the wine from its deposit and the second is to allow it to ‘breathe’.

These days the vast majority of wines do not throw a deposit. They have been filtered before bottling and will be clear and bright for years. Older, top flight Bordeaux wines, big Syrah-based wines from Old or New World and some Ports may throw a deposit over time, made up of tannins, acids and colour. The deposit is totally harmless but can change the taste of the last mouthful in a glass, so it makes sense to separate the deposit from the wine.

First stand the bottle upright, for a day or more if you have time. Then pull the cork, and with a light behind the bottle, gently pour the wine into your decanter, and stop just before the sediment gets to the neck of the bottle. Use the sediment in gravy.

Alternatively, I know of one wine trade expert who never travelled without a (new) pop sock in his pocket. Stretched over the top of a container, the pop sock caught all the sediment, quickly and easily. And a decanter isn’t essential. Try decanting into a clean jug, then rinse out the bottle, add back a few drops of wine, shake it around and discard, just to remove all the water, and pour the decanted wine back into the bottle.

When you open a bottle of a young, tannic red wine, this will be the first gasp of oxygen the wine has taken for months and possibly years, and so it may benefit from having time to ‘breathe’. Just removing the cork does nothing to help this process, it really needs to be decanted. Again this doesn’t have to be an expensive crystal decanter. Pour the wine into a jug and then back in the bottle.

In a restaurant

There is a classic moment in a restaurant when you have ordered a bottle of wine and the waiter comes to the table, shows you the label with a little flourish, opens it and pours a tiny amount into your glass. This is not to see if you like it. It is so you can check whether the wine is in good condition. If it is a screw-capped wine then it is highly unlikely to be ‘corked’ although technically that can happen. If you have never tasted a corked wine then this pantomime of tasting is not going to help, but in general if it smells like wine, it is OK and if it smells like old socks it isn’t.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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