Whenever I lead a wine tasting, it seems that the same questions always come up. Millions of people are falling in love with wine and most of them are intimidated by the enormous variety that they see in the wine shop. Here's an excerpt from The Short Course in Wine that I hope will help.
Chapter 4 – Standing in the Wine Shop Trying to Make Sense of It All
When you finish this chapter, you will:
• Understand what makes one wine shop a better place to shop than another
• Understand the difference between red and white wine • Know when age helps a wine and when it hurts
• Appreciate the unique position of Beaujolais
• Know what makes sparkling wine sparkle
• Know how and when to best serve champagne
• Have a beginning of an idea about the appeal of fortified wine
• Appreciate why some sweet wines are so expensive even though most sweet wines are very cheap
• Understand why many great wines are very expensive
Now let’s turn from the sensual and pharmaceutical to the crassly commercial business of buying wine. You are standing, let’s say, in a well-stocked wine shop. You are staring at perhaps 8,000 different labels, and they seem, somehow, to be staring back at you. The whole thing is very intimidating. You know that wine is important, you know how to taste, and you are aware that alcohol, like fire, is a friend only if judiciously contained. None of that is the same as knowing what to bring home for dinner. Let’s reduce the confusion by sorting the wines out by type. [MN:
What should you look for in a wine shop? There are four things to keep in mind.
Having thousands of bottles to choose from isn't the same thing as having a good selection. Many of the large discount stores simply pile in the wine, focussing on the labels that are most heavily advertised and the ones sold to them at the deepest discount. A good selection is one that's been carefully picked by a knowledgeable wine buyer. You're much better off choosing from a few hundred wines that have been tasted by someone in the store than from a few thousand that came in by the carload.
Wine stored at temperatures over 80 degrees quickly loses its flavor.
That's why wines are often made and stored underground. It also explains why the bottle of wine that you left in the hot beach house doesn't taste as good.as the one you drank right away. Shipboard containers, tractor trailers and uncooled warehouses do the same nasty thing. Look for a store where the temperature is around 60F/16C and the staff is wearing sweaters in summer, a sure sign that the place is well-cooled and the wine is happy. If there’s no cashmere in sight, ask where the wine that’s not on the shelves is stored and at what temperature that room is maintained. (Sometimes turnover on a sales floor can be so rapid that a slightly warmer room doesn’t matter.)
A good wine store is a good source of information. Sometimes wine merchants have merchandise that they were forced to buy and they may want to dump it on you. It's a good idea to ask the wine guy to recommend a few bottles. If you like what you bought, if there are no more than one or two obvious losers, then you may want to keep doing business at that store.
Wine prices vary widely and I have never found one store that's consistently lower than all its competitors. Even the big discount shops are not reliable money savers. The best way to save money is to subscribe to the various newsletters that the shops mail out to their customers. Remember that the only real saving is a good price on a wine that you enjoy, and that there's nothing special about a 'special' on bad wine.
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You can find out more about The New Short Course in Wine by clicking here. Or you can get the first chapter of bang BANG-the exciting new novel about sex, guns and wine here.