Wine guide for novices

This week’s column seeks to answer the question of how to choose when one knows little or nothing about wine? For publication in week starting 15 January 2018.

Appreciation of wine is a subjective experience. The allocation of points might suggest some degree of objectivity, but anyone who has judged wine knows differently. It is always a subjective process.

The only way to account for personal bias is for a large number of judges, at least 20, to assess each wine and remove the outliers — the points at each end when scores are listed in sequence.

In August last year this column reviewed a documentary about the rapid growth in popularity of rosé wine. Producer and writer Ken Kobré told me that the more he learned about wine, the more fascinated he became because “perception trumps reality”.

For the final quarter of its hour duration Kobré’s documentary ventures into controversial territory. He interviews Professor Robert Hodgson of Humbolt State University in California about research proving that wine judging is subjective. An identical wine was slipped anonymously three times into the same judging panels, where it received a range of marks from gold to nothing from the same judge. Professor Hodgson repeated this experiment for a decade before publishing.

The best advice I can give to someone new to wine drinking it to drink what you like. Forget the rules about matching red wine with red meat. Drink what tastes good to you. This might mean starting with non-dry wine if your palate is accustomed to sweet drinks such as fruit juice. Over time you might find yourself moving from sweet to semi-sweet to dry wines. But focus on what you enjoy. Wine is, after all, about pleasure.

One sensible option is to start with single varietal wines rather than blends. Choose one grape variety and try a range of examples from different countries. The aim is to understand the flavour characteristics of that grape. If you begin with white grapes, perhaps start with fruit forward Chardonnays such as those from new world countries like Australia, New Zealand, Chile or South Africa.

As your palate develops, sample the same grape from France and Italy. Best to avoid Sauvignon Blanc because this grape tends to be too single-dimensional from new world nations, though I happily admit my prejudices against this variety.

After Chardonnay move to another single variety. Chenin Blanc makes superb whites and tends to be relatively inexpensive. Start with South African Chenin, and then compare that with Chenin from France.

All but one of the so-called international grape varieties (those grapes that have been most embraced around the world) — Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Granache and Merlot — originated in France. So if you want to understand wine ultimately you need to study French wine.

A word here about price. As a general rule price is an indicator of quality, but not always. One of the joys of wine-tasting is finding a quality wine for a low price. In Europe, Portugal and Spain probably represent the best value for money at the moment. Among new world countries, South Africa and Chile produce excellent wine at low prices.

Wine is affected by fashion as much as anything else in society. Some time ago we had the ABC movement (“anything but Chardonnay”) which saw people spurning that grape variety. A good rule in life is to zig when the rest of the world zags. So I drank lots of Chardonnay because the lack of popularity meant prices were lower.

It’s worth understanding the influence of local taxes on wine prices. The UK has some of the highest wine taxes in the world. The average price for a bottle of wine sold at a supermarket is about GBP 5.50. Because of the high level of taxes, only about 40p of what people spend is actually for the wine. The chart below shows that the sweet spot, in terms of getting value based on what you spend, is about GBP 15.

Tax as proportion of wine costs in UK
Retail cost of bottle



GBP 10

GBP 15

GBP 20

Tax on each bottle

GBP 2.88

GBP 3.3

GBP 3.72

GBP 5.38

% of tax per bottle





Vintage is another issue worth studying. Many white wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum are designed to be consumed young. Many restaurants and pubs only serve recent releases. Constant turnover and young vintages help avoid the cost of storing wine.

Many wines from new world nations tend to be designed for early consumption, and these countries focus on providing wines that display their fruit character. Some countries seal wines with screwcaps, and these seals tend to be an indicator that the wines are meant for early drinking. The exception to this rule is Australia and New Zealand where almost all wines are sealed with screwcaps because winemakers believe these are the best way to deliver a wine free of faults.

If you intend to drink older wines it is worth acquiring vintage charts to help choose the best years. This especially applies to countries like France where weather conditions vary considerably from year to year. New world countries have more consistent weather so vintage variation is less an issue.

Organisations like wine societies or local consortia make vintage charts available via their web sites. The Internet has scores of useful charts and guides, such as this one from Robert Parker.

Riesling is an exception among the international grapes when we consider early drinking. It an under-appreciated variety at the moment and you can find great wines at relatively low prices because it is not fashionable.

The exception is Germany, where it originated. There locals still respect one of the world’s great varieties. Riesling is delightful as a young wine but improves after a decade of cellaring. Bargains can still be found if you are willing to seek older Rieslings. Outside Germany, some of the best come from South Australia and New Zealand.

Once you have started to understand white wine, it could be time to move to red wine. Again, focus on one grape variety. If you like fruit flavours without too much tannin, try new world Pinot Noir. Tannin is a preservative and provokes a harsh sensation at the side of your tongue, like drinking cold tea that has sat too long in the pot. Protein dissipates that harshness, so if you choose to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc then drink younger wines with protein.

Footnote: Thank you to Glen Vile of Canberra, Australia, for asking the question that stimulated this week’s column.

Words: 1,089

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