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Reading Between the Wines: how to buy the right bottle

Buying a bottle of wine can be a bit of a minefield, especially if you are laying out a little more cash than usual.

Wine quality usually rises in proportion with cost
Wine quality usually rises in proportion with cost

Yes, wine quality usually rises in proportion with cost, but even more than that, disappointment escalates if you paid more than you normally do, and the wine isn’t quite up to scratch. I’m going to try to offer a few tips on buying the right bottle of wine, but the majority of this advice applies whether it’s wine, spirits, or beers you are looking for.

I’ve given some advice on this in previous articles, such as preparing for nothing BUT disappointment if you are unwilling to spend over the fiver mark, keeping diaries or annotated photo albums (digital or physical) of the wines you have liked, and how to approach tasting alongside drinking.

So, if you are caught short in the shops, here is some help to make sure you make the best decision:

1 Go to a specialist wine retailer!

The most critical thing here is also something I have advised previously, and it is worth repeating ad nauseum – you should go to a proper wine merchant. There are so many reasons to do this; firstly, wine merchants pick the stuff they put on the shelves, rather than having that decision dictated by whomsoever happens to be a major corporate partner. This means it is on the shelf because it is good, not because it makes money for the ‘right’ people.

Secondly, specialists have a tendency to invest resources into giving their staff a good drinks education. I have worked for both a major supermarket AND a high street wine merchant in my time, in both circumstances I was responsible for the sales of drinks to customers. While the giant supermarket never offered me a single tasting in my training, the modestly-sized wine merchant gave me the opportunity to try literally hundreds of wines, beers and spirits.

Thirdly, wine merchants have no interest in lying to you. Quite the opposite; they will offer good, honest advice. You see, while a supermarket doesn’t struggle for customers, wine merchants need your trade. Even more than that, they need you to come back, so they won’t fob you off with a rubbish but expensive bottle.

2 Be cautious of ‘generous’ discounts

Very often shops (supermarkets, if we’re being honest) will pre-negotiate to have a particular supplier’s wine on a special offer. This is in order to achieve sales ‘funnelling’, as discounted items all sell faster than items at their original RRP. This is the product of wholesale haggling that was resolved in a way that placated both the supplier (who wanted their product to have a higher RRP) and the supermarket (who wants to flog a cheap wine in massive quantities as a tool to get people in the door).

Very often – and this is from experience – the wine discounted from, say £15 to £8, is of eerily similar quality to the one that was always £8. Hmmm... Strange, huh? The point is that you shouldn’t let deals restrict your choice! Deal prices rarely imply quality, so should be treated as if they were the original price.

3 Watch out for the age/price conundrum!

Ignoring the pros and cons of specific vintages (that’s a whole other conundrum), you need to be careful that your wine isn’t too young or too old. As ever, the best way out is to understand what age does to specific wines, but in a pinch, a quick rule of thumb is useful. If you are paying £5-10 for a wine that has been in the bottle for ten years (give or take a few) it will almost definitely be gubbed, but if you are paying £20 or more, it might not be so bad. However, if you get a wine that has been under cork for about two years, £5-10 will probably get you something fresh and fruity, but at prices over £20, it is likely it will be too young to drink.

4 Just because you’ve heard of it doesn’t mean it’s good...

Brand names are great for quickly being able to trust things like electrical products and sports gear, but less so for wine. Some big brands can produce nice kit, but if it says things like ‘Gallo’, ‘Blossom Hill’, ‘J.P. Chenet’, ‘Paul Masson’ or ‘Mateus’ on the bottle it is not only definitely going to be a poor product, but many such brands have little claim to even call themselves wine, given all the things that could be in them that aren’t fermented grape juice….

5 A cursory knowledge of what specific wines are worth really helps

You don’t need to be obsessive with this, but there are certain wines you should never buy if you are going for a budget bottle, or alternatively, if you are splashing the cash. Going for a cheapie? Try Sicilian red and white, Portuguese red and white, southern French reds, Spanish reds other than Rioja, and Argentinian white wines. On the other hand, you should only buy Australian and American wine, red Bordeaux, white Burgundy, and German wines if you are pushing the boat out a little. This list is VERY far from exhaustive, so you should look into this yourself a little.

There you go! It’s worth the effort to buy smart – after all, a little less disappointment is a good thing!

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