The Joy Club member Clive Hook gives us some tips and tricks on how to buy quality wine without breaking your bank…
You can read part one to Clive’s series of wine, ‘How to taste wine (and have a lot of fun with it),’ here.
Quality is, of course, incredibly difficult to define. Like a meal, it’s not just about the ingredients, it’s the way they’ve been put together and that almost indefinable sense of care or love that’s gone into its preparation. Winemakers are like chefs. They’re blending, tasting, heating, cooling, stirring, sampling and only bottling when they’ve got what they were aiming for. It’s not just pressing some grapes, waiting for a bit and then bottling the liquid.
The first big quality clue is how much you paid for your 750ml standard bottle. There are often discount deals but don’t kid yourself into believing you’ve found the next big thing for a fiver.
Tax levels etc. are changing all the time but in round figures – if you paid £5.00 for your bottle of wine about half of that is excise duty – £2.23 at the time of writing, no matter how much the bottle costs. The VAT will be £0.83. Let’s allow 70p for the bottle, the label and the cost of transport. The retailer needs to make something so we’ll give them £1 too. Oh look – you’ve got 25p worth of actual wine in the bottle (about 5p a glass). Let’s all guess how likely this is going to be a prize winner.
In the industry we talk about a ‘sweet spot’ – once you get in that region, you’re more likely to be drinking better quality wine. You still may not like it, but it’s less likely to be rubbish:
- £7.50 bottle – wine content £1.38
- £10.00 bottle – wine content £2.64
- £20.00 bottle – wine content £6.98
Now £20 is way at the top of my usual price range and not for everyday drinking, or for sharing with people who say, “they all taste the same, I reckon”. Note, though, with a £20 bottle I spent four times as much and got nearly 30 times the amount allowed for the ‘juice’ (that’s a showing off term to give impression you’re a wine buff).
Even at £10.00 I’ve got ten times the quality. If I’m shopping for quality to drink (not to store and age in the cellar) – I’m in the £12 area and it could well be £2 cheaper in that four-letter supermarket with an ‘i’ in its name.
How come they’re knocking out Prosecco at £7.50 a bottle? Lower margins and incredible purchasing power in the wine industry. Yes, I know there are two answers to the ‘i’ question. I don’t want to be seen as having favourites – but I am big on quality…
Let’s look in a bit more detail at the bottle. There are some quality clues which are based on standards, some of them legally binding, set by winemakers and governments.
France – AOC or AOP means it’s strictly regulated by law to maintain quality and will come from a very specific place. Specific is the important bit – this is from a specific town, village or even single vineyard, IGP covers a larger geographical area with grapes from that area. Vin de France, as it suggests, signifies grapes from France (anywhere you like).
Italy – In descending order of guaranteed quality DOCG, DOC and IGT. Prosecco drinkers please note: if you want quality you want that extra G. They also have a numbered paper seal on the bottle. Try one and you’ll see what I mean .
Spain – Look for DO and DOP for quality wines. Below that are VdT (country wines).
Germany – New laws came in at the beginning of 2021 following the same principles of protected origins. It’s complicated and includes some ridiculously long words (Ursprungsbezeichnung anyone?). Look for Qualitatswein or QbA.
Now, a bit like those judges on MasterChef, there are some aspects or features of a wine that shout quality – no, not the addition of ingredients you’ve never heard of with micro herbs sprinkled on top and a bit of grated truffle. The good news is that, if you’ve followed the tasting process we described before, you’ve already discovered them – it’s the way they’re mixed that’s the important bit. So, the professionals consider four things known as BLIC:
- Balance – You’ve tasted for sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol. The big question is are they in a harmonious balance? Too much alcohol burn, too sharp the acidity or cloying the sweetness or drying the tannins, then they’re off balance. Think fresh fruit salad – all the fruits are there but none of them dominate – delicious. Tinned fruit salad? Nah…
- Length – The longer the linger the better. Not alcohol giving a lasting burn, but the flavour of the wine. Gone in a flash or hanging about for up to ten seconds after the swallow?
- Intensity – All those aromas and flavours you discovered – were they pronounced or just vague hints?
- Complexity – MasterChef judge time. Layers of flavour that seem to appear on top of each other without competing or just one big hit of one flavour? Is it interesting, characterful and even surprising? Or is it just alcoholic grape juice?
…and my final reminder. Just because it’s expensive and the experts give it an amazing quality rating doesn’t mean you’ll like it. However, you could now look at this tasting note, understand the words and ask yourself if you wanted to pay £140 for the privilege of drinking this St Emilion Grand Cru:
“Deep, dark, ruby-red.. A generous nose of ripe, classic Bordeaux blackcurrant aromas, overlaid by tobacco and cedarwood. The palate is ripe and plummy with a velvety tannic structure. There is good acidity, balanced alcohol. The finish lasts well. This is an attractive and concentrated wine that has the balance to develop well over time”
…it tasted like I was chewing a bit of an old cigar box and pipe tobacco that had been soaked in alcohol and my granny’s damson jam, and the tannin dried my teeth and gums a bit. I’m glad I was just tasting, not buying.
Anyway, I’m off to the supermarket…
Look out for the festive instalment of Clive’s series on wine next month, when he’ll be writing a seasonal special on sparkling wines – cheers to that!