Thursday, 13 January 2011

Back to basics: some tips to help you feel less intimidated by wine

Unfortunately, as wine is such a huge subject and riddled with traditions and ceremony, most people still find it quite intimidating. Going back to basics, here are a few tips that might help enhance your drinking:
  • Get yourselves some decent size tapered wine glasses (ie ones that go in at the top) and only half fill them. This increases the surface area and really helps open up the wine. Give the glass a good swirl and take a good deep sniff.
  • Hold the glass by the stem to keep the wine cooler and help avoid nasty greasy fingerprints.
  • Think about the wine’s temperature. Most red wines are served too warm and end up tasting heavy and soupy with a warm alcoholic kick. Bare in mind that the term “room temperature” predates central heating; it’s closer to “cellar temperature”. I often leave reds in the fridge for an hour or so – particularly in hot weather. Once you’ve opened the bottle, it’ll soon warm up. Wine should refresh you regardless of its colour. 
  • Don’t serve white wines too cold. This is fine for something a bit rough or bland, but if you actually want to taste it, don’t serve it ice cold and let it open and breath in the glass. Treat it a bit like a red wine.
  • Think quality rather than quantity. This may be a hangover from the odd tentative sip I had while pregnant and we do only have the one liver. This approach does allow you to trade up to something a little more special. Half bottles are very useful or reseal any unfinished bottles (see below). 
  • Screwcaps are no longer just for those dodgy flagons of cheap Vin de Table or Lambrusco – they are a sign of careful winemaking. Screwcaps seal in fresh fruitiness and help prevent cork taint.
  • Check the level of alcohol. This can range from 8 degrees to 15 or even degrees. If you’re looking for something light and refreshing for lunch, it might be best to give that 14.5° Aussie Chardonnay a wide berth.
  • Don’t save bottles indefinitely on the basis that they will improve. Aside from vintage port or smart Bordeaux and Burgundies, most wines are released to the market ready to drink and won’t benefit from more than a few months’ ageing. The fruit will fade leaving the wine tasting stale and tired (and if you don’t keep the bottle on its side, the cork will dry out causing the wine to oxidise). With most white wines, drink the youngest available. 
  • Invest in a Vacu Vin – a small pump with stoppers that allows you to keep the bottle for a few days. These are available from John Lewis.
  • If you particularly like a wine, make a note of it. There are so many wines out there that unless you can remember some key details, it can be difficult to repeat the experience. Note down the producer’s name, the grape variety (check the back label if it isn’t mentioned on the front), country or region of origin and the vintage. Also note whether it or not it has been aged in oak as this can really affect the flavour.
  • Try to seek out a local independent wine merchant who you can chat to about what you like, being frank about your budget and how you intend drinking your wine (eg the occasion, what kind of food you'll be eating etc). 
  • Remember that fixed costs for wine (ie duty) are high in the UK, so spending a couple of pounds more on a bottle will make a big difference to the quality. 
  • Finally, relax and enjoy. Cheers!


  1. Investing in a Vacu-Vin is good advice. It's a good way of getting a better bottle and saving it over a few days. Great article! JM