In my years of running wine-tasting masterclasses and events, certain queries come up time and time again. Here are the questions I am most often asked:
Is £8 the magic minimum to get good wine?
Received wisdom is that if you spend at least £8 on a bottle, you will get something decent. There is truth in this, particularly when you consider the packaging and transportation costs, retailer’s mark-up and duty (which jumped last month) and 20 per cent VAT . . . anything less makes you wonder how much actually is spent on the wine. Duty alone on still wine under 15 per cent ABV in the UK is now £2.67 per bottle. Ouch!
What do those award stickers mean?
Brits love an award sticker, even if they don’t recognise the competition. In supermarkets, some stickers are more impressive than others, such as those for the Decanter Awards or the IWSC (International Wine & Spirit Challenge). Having been a judge for both, I can confirm that wines are tasted blind by professionals and competition is fierce. If you’re interested, Google the competition to see how legit it is.
Ask the expert: Is boxed wine any good? Do awards mean anything? The answers TEN vintage dilemmas (file image)
Is a cork closure better than a screw cap?
Not any more. A cork in perfect condition is still considered the ideal closure for laying down wine in a cellar, yet fine wine can still be corked. But you can also get gloriously fine wine under screw tops now. The caps are convenient and perfect for off-the-shelf wines that will be drunk within a year.
What is ‘vintage wine’ and does it matter?
P.S. Why fine wine needn’t be off-limits
Look out for lesser-known wine-producing areas in the fine wines aisles of the supermarket, such as ‘Brunello di Montalcino’ (like an upscale, bolder Chianti) and ‘Hermitage’ (a top Rhone Syrah).
Producers to look out for include Trimbach (legendary white wine producer from Alsace), Dr Loosen (epic German white wines) and higher-end Penfolds wines (they make fantastic Australian classics, largely red).
Try some of these:
The Chocolate Block, South Africa
This South African red has a cult following due to its rich, full-bodied, plummy and cocoa notes.
Errazuriz, The Blend 2016
Errazuriz gives Chateauneuf-du-Pape a run for its money with this brilliant, ballsy red blend.
Unbelievably good value. Made by Christian Moueix, the man behind Petrus in Pomerol, this is a phenomenal, classy, complex, cedary and voluptuous red.
Rock Angel by Whispering Angel
£26.50 at Ocado, £26.99 at Waitrose
ChAteau D’Esclans makers of Whispering Angel pioneered the gastronomic Provencal pink that’s more creamy and complex. Rock Angel is my go-to for food.
Laurent Miquel Verite Viognier
Harvested at dawn to keep the freshness, this Viognier combines the coconut, acacia and apricot notes the grape is famous for with a crisp, citrussy freshness. A great festive white.
Vintage refers to the year the grapes for that bottle of wine were grown. The term is associated with fine wine as it sounds poetic, but even the cheapest wines are technically ‘vintage’ if they specify the year they were produced. Where it matters most is in areas with more variable climates, often in the Old World.
Hailstorms or too much or too little rain can affect fine wine regions such as Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley and Burgundy. Elsewhere, conditions tend to be more consistent, year on year. For Champagne, though, it is the norm to use reserve wines to make up the blend. These are Non-Vintage (NV) wines.
Vintage champagnes really are special as conditions were so good in one year that they are made with that vintage alone.
Search vintage charts online for regions you are interested in.
Bag-in-box: Always a bulk buy and bad?
Definitely not, though some are better than others. Technology has advanced so much that producers are happier putting better wines in boxes. Consumers also appreciate the cost savings from this kind of packaging. Most boxes require less Co2 to produce than glass so have good ‘green’ credentials, too. Wine professionals carry out regular taste tests and the results are often surprising. Check wine writers’ reviews.
Which supermarket own-labels are best?
I am usually pleasantly surprised by supermarkets’ own-label offerings. After all, they are constantly competing with rivals, so these ‘house wines’ need to be good. They’re often made by hard-hitters in the wine industry but don’t have the price tag to match.
Some supermarkets also have quality ranges. I have been blown away by the new M&S top tier ‘Collection’ wines (think £12-£25). And, Tesco Finest is knocking it out of the park at the more accessible end, at around £10. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range is pretty reliable, too.
Champagne, Cava and Prosecco: what’s the difference?
There are two key methods of making sparkling wine — the traditional way is more labour-intensive and therefore expensive.
Prosecco is an easy-drinking, pear-scented, frothy fizz with low-ish alcohol (often 11 per cent) and its bubbles are formed in large tanks. It’s not trying to taste like Champagne with its complex flavours that come with age. Prosecco is drunk young so is cheaper to produce.
Cava is made in the same ‘traditional’ method as Champagne, i.e. by individual bottle. This is why it has complex, savoury toasty notes too as the juice sits on its lees (dead yeast cells) after fermentation. It’s cheaper than Champagne though because there’s far more of it, coming as it does from four Spanish regions. It uses less expensive, Spanish grapes than typical ‘Champagne grapes’ and production costs are less.
Cava also doesn’t have the marketing campaigns of big Champagne houses to pay for either . . .
Is a cork closure better than a screw cap? Not any more. A cork in perfect condition is still considered the ideal closure for laying down wine in a cellar, yet fine wine can still be corked (file image)
Are supermarket deals worth it?
We Brits love a bargain but often, wines consistently on promotion are being sold at the ‘correct’ price when discounted, then occasionally hiked to make the savings look impressive.
Certain Cava producers are very good at this tactic. Wines on one-off promotions in the supermarkets are more reliable, especially if it’s wine you often buy and can buy elsewhere.
These discounts are designed to lure you in to buy more at a time and put other things in your trolley, too. Often, there will be a deal between the supplier and the supermarket to take their more expensive wines in exchange for making very little — or even a small loss — on cheaper ones.
Is Provencal rosé really the best?
Not necessarily, but it’s the most consistent. Rosé wine is white wine that gets its colour from having a very short period of time soaking (hours not days) with the skins of the red grapes that go into it after pressing.
It can be made anywhere. Before Provence successfully convinced the world that pale, dry and saline rose from Provence was the finest however, buying pink wine was a minefield.
Colour meant nothing as pink wines of all shades could be dry or very sweet. You never knew what you were going to get. Provence gave us a consistent style that we could rely on: pale and elegant-looking, inherently premium, always dry and with a moreish, saline tang. It became the sophisticate’s choice. A wine that goes with everything.
Winemakers worldwide have changed how they make pinks to appeal to Provence-lovers but it’s still just one style of rosé. Other lesser-known styles that offer consistency include Tavel — another, much smaller French appellation that makes savoury, wild strawberry-scented, almost light red, gastronomic wines.
Why are some wines so costly?
This is the most frequently asked question, especially where French wines are concerned. The short answer is that price is determined by global demand and supply.
World-famous regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and latterly, Tuscany and the Rhone Valley have had centuries to build up their reputation for fine wines. Plus, these old regions can’t keep expanding so demand is high and production is low, therefore prices will climb.
‘Fine Wines’ do need more work though, which costs money. Think about hand harvesting rather than machine harvesting.
Specific pruning of vines; expensive oak barrels and steel, concrete and clay tanks; chilled cellars for ageing; vineyard maintenance and middlemen all add up, affecting the cost.
The good news is that lesser-known areas in top wine regions have upped their game — so you can get great wines in similar styles based just down the road from the famous Chateaux. (See ‘Great Wines For Less’ on the cover of this pull-out.)
Why are some wines so costly? This is the most frequently asked question, especially where French wines are concerned (file image)
Helena Nicklin is an award-winning drinks writer, broadcaster and judge for international drinks competitions.