Wine myths, uncorked

by Dan Izzard

23 August 2018

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If the phrase “why don’t you choose the wine?” sends you into a mild panic, then you aren’t alone.

Whether trawling the isles of a supermarket or trying to pick a bottle from a restaurant list, choosing a decent tipple can be a minefield. A wine minefield. A wine-field.

In times of wine-related confusion, we turn to the team at Novel Wines. Like the time we needed a wine to match feijoada tacos. We challenged award-winning wine journalist, and Novel Wines co-founder Ben Franks to confront our inner wine demons and answer the questions that no one normally dare ask.

Let's talk about that awkward few seconds in a restaurant when you’ve been asked to taste the wine: what’s that really about?

Wine is given to you to taste primarily so you can make sure it’s not corked or faulty. ‘Corked’ doesn’t mean you’ve got bits of cork in your glass, rather that the cork has been affected by trichloroanisole (TCA). TCA is a fungi that affects cork and can make your wine smell like soggy cardboard.

In some higher-end establishments, sommeliers might also ask if you like it, and – provided you haven’t requested they open something that breaks the bank – occasionally replace a bottle if you don’t think it’s to your taste. This is pretty rare though, so ask your sommelier or wine waiter for advice!

We heard on the grapevine that the bigger the dimple in the bottom of a bottle of wine, the better quality. Have we been fondling glassware without grounds?

It used to be that if you could afford to make a heavy bottle with a big dimple – called a punt –  then you were probably going to try and make some great wine to put in it. However, nowadays people are much more eco-minded and opt for lighter, travel-friendly bottles. Some weigh as light as 450g, which is much better for the environment.

Nowadays, a punt in your bottle is all about marketing, so try and go beyond the bottle (and label) and ask your local independent wine merchant for advice.

Is the second cheapest bottle of wine on a list really the one with the biggest profit margin?

There are lots of restaurants and hotels that might have tried this once upon a time, simply because they heard about it like you and I. However, generally, a bottle of wine in a Bristol restaurant is charged at least three times its cost price, plus tax. That means your £6 bottle is going to be selling for about £22 in a restaurant. Although, margins tend to get smaller as you move up the wine list with many restaurants making ‘cash margin’ on more expensive wines to keep them better value for money, often because they sell less volume. If you can afford to splash out, you generally get some great wine for your buck.

And how much should we be spending on a bottle of wine at the shops, to get the best value?

In my opinion, the best price range to spend on wines you’ve never tried is £8-£20. Here, especially if you look at more weird and wonderful regions like Eastern Europe, you'll get great value for money. It’s really hard to make good wine for under £8 with duty, packaging, transport, etc. so it’s a big gamble. However, if you’ve tasted wine over £20 and loved it, it’s always going to be worth the money.

The cheat to always getting a good bottle? Have an open conversation with an independent wine merchant. Often they would have tasted every bottle they stock and can choose something to fit your taste buds.

We’ve got one of those little pumps to extract the air from an open bottle; they make wine last forever, correct?

If you reduce the air in the bottle you slow down chemical reactions and the wine will last longer. You can probably extend it by one to three days. Generally, white wine will last longer than red too.

Which countries should we be looking out for on labels for exciting and reasonably priced wine?

The most exciting regions for quality white wine (at a great price point) are the countries along the Danube: think Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia. If you’re a red fan, the smoky Shiraz of India is something truly different and perfect with barbecue food, or you could indulge in Romania’s superb value Pinot Noir. Malbec fans should definitely look at the Tannat coming out of Uruguay for a red meat wine partner.

Looking for bubbly? England is number one nowadays. You can literally buy world-class fizz on your doorstep at Aldwick Estate or have a look at Camel Valley Vineyard, Furleigh Estate and Bolney Wine Estate for some great examples.

Sweet wines? Tokaji in Hungary is pure nectar, the Thai dessert wine from Monsoon Valley is full of crushed red apple cider notes, or indulge in the port-style fortified wines of Quady’s, a unique Californian winery.

If I buy a couple of bottles of red, can I keep them for decades and sell them for loads of money in a fancy auction?

If you’re buying wine from a supermarket, it’s designed to be enjoyed right after you buy it. Ageing these wines for longer than a year or two will only cause you disappointment, whether you try to drink it or sell it. Buying wines to mature and sell is both expensive (you need proper storage conditions) and requires a lot of patience.

I’m a big believer on buying wine to enjoy, so I prefer indie wine merchants who age their wines and release them for sale when they’re ready to drink - doing all the hard work for you!

Some people really love a good slurp at a wine tasting: what's the logic behind it?

Slurping your wine, when it’s done properly, opens up the wine to oxygen so you will taste more. Your best bet is to visit a professional wine tasting and see how to do it, then decide whether you want to go on slurping or just drinking.

What type of wine do you think they are drinking in Game of Thrones?

Aha, good question! Tyrion Lannister is the obvious wine lover, so I reckon he would know his grapes. Perhaps a bottle of ripe Cabernet Reserve from Ukraine? Or a rich, chocolatey Plavac Mali from Croatia (where much of GoT was filmed). Daenerys comes across as a friend of full, brave oaky Chardonnays, or a zingy volcanic-soil Furmint from Hungary. I imagine Jon Snow, deep down, likes a glass of rosé fizz.

Are there any good boxed wines, or does all the good stuff get bottled?

Boxed wine is great for anyone who enjoys a small glass every day and doesn’t want to finish a bottle, as most boxed wine keeps for up to six weeks. The big size also makes it great to use as cooking wine or for parties. The main issue is quality. It’s getting much better and brands like the brilliant When in Rome will give most quality bottled wine a run for its money!

We know people who swear by buying wine that has an animal on the label. (Yeah, bit weird.) What should we actually be looking for on a label?

Wine has a big label problem – most of them look dull. I love the trend for cool, artsy labels but if you know what you like drinking you should look for grape varieties on the label. If you fancy stepping outside your comfort zone, there’s a plethora of ‘if you like this, try this’ suggestions on the net, so you can experiment relatively safely!

Are there any award stickers we should be looking out for when picking up a bottle?

Decanter and IWC are the main ones. Rioja went through a period of slapping on as many award labels as it could glue on the bottle. Thankfully, less weight is given to award labels now. Taste is subjective, so a score will struggle to translate into any real meaning. The best way to know a wine is to taste it yourself.

Will higher quality wines save you from a hangover? (Asking for a friend.)

Unfortunately, even the greatest wine in the world has alcohol in it. Drink in moderation with plenty of water or a delicious meal and you’ll usually be fine. Sometimes lower quality wine will make you feel heavy and dehydrated more quickly as it lacks the acidity to keep the wine fresh. This might leave you worse off but generally it’s the number of glasses you’re enjoying.

Is it still true that red wines match with red meats, and white wines are best with fish?

Not at all! Pinot Noir is known as the ‘sexy grape’ because it sleeps around with all the food types – that includes fish. There are some tricks to bear in mind, though: match salt with acidity (think fizz with fish and chips or a fry up), tannin with juicy foods (Malbec and steak being the classic), and oaky, zingy Chardonnays with cream (white Burgundy and a slab of Brie, anyone?). Nevertheless, the best wine and food pairing is whatever you enjoy drinking.


Interest piqued? There are some great discounts on mixed cases, handpicked by Ben and Gyorgy, at Novel Wines right now!