A Beginner's Guide to Choosing Wine

There's never been a better time to start discovering wines. The quality of winemaking is improving around the world. Now is the time to experiment, and to try new styles and blends.

A Beginner's Guide to Choosing Wine

What are the variables to think about when choosing a quality wine?

Colour

Red or white, of course. Don't forget rosé - sales are booming year round.

Climate

If you are shopping for wines from warm countries then you'll often find the words 'cool climate' on the back label. Cool climate wines will be more aromatic and taste fresher.

Style

Choose between the clear, pure fruit of an un-oaked wine (e.g. Te Henga Unoaked Chardonnay), or the complex character of a wine from a blend of varieties and matured in oak barrels (e.g Chateau Leboscq).

Vintage

Look for the youngest vintage if you are buying a young fruity white wine. Red wines aged in oak barriques will be sold with 2 or more years' age.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON A WINE LABEL

What you will find: Quality mark: DoC, DoCa, DOCG, DO, AC: there are a selection of letters which indicate a basic quality

Vintage: Non-vintage (NV) champagnes and sparklings are the exception to the rule that the year of harvest is shown on the bottle. They are blended to produce a consistent NV house style. Most other wines show the vintage.

Alcohol: As wines are getting more and more alcoholic with better winemaking and warmer summers, take a look to check the strength of the wine in your glass.

What you won't find Grape variety: many wines from the classic regions in Europe do not reveal their grapes. You will have to know that Chablis is made from Chardonnay and Rioja is made mainly from Tempranillo.

A sweetness guide: Germany has the one real system for indicating the sweetness levels of its wines: Spatlese, Beerenauslese and more. For the rest you will have to know the region or hope that there is a back label indicator. A deep gold colour in a white wine gives a clue to sweetness.

HOW IMPORTANT IS PRICE?

In the UK, the tax and duty on the wine is the same, whatever the price. So the more you pay, the greater the value of the wine in the bottle. A £6.99 wine will have much more character than a £3.99 wine.

Some high priced wines are not quite what they seem. They may be sold at £6.99 in order to be 'discounted' to £4.99 a month later.

Don't forget fair-trade wines. You may want to spend a little extra to support fair-trade wineries in countries ranging from South Africa to Chile and Argentina.

HOW TO TASTE WINE

Use a clean glass with a tulip shaped bowl (ISO tasting glasses are ideal). Fill the glass only one third full - this way the flavours can develop in the glasses, and you won't spill any.

Tilt the glass and look at the colour. Is it clear? Are there bubbles? Lift the glass to your nose and give it a good sniff. Then give the glass a good swirl to aerate it and give it another good sniff. It's a simple procedure - there's no need to be showy. Just don't spill wine as you swirl it. What does it smell like? (Domaine Capairou Viognier: exotic fruit; Tarapaca Cabernet Sauvignon: eucalyptus and mint)

Now take a mouthful of the wine. Professionals like to slurp it, sucking the wine through the teeth. As you taste it think about the freshness and any acid flavours, tannins, that gritty feeling on the gums; the way it fills the mouth, is it full-bodied or light; the style of the fruit, raspberries, cherries, raisins; any spicy or vanilla notes from oak. Finally a sign of a good wine is how long the flavours linger in the mouth after you have swallowed (or spat it out like a professional at a tasting). Think about how intense the flavours are now, and how complex the range of flavours is in your mouth. Finally, is it balanced? Do all these elements add up to a delicious mouthful?

It seems like a lot to think about in a matter of seconds, but it becomes easy with practice. If you are interested in learning more about tasting, why not sign up for a wine course? Look at the small ads in wine or food magazines, or go to the people who train the professionals: www.wset.co.uk.