In my years of hosting masterclasses and wine tasting events, there are some questions that come up again and again. Here are the questions I get asked most often:
Is £8 the magic minimum for good wine?
Received wisdom is that if you spend at least £8 on a bottle you’ll get something decent. There’s some truth to this, especially when you consider packaging and transportation costs, the retailer’s markup and customs duties (which jumped last month), and the 20 percent VAT. . . anything less makes you wonder how much is actually spent on wine. Duty alone on still wine under 15% ABV in the UK now stands at £2.67 per bottle. Ouch!
What do these reward stickers mean?
The British love stickers, even if they don’t recognize the competition. In supermarkets, some stickers are more impressive than others, such as those from the Decanter Awards or the IWSC (International Wine & Spirit Challenge). Having been a judge in both cases, I can confirm that the wines are tasted blind by professionals and that the competition is tough. If you’re interested, Google the competition to see how legitimate it is.
Ask the Expert: Is Boxed Wine Good? Do rewards mean anything? The Answers to TEN Vintage Dilemmas (file image)
Is a cork better than a screw cap?
No more. A cork in perfect condition is still considered the ideal cork for storing wine in the cellar, but fine wines can still be corked. But you can also now get beautifully fine wine under screw caps. The corks are practical and perfect for commercial wines that will be drunk within a year.
What is “vintage wine” and does it matter?
PS Why good wine should not be banned
Look for lesser-known wine areas in the supermarket’s fine wine aisles, such as ‘Brunello di Montalcino’ (like a higher-end, bolder Chianti) and ‘Hermitage’ (an excellent Syrah from the Rhône).
Producers to watch include Trimbach (legendary Alsace white wine producer), Dr Loosen (epic German white wines) and premium Penfolds wines (they make fantastic Australian classics, mostly red).
Try a few:
The block of chocolate, South Africa
This South African red is cult because of its rich, full-bodied notes of plum and cocoa.
Errazuriz, The Blend 2016
Errazuriz is giving Châteauneuf-du-Pape a hard time with this brilliant and courageous red blend.
Incredibly good value for money. Developed by Christian Moueix, the man behind Petrus in Pomerol, it is a phenomenal red, classy, complex, cedar and voluptuous.
Rock Angel by Whispering Angel
£26.50 at Ocado, £26.99 at Waitrose
The creators of Whispering Angel’s Château D’Esclans pioneered the more creamy and complex gourmet Provençal rose. Rock Angel is my favorite for food.
Laurent Miquel Vérité Viognier
Harvested at dawn to maintain freshness, this Viognier combines the notes of coconut, acacia and apricot for which the grape is famous with a crisp, lemony freshness. A great festive white.
Vintage refers to the year the grapes in that bottle of wine were grown. The term is associated with fine wine because it sounds poetic, but even the least expensive wines are technically “vintage” if they specify the year they were produced. Where this matters most is in regions with more variable climates, often in the Old World.
Hailstorms or too much or too little rain can affect wine regions like Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley and Burgundy. Elsewhere, conditions tend to be more consistent from year to year. For Champagne, however, it is customary to use reserve wines to make up the blend. These are non-vintage wines (NV).
Vintage champagnes are truly special because the conditions were so good in one year that they are made only from that vintage.
Search for vintage maps online for areas that interest you.
Bag-in-box: always a bad bulk purchase?
Certainly not, although some are better than others. Technology has advanced so much that producers are happier putting better wines in boxes. Consumers also appreciate the savings made by this type of packaging. Most cans require less Co2 to produce than glass and therefore also have good ‘green’ credentials. Wine professionals regularly carry out tastings and the results are often surprising. Check out the wine authors’ reviews.
Which supermarket own brands are best?
I’m usually pleasantly surprised by supermarkets’ own-brand offerings. After all, they are constantly competing with their rivals, which is why these “house wines” have to be good. They are often made by players in the wine industry, but their price is not appropriate.
Some supermarkets also offer quality ranges. I’ve been blown away by M&S’s new premium ‘Collection’ wines (think £12-£25). And Tesco Finest knocks it out of the park at the more affordable end, at around £10. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range is also quite reliable.
Champagne, Cava and Prosecco: what is the difference?
There are two main methods for producing sparkling wine: the traditional method is more labor intensive and therefore more expensive.
Prosecco is a sparkling, pear-flavored, easy-drinking sparkling wine with a low alcohol content (often 11%) and its bubbles form in large reservoirs. It’s not about trying to taste Champagne with its complex flavors that come with age. Prosecco is drunk young and is therefore cheaper to produce.
Cava is made using the same “traditional” method as champagne, that is to say in individual bottles. This is why it also has complex and flavorful toasted notes as the juice sits on its lees (dead yeast cells) after fermentation. It’s cheaper than Champagne because there are many more, coming from four Spanish regions. It uses cheaper Spanish grapes than typical “Champagne grapes” and production costs are lower.
Cava also does not have to pay for the marketing campaigns of the big Champagne houses. . .
Is a cork better than a screw cap? No more. A cork in perfect condition is still considered the ideal cork for storing wine in the cellar, but good wine can always be corked (archive image)
Are supermarket offers worth it?
We Brits love a bargain, but often wines that are constantly on promotion are sold at the ‘correct’ price when discounted, and then sometimes marked up to make the savings seem impressive.
Some Cava producers have mastered this tactic very well. Wines on occasional promotions in supermarkets are more reliable, especially if they are wines you buy often and can purchase elsewhere.
These discounts are designed to entice you to buy more at once and put other things in your cart as well. Often there will be an agreement between the supplier and the supermarket to take their most expensive wines in exchange for making very little, or even a small loss, on cheaper wines.
Is Provençal rosé really the best?
Not necessarily, but it’s the most consistent. Rosé wine is a white wine that gets its color from a very short period of soaking time (hours, not days) with the skins of the red grapes that go in after pressing.
It can be done anywhere. Before Provence managed to convince the world that the pale, dry, salty pink of Provence was the best, buying rosé wine was a minefield.
Color meant nothing because 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 we could rely on: a pale, elegant wine, inherently premium, still dry and with a salty, gourmand flavor. It has become the choice of the most sophisticated. A wine that goes with everything.
Winemakers around the world have changed the way they produce roses 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 produces flavorful, wild strawberry-scented, almost light red, gourmet wines.
Why are some wines so expensive?
This is the most frequently asked question, especially when it comes to French wines. The short answer is that the price is determined by global demand and supply.
World-famous regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and more recently Tuscany and the Rhône Valley have had centuries to build their reputations for fine wines. Additionally, these old regions cannot continue to develop, so demand is high and production is low, so prices will rise.
“Fine wines,” however, require more work, which costs money. Consider hand harvesting rather than mechanical harvesting.
Specific size of the vine; expensive oak barrels and vats of steel, concrete and clay; refrigerated cellars for aging; Vineyard maintenance and middlemen add up, affecting the cost.
The good news is that lesser-known areas of the main wine regions have upped their game: so you can get great wines in similar styles, located right next to famous chateaux. (See “Great Wines at a Lower Cost” on the cover of this document.)
Why are some wines so expensive? This is the most frequently asked question, especially regarding French wines (archive image)
Helena Nicklin is an award-winning drinks writer, presenter and judge for international drinks competitions.