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15 minutes to choose the right wine

  • StephenBrookAuthor
  • 18 Aug 2014

There's often an air of mystery surrounding buying and choosing wine. AOCs, grape varieties, sommeliers… it can all be rather confusing. We asked wine expert Stephen Brook to help us sort the vintage from the vinegar.

15 minutes – that's all it takes to get between Heathrow and central London on our high speed train services. It got us thinking… what else can you do in 15 minutes? This issue: choose the right wine.

Wine is a noble drink, but it's a drink all the same. It's not a status symbol, nor a prize investment – it's a beverage to enjoy and, preferably, share with friends. If you buy a case that appreciates in value, or the wine you serve beguiles and impresses your guests, so much the better, but the main point is to pull the cork and relish the contents.

Go for the grape

Choosing wine used to be simply knowing the difference between Bordeaux, Burgundy, German Riesling, sherry and port. Today the wine scene is very different with bottles from South Africa, East Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South America on the shelves too. So, how to choose? Well, grape variety is a reliable benchmark: if you enjoy Chardonnay, try versions from different regions; the same goes for Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir and many other varieties.

Look out too for regional specialities such as sharp and refreshing Mosel Riesling, Argentinian Malbec which is packed with vibrant cherry fruit, fruity Californian Zinfandel and fresh and zesty Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Grüner Veltliner is a great alternative to Chardonnay, and if you are weary of Cabernet Sauvignon, try the rich Syrah-based wines of the Rhône valley. The world of wine is expanding all the time, so make the most of it. Don't hesitate to consult an information-packed pocket wine guide, such as those by Hugh Johnson or Oz Clarke.

Pick your price point

Restaurant wine lists can be daunting. Markups of wines from prestigious areas such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa Valley are usually punishing, so unless cost is of no concern, give them a miss. Look instead for wines from less renowned regions. There are superb bottles from Alsace (white), southern France (mostly red), regional France (such as Sancerre or Chinon or Bergerac), South America (Mendoza Malbec, Chilean Carmenere), regional Australia (Clare Valley Riesling, Coonawarra Cabernet) that can offer good value and a great deal of pleasure.

Each person at your table will probably be eating a different main course, so if there are four of you, just order a bottle of white and one of red, selecting what you can afford and what you think your companions will enjoy. If there is a sommelier looming over you as you peruse the list, don't be intimidated. Sommeliers are essentially salesmen, but a good one will try to be helpful. Always set a price range and ask for advice within it.

Stephen Brook, Author, The Complete Bordeaux
Image: Stephen Brook, Author, The Complete Bordeaux

Food for thought

Don't get too hung up on food and wine 'pairings'. There are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few pointers to get you started. Oysters and Chablis are a match made in heaven, while oakier Chardonnays are perfect with creamy sauces accompanying chicken as well as fish. A hefty steak calls for a Californian Cabernet or other rich red, while lighter meat or game dishes work best with Pinot Noir. Off-dry whites, such as Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris from Alsace, are ideal with light curries or Thai dishes. Desserts, especially chocolate, and wine are rarely good partners, though port can work with chocolate, and sweet Rieslings or Sauternes can enhance a good fruit tart.

Buyer beware

If you're buying wine to drink at home, avoid super-cheap offerings (below £6), as you are paying far more for the bottle, cork, mark-up, and taxes than for the wine itself. Look for specialist wine merchants that can give useful advice and ensure you end up with wines that are to your taste: people like Lea & Sandeman, Tanners, and Yapp.

Buying at auction is risky unless you have expert information on provenance, vintage, and so forth. The top end of the market is awash with fake bottles, so here too you need to know exactly what you are doing. If you live far from any wine retailers, take advantage of The Wine Society: its range is superb, its prices modest, and its services such as storage and delivery are exemplary.

It's made to be drunk

With interest rates low, many are tempted to look elsewhere for potentially profitable investments. Wine is probably not one of them. Prices of 'blue chip' wines have not been rising recently, with the exception of top Burgundy. Remember it may take a decade for your purchase to become profitable, and in the meantime you must pay for storage and insurance.

One useful tip: if there's a wine you really enjoy – such as Lynch-Bages from Bordeaux, Sassicaia from Tuscany, or Grange from Australia – buy two cases. You may be able to sell one at a profit, and if that doesn't work out, you can always drink it and enjoy it. When it comes to wine, whether cheap or expensive, there's still one golden rule: it's made to be drunk, not hoarded.

Stephen Brook is a widely published wine writer; his latest book is The Complete Bordeaux. His favourite ever glass was a 1920 Bual Madeira from Blandy's.

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