10 Quick Tips For Picking Better Wine This Christmas

Insider tips for telling the good bottles from the bad

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1 | “Cheap And Cheerful” Sub £6 WinesBad Idea

Duty on wine has risen by 50 per cent over the last six years, to £2.40 a bottle (by comparison, in France, Spain and Italy it stands at less than 4p). The result? Once you include VAT, tax now accounts for 57 per cent of the cost of a £5 bottle of wine. Factor in the packaging, transport, marketing and margins, and you’re left with about 30p for the wine itself – if you’re lucky.

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The average amount spent on a bottle of wine is £4.99 in this country. For that average price, you get a very average wine. So ask yourself the question: since when have you been average?

2 | Three-For-Two Or Half-Price Supermarket Offers: Bad Idea

We’ve all been tempted: “Was £9.99, now £4.99” sounds so enticing, doesn’t it? Less so when you realise that the wine was only on sale at £9.99 for the legal minimum of six weeks, across a tiny fraction of the supermarket’s stores, before being discounted for the rest of its sorry shelf life and rolled out across the whole estate where it was always destined to be sold at £4.99, its true value. And there’s a reason for that value – I refer you to point one.

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3 | Mid-Range £8-£15 Wines: Good Idea

With duty, transport, packaging and the like all being fixed costs, as you stretch your budget out beyond £8, so the extra outlay goes solely towards the quality of what’s in the bottle.

Wine’s sweet spot is the £8-£15 mark, it’s where quality improves exponentially, but below the price at which reputation and personal, acquired tastes kick in.

There are countless superb wines to choose from in this price bracket, but we can all do with a little guidance, so here’s a punchy red (Montes Twins 2012; above) to start you off . For white try the nutty 2012 Verdicchio Classico Superiore. You can thank us for the tip later.

4 | Mystery Cases/Bin End Sale: Bad Idea

A “hand-picked” mixed case of unusual discoveries sounds a great way to expand your knowledge, but beware. These cases are often put together not according to what bottles will complement each other, but rather what bottles need shifting – as seen in “bin end” sales. Naked Wines recently even offered an exciting sounding “mystery” case of unsold bin ends at a reduced price.

Personally, I would never buy a case if I didn’t know what I was getting – remember, there’s a reason those bottles didn’t sell first time around…

5 | Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc: Good Idea

You can say the same of Austrian grüner veltliner or New York riesling – these quirky, off-the-wall bottlings are easy to dismiss because most of us don’t want to take risks when ordering wine. Nor, though, do the people selling it. So you can be sure that if there’s an unusual bottle on a merchant or restaurant’s list, it’s there because they really believe in it, and think they’ve found something that punches well above its weight. And as an incentive to encourage people to try it, it’ll often be underpriced.

Still not sure? Try this sultry Slovenian beauty (2012 Verus Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Stajerska; above) for starters.

6 | Sale! (25% Off): Depends

We’re not talking here about the artificially concocted offers applied to individual wines (see point 2). Instead, we’re looking at much more transparent discounts across a range of wines.

Supermarkets often have wine “festivals” which see a reduction across their whole range (definitely worth a look) or across certain types of wines (Majestic currently has some good deals on its “fine wines” which makes the elegant, red-fruited sophisticate below a bargain). The same rules apply in independent merchants, where 25 per cent off a case can make quite a difference (Berry Bros & Rudd has a comprehensive sale every year).

If the offer only applies to certain wines, though, exercise caution – these will likely be those that need shifting because they’re past their best, and/or the next (and better) vintage has come on stream.

7 | Supermarket Own Brand Wines: Good Idea

You might scoff at the notion of turning up at a dinner party with a bottle of Tesco Finest, but if you can overcome your prejudice, there’s value to be had here. Never forget that supermarkets have exceptional pulling power, and can persuade very fine producers to make top quality wines under the supermarket’s brand name at a discounted price – all to guarantee the winery some volume (and, possibly, an agreement to stock some of its other wines).

Given that consumers will associate that quality with the supermarket, not the producer, it’s in the supermarket’s best interests to pick a top-notch supplier, particularly at the top end of its range (where Tesco’s Finest, notably this zingy Aussie riesling above, is an example). Among indie merchants, The Wine Society’s own-label range is immaculate, and sourced from some stellar names. 

8 | Anniversary Wines: Depends

There’s a heartwarming feel to drinking a wine from the year of your birth – and retailers know this. The trouble is, some years are better than others. Good, reputable merchants can often unearth good value finds for you, from a region that enjoyed a decent vintage in your chosen year. But there are a wealth of less discriminating outfits who “specialise” in anniversary wines, regardless of quality, and will gladly sell you a wine from a dud vintage that is 10 years past its heyday.

The key lies in finding the right region. Bordeaux, burgundy and Champagne may be the romantic choice, but they’re also likely to be the most expensive – and can be very variable from year to year. Look for rioja, barolo and port, which offer better value (particularly the former) from merchants such as The Sampler and Roberson, or brokers like as Bordeaux Index.

9 | Restaurant House Wine: Good Idea

Contrary to common opinion, the house wine in decent restaurants is often a very sound choice — it reflects the quality of the establishment, the know-how of the sommelier, and is an opportunity for the restaurant to present an early impression of good value (which may dissipate as you get further down the list). On the other hand, the second wine on the list is often the opposite. Restaurants long ago cottoned on to what is perceived as a safe choice and often fill the spot with overpriced, lowest-common-denominator tat.

One cynical ploy is to place a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or Italian pinot grigio here to cater for those looking for a crutch to lean on — and you can bet the margin will be ramped up to take advantage of such a lazy choice.

10 | Champagne: This Is A Tricky One

Champagne is expensive – and if you’re having a boozy party there’s no point in splashing out on Krug or Dom Perignon. If guests just want a glass of something wet and fizzy to start off the evening, a decent non-vintage will do the job.

This is where the value lies, and with so many huge Champagne houses battling for a lucrative market (the UK is the world’s biggest importer of the stuff) there are always bargains to be had – such as Nicolas Feuillatte (Majestic Wine) and the refined rendition Taittinger Brut Reserve NV (Waitrose).

If it’s a more select gathering, and your guests are more likely to linger over their aperitifs, you might want to upgrade to vintage fizz. But it’s a steep upgrade – often twice the price of non-vintage. Step forward English sparkling wine. While our producers can’t compete with their French counterparts on price when it comes to the mass-produced non-vintage fizz, they can with the vintage stuff.

And serving the likes of the 2005 Chapel DownPinot Reserve Brut (Berry Bros & Rudd) – nearly a decade old, but still bursting with life (and, more importantly, a steal) – will mark you out as a far more interesting character than the guy who wheels out the Moët & Chandon. 

Guy Woodward is a former Editor of Decanter magazine.

 

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SEE ALSO:

6 Great Beers You Haven't Tried Yet
10 Great Bars To Grab A Drink After Midnight
London's Best Rooftop Bars
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