Wine can be complex but it doesn’t have to be complicated. In my job as a wine expert and sommelier I’ve spent years studying, sniffing, slurping and sipping wine and I’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade - tricks that I’m going to share with you here! While it can all seem a bit puzzling sometimes, remember, wine is really just boozy grape juice (delicious, lovely, boozy grape juice), and it’s there to be enjoyed!
Here are my top tips on how to fake it like a pro and get the best out of those bottles.
1. How to order wine in a restaurant
Talk to your wine waiter! In a very British way we seem to be embarrassed about asking the somm for recommendations - even though that is literally what they are there for. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about - sommeliers have barrels of knowledge and love nothing more than to guide you to something you’ll love. They work hard to curate lists they’re super proud of and you’ll make their day if you let them show off some of their favourites. Give them your budget, they’re out to show you a good time, not to grab your money, so no-one’s going to judge if you’re at the lower end of the list - and that’s where a lot of the cool wines from interesting places are.
2. How to describe what you like (hint: you know more than you think!)
So you may not be familiar with the usual wine lingo, and if descriptions like ‘minerality’, ‘acidity’ and ‘tannic’ baffle you, don’t worry! There’s this misconception that you have to be an expert to talk about wine, but no one thinks they need to be a chef to say what food they like. So just think of other flavours you’re familiar with - if you know you prefer light and fruity cocktails over dark and powerful ones, or if you can’t get enough of black coffee and rich chocolate - all of this tells us a lot about the what wines you’ll enjoy. If you love lapsang souchong tea then you’ll love smoky, oaked wine and we can make recommendations based on that. The fun is in going out and trying new things!
3. Tasting in a restaurant and not looking like a twat
There’s a good reason for the seemingly bizarre ritual of tasting at the table, and it’s not to see if you actually like the wine, it’s to check that:
a) it’s the wine you asked for (imagine being poured and charged for a £200 bottle rather than the £20 bottle because the sommelier misheard you) and,
b) that you’re happy it’s free of faults like cork taint (a bacterial infection that causes a foul funk, a bit like mouldy cardboard or a damp cellar - gross).
Don’t worry about needing to be an expert - basically if you take a sniff and it smells like something you wanna drink - then it’s good! If it smells weird and you’re not sure, then ask your somm to check it for you. We’ve all seen that Michael McIntyre sketch and it’s hilarious, but really, do you want a stranger sticking their nose in your glass or would you rather check it yourself?
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4. Get to know your local indie wine shop
Independent bottle shops are great places to hang out - like a kid in a candy shop, but for adults! They have far more interesting and delicious wines than the supermarket so you’ll get more bang for your buck, and the team inside will know their stuff and love to make recommendations. They can even choose you a wine based on the occasion you need it for, arming you with the best wines to take to that cool party, that romantic meal, or score brownie points with the inlaws.
5. Why you should never spend less than a tenner
You don’t have to spend a fortune, but you should spend a bit. The winemaking process is an art form and buying from great producers is so much better than mass-made, factory processed plonk - you deserve better than that! Because of the economics of Duty, spending a little extra goes a long way; £2.17 of every single bottle, be it £10 or £100, goes to duty. When you add things like packaging, transport and retail margins on top, if you’re buying wine for a fiver, more than £4 of that is used up on duty & logistics, leaving less than £1 worth of wine inside the bottle.
Now let’s say you spend £10. It’s still the same £4 going to duty and logistics, but now £6 of the cost is going on the juice. You’ve increased the amount you’re spending only by a few quid, yet you’ve increased the value that goes to the quality of the juice by x 6! That’s some math I can get on board with.
I encourage spending between £10 and £25 for that sweet spot of interesting bottles. The £11 - £15 bracket is heaving with interesting regions and varieties, and you can grab some really tasty bottles for £25. My motto is, spend a little, taste a lot!
6. House wine is fine!
Don’t be shy about ordering the house wine if you’re on a budget - any pleasure from the taste of a pricier bottle will be overshadowed by guilt at spending more than you can afford, and no one wants that. A good restaurant will pour as much pride into the first wine on the list as the last. The house wine will also usually be a great crowd pleaser - medium-bodied, well rounded and set to work with either food or without. If you’re starting to get interested in wine and you’re going to enjoy spending a bit more then go for it and have fun, but never be made to feel like you should spend more than you wanted to.
7. How to make wine taste even better
You know how winos (that’s the technical term for a wine expert) love swirling their glasses around? Well, it’s not *just* because it looks good. Wine is made up of hundreds of aroma compounds, and getting air in there releases all those compounds and brings the aromas to life. A lot of the joy of taste actually comes from the smell, processed by our olfactory senses and perceived as ‘flavour’. So get your swirl on, girl!
Aerating your wine is an easy way to bring it to life so experiment with decanting at home - almost all red wines taste better decanted - it doesn’t have to be a fancy bottle - try it on your supermarket wine and watch it blossom into a luxurious tasting treat. You can make a cheap and cheerful wine taste amazing in a simple step! (Psst - if you don’t have a decanter, you can also whizz red wine in a blender for 5 seconds, just don’t tell the wine snobs I told you so!)
8. How to find wines you love
Get involved and taste lots! Find restaurants with a loads of different wines available ‘by the glass’ and set yourself a challenge of trying a different one each time. It’s a great way to get your palate used to all the different flavours and before long you’ll start to pick up on what you like. Be adventurous and get out your of comfort zone - in a wine shop, tell the owner what you usually drink and then get them to suggest something new, so if you usually drink Chardonnay you might find you love Chenin Blanc. And take photos of the bottles you’ve loved so you can remember them later!
9. How to make a your wine last all week
Bag-in-box wine is back! Don’t knock it, what was once cheap ‘two buck chuck’ from the depths of the supermarket is now back in fashion with a force, and it’s good! Top producers are choosing to package their quality wines in a way that’s more eco-friendly, with the added benefit that, as these bags don’t allow air to get inside the box, the wine won’t spoil after a few days like bottles will, so you can keep it for weeks (if you can make it last that long). A lot of them are magnum formats too, so they’re great value as well as being eco-friendly and better for our naughty binge habits
And finally, my biggest wine hack of all is to chill out, enjoy it, and don’t take things too seriously! It’s just alcoholic fruit juice after all, and more often than not it comes down to who you’re with, where you are and what you’re doing. The biggest rule is to have fun.