Drinking Tips from the Trade; or how to buy wine this weekend without losing your mind

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Image taken from Mary Hutchinson’s Flickr photostream and used under Creative Commons License

Sometimes there’s just too much choice when you want some wine. Sometimes all you really want is for someone to hand you a glass or a bottle, clasp your hand and say in a calm and maternally reassuring voice, “I have a feeling you’re really going to like this”.

Let’s face it, even to people like me who work with wine or study it, a supermarket wine aisle or a wine list of biblical proportions can be just a bit overwhelming, particularly when you’re looking to spend a normal, sane, everyday amount of money.

To cut at least some of the crap, here are some ideas for getting good value when all you really want is something decent to drink and some tips on what to avoid in all but the most serious of circumstances.

What to drink in a pub:

  • Unless you want something sweet and nasty that will give you one massive clanger of a hangover, steer clear of any Californian house wines – Blossom Hill and Gallo being the most popular examples. To be blunt, they’re everything that’s wrong with big, industrially-made wine by numbers, which is often more like alcoholic Ribena. Fine, if that’s your thing. But in that case it’s probably cheaper to add a good swig of value vodka to a mug of the blackcurranty goodness and stop reading this article.
  • Instead, choose a Southern Italian or Spanish varietal. These climates are naturally perfect for growing grapes and produce ripe, juicy, sunny flavours ideal for pub drinking. They’re not too complex, they’re not over-priced due to a big name or region and they should drink pretty well by themselves without food. Likely candidates would be Nero d’Avola or Grillo from Sicily, Primitivo from Puglia, and Garnacha or Macabeo from Spain.

What to drink in a restaurant:

  • Drink anything you damn well want. By which I mean it is no business of the waiter, sommelier, manager or anyone else to tell you how much to spend or what to drink if they’re acting in anything other than your best interests.
  • I would honestly steer clear of famous names and regions if you’re looking for a good value option. Some wines are just expensive to produce and so would look a bit dodgy to me if they’re too far down the list. In short, drinking cheap Chablis, Barolo or Napa Cabernet is probably going to be a slightly miserable experience – save it until you’re feeling a bit more flush and enjoy something else.
  • So, if all of that still leaves you flicking wildly through the pages of the wine list trying to avoid a bill that resembles your monthly rent, find something a bit unusual that you can afford. You’re going out on a bit of a limb so just conjure a spirit of adventure – at worst, you can chalk it up to experience; at best you have an incredible new discovery that you can bore everyone with. This happened to me with an excellent value Slovenian Pinot Gris two years ago and I’m still banging on about it. If you spot something at your price point from anywhere like Eastern Europe or Portugal, preferably made from a grape you’ve never heard of, get stuck in. Go rogue.

What to drink in a supermarket:

  •  Nothing, you alcoholic. You have to take it to the counter, pay them money, then take it home and pour it into a glass before you drink it. For God’s sake, at least make it out of the car park. You know those people who manage to snack on half a croissant at the checkout while looking so cool and laissez-faire in a ‘oh, I’m so bohemian and hungry I just couldn’t wait’ way? Even they’re not going to manage it with a bottle of wine.

What to buy in a supermarket:

  • Some brands prove that big isn’t necessarily bad. A case in point for me – Jacob’s Creek. I’ve not tasted a bad wine from them for years and while they’re never going to produce superstar wines for ageing, they’re really reliable for a relatively toned-down style from Australia. If that hasn’t persuaded you, as part of my wine diploma (yes: it is a real qualification, no: the exams are not one long drinking game) we did a blind tasting of chardonnays, and most of the class had Jacob’s Creek pinned as a decent Chablis.
  • Do not EVER buy ANYTHING on promotion based on the reduction that’s shown. It was never worth the full price. You’re going to have to trust me on this. I could tell you exactly why but, due to my day job as a wine importer and supplier to some of the major supermarkets, I’d have to kill you. Or, more likely but less dramatically, I’d be very promptly sacked.

What to buy from the corner shop:

  • I’m assuming that, like most of humankind, you’ve found yourself stuck with only the sad contents of a corner shop between you and a dinner or party at which you’re expected to bring a bottle. Don’t panic; just go South – specifically, South American. While Chilean and Argentinian wine isn’t quite the bargain it used to be, mainly due to the important but boring factor of exchange rate, it still offers some good, widely-stocked brands that can get you out of a hole. Casillero del Diablo and Concha Y Toro are on the shelves of most local offies – go for a Sauvignon or Chardonnay for whites and Cabernet or Carmenere for reds.
  • Avoid the Pinot Grigio and the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. They’ll be getting away with whatever they can buy because they know they’re easy choices for nervous, panicky customers – yes, that’s you. The PG will taste of dishwater and the NZ SB will be like drinking sweetened battery acid.

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About author
Amy has been working in the wine trade for about seven years now, getting into it through a combination of working in bars and a disproportionate interest in what she drank and ate. She currently sources and sell wines to some of the larger supermarkets and wine retailers as well as smaller independent customers. She currently blogs about her experiences working with wine at http://lastnightidrank.wordpress.com/
5 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I recently went on a wine-tasting evening – not to one of those tours you get on Groupon, but to a place called Vagabond Wines in Fulham. The premise is quite simple: top up a card (much like an Oyster) and buy samples of wine from the machine (the machines pump wine straight out of the bottles and are temperature controlled). If you like what you taste, you can then buy a glass, a whole bottle or a whole crate if that really takes your fancy. Each wine comes with tasting notes and you don’t need to speak to anyone about which wines you ‘should’ be drinking unless that’s what you want. It’s a good way to learn which wines you prefer without having to put too much effort in.

  2. Great to hear about more events like this – wine is one of the few things that you can’t often try before you buy, so tasting places like the Vagabond are brilliant places to go and do just that. Other good places with tasting machines in London are The Sampler and the Kensington Wine Rooms, but there are more and more places around the UK doing it too.

  3. Great post! I will henceforth avoid the ‘save 30%’ bottles.

  4. Scrumptious – great tips, and that is VERY interesting about the supermarket mark-downs which I always get suckered into when I’m running low at home.

  5. -Carl Sagan

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