Are you scared off buying wine?

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A recent consumer study, commissioned by E&J Gallo’s Dark Horse brand, found that nearly three quarters of the sample of ‘Brits’ found restaurant wine tomes intimidating. The study also found that 36% weren’t sure what they were supposed to look out for when the wine waiter offers the wine to taste. Also, 23% always buy wine from the same country or origin.

Although wine is a complex subject that the man (and woman) on the Clapham Omnibus will never know enough about to be confident, I put quite a lot of the blame for this on the wine industry; that is why I chose the above title for this blog post rather than “Are you scared of buying wine?”

I will choose a future opportunity for my prescription as to what the industry could do differently, and better. For now, here is some advice to Baffled of Balham about choosing wine. What follows is the text of a speech I gave recently to the Harrovians branch (as in Harrow, England) of Toastmasters International. TMI is a global organisation with clubs all over the world, that collectively have given encouragement, taught technique and nurtured courage in millions of people who lacked skills and confidence when it comes to public speaking. I am not a member of TMI, but my wife is, and she not only passed to me the invitation to be a guest speaker but also suggested that some tips for buying wine might be well received. So here is my speech.

How to Choose Wine with Confidence – The Five Golden Rules

Mr. President, Toastmasters and fellow guests:

Does choosing wine in a supermarket or restaurant scare you? I thought so. The wine trade knows it scares most people off buying a wine they haven’t had before, or from buying wine at all. It’s amazing that they don’t make it easier, which they could, but they don’t, so I will. There’s quite a lot to say, but the most important bits are my five golden rules, which we will get to.

Firstly, are you buying a wine for someone else or for yourself to drink? If it’s a gift, stick to something safe. You never know, the recipient may understand wine better than you do, or have particular preferences, so you don’t want to take any risks. The first risk is spending too little. There are good wines under £10 but you have to know which ones. Spend more than that and most every wine is a good bet, you’re safe.

Remember that the first £4 never reaches the winemaker; it goes in VAT, excise duty, breakages, insurance, shipping, storage, and several middlemen’s profit. So if you spend £5, the winemaker might get £1, and half of that will go on the bottle, the label and the closure. So you’re really buying a 50p wine, and no-one can make good wine for so little.

But spend £10 and the winemaker should receive about £3. You’ve spent twice as much but the winemaker can spend five times as much on the wine, so he or she can afford to make much better wine with grapes from better vineyards. You’re safe.

Speaking of grapes, stay with familiar grapes like Chardonnay – or Sauvignon Blanc – for white wine, and for red wine: Merlot, Pinot Noir or Shiraz. I’ve left out Cabernet Sauvignon on purpose. It’s the king of red grapes but the minimum price for nice ones is a bit higher and bottles in shops are mostly too young and not ready for drinking, so they taste a bit harsh. Spend at least £15 for cab.

Then there’s fizz of course. You can buy a superior Prosecco for £10 but men may prefer something different. Similar to Champagne but much cheaper is Cava from Spain or anything labelled Cremant from France. You’re better off with one of those than buying Lidl’s £10.99 Champagne, which is really not very nice. If it’s Champagne you’re after, though, splash out at least £20. That’ll buy you Moët et Chandon from Morrisons.

So Golden Rule number 1 is: if buying wine as a gift, stay with the usual grapes, spend at least £10, £15 for Cabernet Sauvignon and £20 for real Champagne.

But what if you’re buying for yourself? First remember, all wine is made to be drunk with food, particularly the local food. Why are there hardly any pubs or wine bars in France? Because no Frenchman or woman would dream of drinking except with a meal. Whether at home or eating out, drinking might start with an aperitif before the meal, the wine is drunk with the food, and there might be a digestif with the coffee – and that’s it. You won’t get so drunk that way either. And the wine is chosen to match the food.

Matching wine with food is a doddle – match them on colour. That was Golden Rule number 2: match them on colour. So: white food needs white wine. White food includes seafood, most fish, chicken, anything in a cream sauce, goat cheeses and soft cow’s cheese like Brie and Camembert.

Pink food goes well with rosé or light red wine like Pinot Noir. Pink food includes prawns, crab and lobster, so there’s a choice there, also salmon, smoked salmon and trout, turkey, quail, pork, rosé veal and pink lamb.

Finally red wine goes with red meat: steak and beef generally, like casseroles and burgers, also with hard cheese, and therefore pizza, and pasta with meat or tomato sauces. Easy.

If you have a sweet tooth and are onto dessert, you might like a dessert wine, in which case remember Golden Rule number 3: if the food is sweet, the wine must be a bit sweeter, otherwise it’ll taste sour. Look for sweet wines on the shelf, and ask if in doubt. Every decent supermarket has a specialist member of staff who can help you; just ask for them.

Wine with a touch of sweetness is what you need with spicy food too. So for curry, drink off-dry Riesling, which is made in Germany and in Alsace in France, though beer also works.

At home, you might not finish the whole bottle over a meal, so how do you keep what’s left in good condition? If you just push the cork back in and leave it out in the warm, it will start to go off within 24 hours. You need to protect it from heat and from air. That’s really easy: invest in a couple of PlatyPreserves. Pour the leftover wine in, squeeze out the air, screw on the top and put it in the fridge. Wine will keep for several days while you work your way through it. So Golden Rule number 4 is: buy a couple of PlatyPreserves and put the wine in the fridge.

Finally restaurants. If it’s posh, there’ll be a wine waiter. Calling him a sommelier is part of the snob side of wine, like printing the menu in French even if the food isn’t. A sommelier is just a wine waiter who really knows his stuff to the point where he chooses which wines to stock. If there isn’t one, perhaps because it’s a more modest restaurant, all the waiters should know their wine offer or will bring over someone who does. Golden rule number 5: just like in a shop, all you have to do is ask for some advice. You Toastmasters aren’t shy, are you? Tell the wine waiter your budget and don’t feel pressured or make yourself anxious by overspending. It’s their job to have only nice wines at every price point, otherwise you might not go back again. Just ask which wine they recommend with the fish, the duck, the pizza, whatever. And if the price of all the bottles is prohibitive, go for wine by the glass. I usually do. If you don’t like it at least it wasn’t an expensive mistake, just order a different one. You may even get it exchanged for free.

So to recap.

Golden rule number 1: if buying a gift, stay with the well-known grapes, spend at least £10, £15 for Cabernet Sauvignon and £20 for real Champagne.

Golden rule number 2: if buying for yourself, whether at home or out, choose the wine to go with the food, by matching on colour.

Golden Rule number 3: if the food is sweet, the wine must be a bit sweeter. Also drink off-dry white wine like off-dry Riesling with spicy food.

Golden Rule number 4 is: buy a couple of PlatyPreserves and put them in the fridge.

Golden rule number 5: in a shop or a restaurant, all you have to do is ask for advice. We winocerouses love to give advice!


That was my speech. TMI speeches are timed: nominally around seven minutes with a maximum of seven and a half, which I had taken care to observe. But then the chairman opened the floor to questions and they went on a lot longer than that. What the audience asked confirmed everything in the Gallo survey. It doesn’t matter that some of what I said is over-simplified; what matters is that none of the audience had seen or heard anything like it before, and they had many more issues than I was able to address in my seven minutes (such as decanting wine).

No pictures of wine bottles, vineyards or winemakers this week, but here are links to some resources mentioned above.

Oh, ok then, here’s the wine I poured in the interval.

So, it’s one of the wines, from a little-known grape, under £10, that you have to know about. Salut!

One Comment

  1. Love it. good useable advice

    please add me to your regular mailing list

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