When you’re shopping for wine, there are a lot of mistakes you can make. Picking a wine by its label or bottle-shape, forgetting what food you are pairing with, and paying too much (or too little!) is all too easy. Luckily, picking great value wine doesn’t have to be difficult, and it’s certainly a skill that can be learned. To help you on your wine journey, here are five mistakes to avoid when buying wine.
- Paying too much (or too little!)
- Avoiding corks
- Paying for the brand, not the wine
- Forgetting food
- Not considering the recipient
You want to avoid the "bargain basement" wine which is of poor quality, but you also don’t want to pay through the nose for quality wine. This balancing act can lead to cheapskates (like me!) paying too little to get anything of substance, or those with deep pockets (not me!) overpaying to “ensure” they get something reasonable.
The trouble is, with a product like wine, since the product is hidden in the bottle, many people will use price as an indicator of quality. Winemakers and marketers know this, and will often price "to perception" rather than the cost of the product, or its quality. I remember at my university economics course learning that wine is one of the few products where in many cases, raising the price actually increases sales, rather than decreasing it! Such is the consumer’s perception that higher price equals higher quality.
So, how do you know whether what you’re paying is fair, or you’re being taken for a ride?
This is the approach I take, which may help you and won’t blow your budget.
No matter how small your wine collection is, you need to divide it into two: sound, modestly-priced wines for daily drinking, and better wines to keep. Wines in this second group needn’t cost the earth, but should be ones that are delicious to your palate and will improve in the bottle and give you great satisfaction when you open them after a few years.
The only way to be sure about any bottle is to try it. So, I’ll dedicate a morning to looking at say 2 large wine shops like Dan Murphy or Nick’s, and a couple of smaller "boutique" shops, and buy single bottles in each category, which I’ll then open together and compare.
It’s a good idea to make notes as you go because no-one’s memory is perfect. These days, you can dictate these into your phone in audio form or do on-the-fly voice-typing.
A couple of ideas for daily-drinking wines:
Aldi always has reasonable quality specials in most categories. Spanish reds can be both cheap and delicious. See if you can find bottles from The Rioja (pronounced “riocca”) or the Algave. Some French whites can be wonderful value. Try Vouvray from the Loire Valley and the rose wines of Provence and Languedoc. Don’t buy "no-name" wines. They’re almost always disappointing. Buy less popular varieties like Riesling and Grenache. Look at wines from less popular areas like Great Southern and Gippsland.
All wines bought in very small wine shops will carry a higher price-beware of over-enthusiastic merchants!
A couple of ideas for "keepers":
Start with the less expensive wines from premium makers. A great example is Torbreck "Woodcutters" Shiraz-from a fine house and a bargain.Have a look on line at Penfolds, Clonakilla, Oakridge, Helen’s Hill, Vasse Felix and Bowen Estate to get you started. Consult a reliable merchant like Bocaccio Cellars - big enough to have a broad range of choice but small enough to pay you some attention.
Compare wines from your "daily" and your "keeper" lists regularly. This will help you begin to recognise the styles of wine you like. Booming Barossas aren’t for everyone. If you really take a fancy to something, buy a box and leave it for five years!
You’ll soon develop your own sense of value and taste preferences. If you have the same go-to wines all the time, you’ll miss a lot of the fun.
When the screw cap was introduced in the 1970s, not many serious wine drinkers were interested.
Now, the vast bulk of wine in Australia is screw-capped, including Henschke Hill of Grace. Even Penfolds Grange is experimenting with them.
But there are still many fine winemakers both in Australia and overseas that use cork. In France, you can’t buy a serious Burgundy or Bordeaux that doesn’t have a cork closure.
We tend now to think of cork as old-fashioned and we dismiss it - wrong! Modern corks survive well for 50+ years, so if you see an attractive wine that has a cork, buy it.
Once any product becomes popular, makers raise their prices. That’s just how business works. This is why a bottle of champagne will almost always sell for more than a bottle of sparkling wine, although they are within the same broad category. No doubt, you would expect more from sparkling wine from the Champagne region - but it carries a price premium.
This works on an individual brand level as well. Certain brands will carry a price premium because they are widely known to make excellent wine in general.
This provides an opportunity for the savvy buyer: if your budget doesn’t stretch to a Burgundy red, then perhaps try a Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley. If you can’t afford sparkling wines from Champagne, try Prosecco. You get the idea.
A common mistake is buying a great bottle of wine without taking into account the context in how that wine will be enjoyed: specifically, with what food. You can buy the most wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, but it won’t be a great pairing with the delicate fish you have cooked.
Whatever wine you buy, consider what you are cooking and how the two coexist. Done well, they should build on each other.
Is the wine for you? If so, great, buy the wine you like best. But if not, consider who you are buying for. Think about:
- Their level of wine experience
- Their tastes and preferences
- What food they will serve
For example, if you are bringing wine to a dinner party where everything has a high level of wine knowledge, you’ll want to impress. Get that bottle of Penfolds St Henri or Bin 707. But if your audience doesn’t have a high level of wine knowledge, it might be best to ensure what you bring is easier to drink and a bit less intimidating.
If your wine is bought as a gift, then you can let your personality shine! Use your knowledge of wine and your recipient to craft the perfect, thoughtful gift. Done well, you will make a strong impression.
If you take these principles on board, you’ll be well on your way to success, as long as you’re systematic in getting out and looking, and you assess your cellar regularly. The wine industry can be big, noisy and often hard to follow, but here at Wild Fire Wines we will help you through it. Based in the Yarra Valley, our principles will never change: quality, fun, fair dealing first and "business" second!