Always buy the cheapest wine. No, really. Buy the cheapest, and see how it goes. There's no magic wand at which £20 or £30 can be thrown to be guaranteed an amazing wine experience - so let's start at the bottom of the bottom, work our way up, and see how we can maximise a measly £4.99 - this isn't a guide to the world's finest wines. It takes years of drinking and/or study to be able to really tell the difference in quality between two bottles, and the more expensive the bottle, the smaller the improvement in quality. Stay cheap for now.
But before you just chuck the world's worst bottle into your basket or trolley, here is the first of a series of short articles on becoming a wine expert. Most of us (even experts!) buy wine by the label, and don't have a clue what it will actually taste like before popping the cork. The label however often contains information that help get a good idea of what the wine might taste like, but before we dive in to understanding the characteristics of a wine, let's take a look at what information you can glean from a label before buying or drinking the wine. Labels can tell us many many things, but here are the top 9, in order what you probably notice first:
1. The colour. Colour is what pops out first from the shelf, which is a shame because colour has absolutely NOTHING to do with quality - whites, reds, and rosés are separate but equal. White is not better than red, rosé is not better than white. Dark rosé is not better than light red or yellow-white. Sometimes, it can tell us a lot about the grapes, the style of winemaking, even the business plan of the winery. Traditionally, red wine is drunk with red meat, white wine with fish, and rosé with both, so if you're planning on drinking with your meal, buy accordingly - otherwise, ignore the colour. Myths about one kind giving headaches are just that. Part 2 is a crash course on choosing the colour.
2. The country. France is not the best. There, I've said it. There are great wines made in every country, and there are awful wines in even the most prestigious of winemaking areas. The country can tell us many things, but not the 'quality' - there's no shame or cheapness in buying from an obscure country like Bulgaria or Uruguay rather than France or Italy. Typically, countries are divided into two categories:
a. Those from California or Southern Hemisphere countries (look at a map) like Australia or South Africa. These countries are called New World. See, that already sounds fancier. These have a relatively recent history of winemaking, and often have a recognisable style, generally having a bolder, riper, more fruit-forward approach. Wines are typically innovative rather than traditional.
b. Those from France, Italy, Spain or other European countries, called Old World countries. As a very general rule, they tend to be more restrained in flavour, and have long-established styles, without the innovativeness of new world regions that have had to recently start from scratch. They often go for tradition over innovation.
3. The grape variety. Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon all the way to Negru de Drăgășani. Let's skip this for now, and come back to it later - let's leave it "a word that probably sounds vaguely French". It's very important, but is far too complex for now, and most importantly, shouldn't matter at this price point. It's the characteristic most people choose cheap wine for, but anything under £10 will be chosen by price rather than expression of the grape variety.
4. The year or vintage. Whatever you've heard, there are no 'good' or 'bad' years, especially at a low price point, and older/newer is not necessarily better. Most inexpensive wines will be from quite recent years. Again, let's ignore it for now - it shouldn't change the way we buy the wine at this price point. Anything under £10-15 will be a fairly controlled product where vintage characteristics are smoothed over by meticulous winemaking.
5. The alcohol. Unless you're looking to get absolutely smashed for the lowest cost (in which case why are you reading this?), this actually doesn’t matter at all. The vast majority of wines will be between 12% and 14%, which isn't much of a difference - and some wines will taste more alcoholic than others, regardless of actual levels. We don't care about this, unless it's either:
a. Very low, below 10%, in which case it's either from a very cold climate, or the yeast did not convert all the sugar into alcohol during fermentation. In this case, it's probably a little sweet, or in fancy wine terms, off-dry. Some wines will specify the sweetness on the label, but for now let's stick to dry wines with no sugar. Before climate change, low alcohol was more common as the grapes didn't ripen in cool weather.
b. Very high, above 16%, in which case it's either from an awfully hot climate (maybe some reds from Australia or California, but even so quite rarely), or (more likely), it's regular wine to which (distilled) alcohol has been added. These are called fortified wines. Famous fortified wines are sherry and port, from Spain and Portugal respectively. They're a little out of fashion at the moment, but are absolutely delicious, and their lack of popularity makes them surprisingly cheap. (note: if you do want to get smashed for the lowest cost, Tesco own-brand port is actually cheaper than Smirnoff per unit of alcohol)
6. The region, or appellation. Within a country, wines come from different areas. You've probably heard of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, Napa Valley, Sonoma, or even Champagne. These tell you a lot about a wine, as different regions make different styles and grow different grapes. In many countries (including the EU), wines that advertise provenance from a region are legally obligated to follow certain guidelines and rules - in Europe these are called AOP and IGP. If you're looking for a consistent style, the appellation is a good guide as the rules are quite strict. That being said, at £5-10, the variety of appellations/regions is close to zero, and the rules very lax. We'll come back to them later.
7. The sub-region. I lied about regions. You'll only rarely find 'Bordeaux AOP' wine or 'Burgundy AOP', those regions are far too big to have just one appellation. There are thousands of these minor appellations – a bottle can say Chablis AOP or Volnay AOP and still be from Burgundy, just a more or less specific part of Burgundy. These sub-regions or appellations sometimes indicate vast differences in flavour and wine style, and it's important to learn the most common. As a rule, the more specific the sub-region, the more expensive the wine - so don't expect too many of these at £5.
8. The brand - we've all heard of big famous wineries, and sometimes there's no harm in having a 'favourite' vineyard whose wines we love and repeatedly buy. Famous brands probably have quality and consistency, but command a large premium because of it, potentially offering But life is too short to eat or drink the same every time - so I would recommend trying something new every time and learning from it, even if it ends up being a mistake.
9. The label itself - is it colourful and fun, or monochromatic and responsible-looking? I often do tastings to see whether the wine inside matches the style of the label - most of the time, they do!
Two bonus points
10. The company that actually bottled the wine. For French wine, the label might say something like "Bottled by EMB66300". EMB66300 is the anonymised name of the company that actually put the wine in bottle - if it was bottled in France. The first two numbers tell you where in France this was, which can be useful - especially if this doesn't match the region the wine purports to be from!
11. The language the label is in. Be wary of anything that isn't in the native language of the country the wine is from.
There's a ton of other things to look out for (the shape of the bottle, the type of cork, the name of the cuvee, and possibly the price), but let's wait until we're experts for those.