What I look for when choosing wine
Gone are the days of “second up from the top” or bottom of the menu, depending on your budget. While there remains a lot of mysticism about wine – and rightfully so, it takes opening one to truly know what is inside – people everywhere are getting much more savvy about the grape juice.
But with so many to choose from, how do you pick? It wasn’t until after my first visit to a vineyard that I started to learn about wine. I thought I’d walk away knowing all there is to know but instead, I walked away knowing a lot about the vineyards I had visited, and very little about any others.
There are few shortcuts in the world of wine. When wine is poured into your glass, this really is the final stage of a very long and complex process. Where the more you know about what goes into making wine, the more you are able to understand and appreciate what you are drinking.
When choosing wine in a store or restaurant, I look for four things: vineyard, wine-maker, country and year. Just before I explain each one, I’d like to thank Robert from Travel Langhe. I spent three full days with Robert touring the Langhe region. He is incredibly knowledgeable, everything you read here he taught me first, as well as fantastic company. Wine producers are also friendly people, but it really helped to have a local with us. Thanks to Robert as our designated driver, we were also free to drink up as much wine as we could handle!
1: It’s all about the vineyard
The vineyard is where everything begins. We’ve been making wine for centuries now, so most vineyards in the ‘old world’ already have a history of wine-making and well-demarcated wine regions. Most of us can name a few, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, Douro… and can cite off a few grape varietals, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Tempranillo, even if we don’t understand which grapes are grown where.
A Malbec planted in France does not taste the same as a Malbec from Argentina. Far from it in fact. That’s because the terroir (soil, climate, topography) is part of what will define it. Barolo wine, for example, is made from Nebbiolo grape and grown in a specific part of the Piedmont region in Italy. A Nebbiolo planted outside of the Barolo zone will never be a Barolo. Furthermore, in order to deserve its Barolo classification, it also has to go through a specific ageing and testing process.
That Barolo, like any wine, can be single vineyard, a mix of several different Barolo vineyards, or a blend. These are decisions the wine-maker will have to make based upon his harvest. As a general rule, the younger the vine the more grapes it will produce, but at a lower concentration. This is your standard table wine or young wine. The older the vine, which you can tell by the thickness of the stem, the less grapes and the higher the concentration. This is the good stuff. The two are often combined into blends, in order to increase production of the wine as well as to manipulate the flavours, but let’s not get into too much detail!
To conclude, when it comes to the vineyard, there are two things you need to know. The region and the grape varietal. You can order wine by either, according to your personal preference. Maybe you fancy a Bordeaux (region), or maybe you lean towards a Malbec (grape), the choice is entirely yours.
2: The winemaker is King
Let’s take the example of Barolo again, there are several different producers of Barolo wine in Piedmont. While they all share one thing in common, Nebbiolo grape grown in the Barolo zone of Piedmont aged for at least 38 months, there are many factors in which they will differ: the age of the vineyard, the slope of the vineyard, the type of soil, the ageing process, in oak or steel barrels, single vineyard or blend, etc. And so there are many ways in which a Barolo wine-maker can make his wine stand out.
Knowing the producer and his family legacy offers a degree of insight into his wine-making style. Most vineyards are passed from generation to generation. While some of today’s wine-makers still carry on the very same techniques and methods used decades ago, others have adopted the latest technologies and more modern methods, all having an effect on the wine. The wine-maker will be more than happy to tell you which methods he prefers.
Other key factors to look out for about the wine-maker are: how many vineyards does he own, is he a big mass producer and exporter? Or is he a boutique wine-maker, mostly serving the local market with limited exports?
When choosing your Barolo or Malbec, have a look at the name of the producer. If you find a wine you really enjoy, make a note of the producer’s name, and look for it again in the future. I get very excited when I find a wine made by a producer I’ve met and whose wines I really love.
3: Know your roots
Do you find yourself more drawn to French and Spanish wines? Or wines from California and New Zealand? Your instinct has a lot to do with where you are from and what food you like. I’m half Portuguese marrying a Greek. So I nearly always lean towards Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and Italian wines. I love the Mediterranean! I equally love Argentinian and Chilean wines. Apart from that, I typically drink other wines such as French or Australian only when someone else chooses them for me. Why is that? It may seem strange but it actually makes perfect sense. It’s because I know less about those wines, their wine-makers and cultures. I am not their average customer or target market.
Food and wine have a very close relationship, which starts with the wine-maker himself. A French wine-maker, whose diet consists of charcuterie and cheese, who drinks a glass of wine on most days, who enjoys the outdoors, will make a wine that pairs with his palette and lifestyle. A South African wine-producer, with a diet richer in fish and seafood, living in a much warmer climate, drinking more white than red perhaps, will do the same. In addition to diet and palette, common social taste, the climate, culture and history all play a role.
The wine-maker also has control over the fermentation process. In other words, how much alcohol the wine will have. An Argentinian Malbec (13.5-15%) or Portuguese port (20%) are among the higher-alcohol percentage wines, compared to Pinot Grigio (10-11.5%) or German Reisling (8%). Why? Again, it’s largely cultural. A wine-maker also has to know his market. If he sells to the local market or exports globally, it will factor into his wine-making decisions.
Wine is a limited commodity. Where you consume wine and at what price defines what wines are available to you. A really excellent limited edition wine from France won’t be sold in your local Tesco or pub. At Tesco you will mostly find wine from big wine-makers that produce millions of bottles a year, rather than a mere 10,000. That boutique French wine-maker will most likely sell within France and to select top restaurants around the world. Where and to whom he sells is also defined by his personal relationships with wine buyers. Each country is therefore considered a market, with different tastes and preferences.
Wine is cultural and personal. I like to pair my wine with my food, ordering an Italian wine at an Italian restaurant, and so on. I trust the restaurant will have good connections with wine-makers from its own country and an opportunity to discover new wines. It’s not a coincidence that a French restaurant will stock more French wines! When ordering a wine, think about what country and restaurant you are in before choosing.
4: A note on Vintage
The vintage of wine is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of wine. The fact that a wine can mature and improve with age is not true for all wines. Only wines of a certain quality, with high levels of tannins and acid having gone through a certain process, are intended for maturation in the bottle. These are usually your reserva and gran reserva wines, which have already been aged for three to five years before being bottled. Even a wine intended for ageing can be unpleasant if opened too soon.
Here’s the key bit, the year on the bottle is the year of harvest, not bottling. And it can be hard to know whether the wine you are drinking was bottled and sold in the same year, like Beaujolais Nouveau, or aged and stored for 5 years before bottling like a Barolo. Unfortunately, not everything we’d like to know about the wine we’re buying is on the label.
A 2016 wine from a very old vineyard is a different kettle of fish than a 2016 from a newer vineyard. Was 2016 a good year? This will depend on the weather and other factors. While some regions have specific rules to help you know the difference, you can learn more from visiting the vineyard or speaking with your sommelier.
If you want to keep and mature a wine, choose carefully and make sure you store it right. I recommend buying from the producer directly and getting his recommendation on which wine to store, and most importantly, when to open. If you don’t have a wine cellar, you’ll need to buy a small wine fridge and keep your wine horizontal at a constant temperature.
My advice, look beyond the year on the bottle, visit vineyards, taste wines, and discover what you like. My favourite wines are Barolo and Malbec and my favourite holidays were visiting those vineyards and tasting all of their fabulous wines!
Book a Wine Tour Holiday
A full-day wine tour is literally one of my favourite things to do on holiday. I highly recommend getting in touch with Robert if you’re interested in Barolo and Barbaresco wines. In Argentina, we used Trout & Wine tours to explore the famous Malbec region Lujan de Cuyo in Mendoza. We stayed at Finca Adalgisa, a very small vineyard but with some of the most exceptional wines we tried on our trip there. You can read my review of Finca Adalgisa here.