You’re in a restaurant. You’re with your mates. Someone says, “shall we order some wine!? (Silly question – always yes.) You’re handed the menu, let out a silent yelp, and after much scanning, look up at the waiter and say: “we’ll have a red?”
Let’s be honest, beyond working out what colour of wine we like, the varieties and vintages can be pretty perplexing. Hands up. Who knows their Rioja from their Tempranillo? And, has anyone worked out what “legs” mean yet?
Now we’re at home with evenings to kill, it’s a perfect time to sit down, brush up on our wine tasting skills and discover the tastes we actually savour.
We asked millennial wine writer and expert, Lily Thomas, how to work out what’s good and what’s not.
Is there an easy way to tell if a wine is good quality?
It can be hard from just looking at a bottle! Any signs of small independent winemakers or medailles [logos] may help but wine is lots of trial and error. If a wine is good quality, it should taste good. Quality wines have lots of flavour and aromas and should be balanced. Balanced wine is not too acidic, not too sweet, nor too sharp. You should also be able to taste a good wine long in your mouth after you drink it.
Is the year important? If so is it the older the better?
The older the wine, the more mellow it will become, which is good with big reds as it will soften them, but with whites, they tend go a little flat. To age a wine well, it has to be good in the first place. Normally with white wines, the younger wines are better. Fresher wines tend to have more pronounced flavours. Rosé should always be drunk young (ideally made the year before). Vintage is a big topic – this is basically the year the wine is grown (some seasons will yield better grapes than others) – but if you’re having a wine with dinner it isn’t something to worry about. Leave it to the serious collectors.
What is acidity?
Acidity is the sharp, dryness that you feel when drinking the wine. The amount of acidity comes from when the grapes are picked, the less ripe the grape the more acidity. Countries like Italy pick their grapes early so you have higher acidity in wines like Pinot Grigio.
What are tannins?
Tannins are what give red wine structure. They’re the chalky, gripping feeling you get from drinking strong red wines. Tannins are also found in tea, so the easiest way to identify tannins is think about when you’ve had over-brewed tea. Tannins will soften with age.
Is a high or low alcohol better, does it make a difference to the taste?
Yes, alcohol has a correlation with the body of the wine, the higher the ABV (alcohol by volume), the bigger the body. It doesn’t make a difference to quality, but a wine over 13% will have big body and you may be able to smell some alcohol in the wine. Alcohol will indicate the strength of the wine but this is more of an indicator of style than quality.
What does swirling the wine do?
Swirling opens up the wine, the air from swirling will help the wine release more aromas and makes it easier to smell. Swirling isn’t just for show.
Which are the best regions for wine?
There are regions like Bordeaux, Champagne and Tuscany that make exceptional wines but then there are lots of winemakers making great wines all over the world. What makes regions good are their ideal grape-growing locations. Some lesser-known regions to try out are Loire and Alsace for light white wines and Beaujolais
make great easy-drinking, fruity reds.
Can you give some examples of some interesting alternatives for people who want to expand their palate?
- If you like Merlot… Try a Grenache from Italy, Spain and France [It’s round and fruity].
- If you like Malbec… Try Priorat from Spain, or Douro from Portugal. They’re both jammy and full bodied.
- If you like Cabernet Sauvignon… Try a Syrah (or a Shiraz, which is made from the same grape). It has a big structure, but is still fruity.
- If you like Sauvingon Blanc… Try a Gruner Vetliner from Austria. It’s fruity, light and aromatic.
- If you like Chardonnay… Try a Viognier, which is known for being peachy. For an oaked chardonnay, try a Gros Manseng from Cotes du Gasgogne.
Roughly what price would you expect a good bottle of wine to be?
The idea that the more you spend on a wine, the better it will be is true to an extent, but the cost doesn’t always mean you’ll like a wine. Nor does buying a cheaper wine mean it will be horrible. Paying around £8-£15 (or anywhere between £6-25, depending on budget) will get you a bottle of something you’ll enjoy. If it’s an occasion, paying a little more will get something special.
What’s the one tip you would give to make us all better connoisseurs?
It sounds simple but take time to taste your wine. Start with observations about the colour and then think about what you can smell. Fruit? Spice? Honey? Flowers? Sip the wine and consider what you can taste. Use the colour as an indicator – red wine should have red and black fruit characters and white wine should have stone fruits and tropical fruits. The more observations you can make, the more you can start to compare and build up your palate. Comparing two wines side by side is great way to see how different wines can be.
Any other tips you think we need to know?
If you like a wine, try to find out the grape or region and what exactly it is you like about it. And if you really like a wine, take a picture of a label. Experts can help you find something similar, understand your tastes and get you out of your comfort zone. People send me pictures or mention a wine all the time and I love to help. Instagram is a great place to learn more about wines, there is a lot on there. Also don’t be afraid to ask questions in restaurants or wine shops. Experts are trained to help everyone with all budgets and wine knowledge to find wines they enjoy. Have fun! Wine is about what you like. Don’t worry if it’s not the most expensive wine or if you want to buy a wine because of the nice label, it’s OK. Wine should be enjoyed!