Enjoy Life... With Some Good Wine!
- A Quick Guide to Wine
- Some wines that we like:
A Quick Guide to Wine
If you are already well into wine (in a general sense, I hasten to add!), please skip this bit!
If you need a quick introduction to grapes, wine types etc. then I recommend the links that you will find here.
The next question is usually: "How much do I have to spend to get a good bottle of wine?"
In stores or supermarkets in the UK, the first £4 or so that you spend on a bottle of wine is buying nothing much except the glass, the cost of production and distribution and some revenue for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Don't expect much from the wine inside the bottle at this price, except maybe a cracking headache!
Between £4 and £7 the quality of the wine increases rapidly, and you can get some very nice wine as you approach the top end of this range, especially white wine and wine for everyday drinking (Waitrose, our favourite wine supermarket, is still offering some very nice own-brand wines for £4.99 in 2017, remarkable value).
Between £7 and £12 the quality of the wine is still increasing, but not quite so rapidly. You can get a very decent wine of any type at the lower end of this range, and some very good wine indeed at the upper end.
As you climb above £12 (and we hardly ever do, unless it's for some very special occasion), then you are still getting better quality, but the law of diminishing returns has set in. You are also soon outside the region on which I have an advice to offer!
I have found that much the same advice applies in the USA also, translating the prices above at something like £1 = $1.70 (an exchange rate purely for the purposes of this guide).
The guideline prices above are still current in 2017, and are just a rough indication - but wine prices have been remarkably stable for some years now.
In restaurants, "house wines" are the ones they sell most of and are often very good, and the markup in price relative to buying the same wine in a store is quite modest. For their other wines, a markup of about 100% in price is quite common. I don't object to this too much - they have to get their income from somewhere - but it's useful to know when thinking about the quality of wine to expect for the price.
It used to be that France was the place for wine (the only place, from the French point of view), but the French got complacent and found themselves out-manoeuvred by improved wine growing techniques in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and the USA, among other places.
Luckily for them (and for us) the French swallowed their pride (to the extent of disguising some of their bottles with New World style labels) and are catching up again. (I love France and the French, by the way - don't get the wrong idea!)
Wine gets various official marks of quality, or "appellations", for example in Italy you have DOC and DOCG. You can find a good summary of all these appellations here. The flip side is that as soon as a bottle of wine has one of the higher appellations, you are paying something extra just for that fact. If you are buying from somewhere reputable, and you are looking at two bottles of the same price, one with an appellation and one without, you may find that the one without is of better quality!
Having said all this, you'll soon discover for yourself what you like and don't like - and that matters more than anything.
Good wine is not booze (although some sad people treat it that way), but it is alcoholic. (Non-alcoholic wine does exist, and may make a nice drink, but I don't drink enough of it to offer any advice!)
Wine with 11% alcohol by volume (alcohol content should be marked on the label) is relatively light. A good white wine is usually 12% or more.
Wine above 13% is quite strong - normally red wines, but white wines recently are increasingly in this category, due to growing conditions (and maybe also due to new techniques). Some strong white wines among our favourites taste deceptively light and you find yourself drinking an awful lot of it - watch out, is all I'm saying!
In many parts of continental Europe, parents introduce their children quite young to wine, just a small amount, often diluted with water. And guess what, these are the places where you don't find rowdy youngsters, smashed out of their minds, roaming the streets and making life a misery for others (and themselves, I suspect)!
A glass of red wine a day is generally acknowledged to be positively good for your heart, and the medical profession keeps discovering new reasons why all forms of wine, taken in moderation, have other health benefits. As with so many other things in life, "a little of what you fancy does you good". There is plenty of wine health advice out there, including 15 Health Benefits of Wine, According to Science (+6 Delicious Recipes).
One last suggestion: when drinking wine, drink at least twice as much plain (not sparkling) water as you go along, if you want to stop yourself becoming dehydrated. Wine that isn't sweet (it isn't sweet because almost all the sugar has been converted to alcohol) is often called "dry", and that seems to be the effect it has when you drink it!
Some Wines That We Like
These are just some of our family's personal preferences (and a handy place for me to remember some good finds).
My wife and I drink mostly white or rosé wines. I also enjoy an occasional red - sadly there is something in these (tannins, I suspect) that my wife now reacts badly to.
- Please note...
- Prices should be taken only as comparative indications. Prices without dates were current in 2009, although most wine prices in the following lists have not risen by more than a pound or two since then.
- I may update all the prices in the future if the discrepancies become too large. Meanwhile, please follow the links provided if you want to find current prices.
For white wines, we tend to go for crisp, dry wines with a slight "zing" to them.
The grape varieties we drink most often are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Cortese (from Gavi) or a mix of Sémillon and Chardonnay (but usually not pure Sémillon or pure Chardonnay, although at least one good exception is noted below).
If we are out in an Italian restaurant, our favourite white wine from their list will often turn out to be a Gavi di Gavi. If it's a really good one, the restaurant may charge something over £20 for it... ouch! But if your meal for two people is costing several times that, then believe me, it's worth it.
The best white wine I can remember having in a restaurant was an Australian wine (not a Chardonnay) with the label Wildflower Ridge. All I can tell you is that the wine lived up perfectly to its label's image. If, like me, you want to try to track it down, you could start here.
Some of our favourite white wines are:
- Waitrose Italian Dry White Crisp and Floral
- Wonderful value at £4.99 (2017), and its label says exactly what it is.
- Similar in taste to our favourite Torres Viña Esmeralda (see below) but with a less intense flavour.
- Waitrose Touraine Sauvignon Blanc
(now relabelled "Champteloup Touraine Sauvignon Blanc")
- A great wine from France. You can buy it in the Waitrose store at about £9 a bottle (2017),
sometimes on special offer (which is when we buy it) for considerably less. It's great
for drinking any time, and slips down very easily (too easily, sometimes!).
Note that Waitrose are now obtaining the same wine via a different supplier, hence the change of label.
- Ramírez de Velazco Torrontes
- Another great all-purpose drinking wine from Argentina, available from Laithwaites or from these places, at about £5 a bottle.
- Wolf Blass Eaglehawk Chardonnay
- So far, this is the only pure Chardonnay that we really like - but it is already one of our favourites, crisp and dry with melon and peach flavours, and not too much oak.
- A good description (and price if you're in the UK) will be found here.
- Around £6 a bottle, depending on offers - look for it here.
- Karri Oak Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc
- A very nice fresh wine with a taste of passionfruit, pineapple and hints of lime - good on its own or with seafood. About £7 a bottle.
- Torres Viña Esmeralda
- A beautifully fragrant, versatile wine from the Penedès wine-making region of Catalonia in Northeast Spain, for about £8 to £9 a bottle in 2017 (sometimes cheaper on special offer).
- Available from Waitrose and elsewhere.
- Laurent Miquel 2011 Vendanges Nocturnes Viognier
- A really nice Viognier, for between £8 and £9 (in 2017) - really worth buying lots of when on special offer.
- Available from Waitrose and elsewhere.
- Ned Sauvignon Blanc, Waihopai River
- A beautiful Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which is in the same class as the Torres Viña Esmeralda described above, perhaps with even better quality. Although it's a different grape variety, these different wines are somehow reminiscent of each other.
- Available from Waitrose and from these place. In April-May 2010 Waitrose had it on special offer for about £6.50, normally it's around £9 or £10. If you see a special offer, I recommend buying as much as you can afford!
- Lawsons Dry Hills Pinot Gris (Marlborough, New Zealand)
- This more expensive wine (about £12 a bottle) is worth every penny of the price for a special occasion.
- The taste is complex, described by Enotria as "unmistakably Pinot Gris with pear, orange, subtle vanilla and cinnamon aromas".
- We discovered it at Fat Olives, a great restaurant in Emsworth, Havant, on the south coast of England, who get it from Enotria (see link above).
- For other places to find this wine, see here.
- Siddura Spera Vermentino di Gallura DOCG (new Oct 2017)
- I discovered this very drinkable Sardinian wine, made with the Vermentino grape, in 2017 at a community wine-tasting.
- The official tasting notes describe it accurately as: “straw yellow, fine and intense with delicate citrus flavours giving a freshness and scent of the Med. Perfect aperitif.” I would add that the taste is unique among white wines that I have tried, and unexpectedly complex.
- Around £12, and worth every penny.
- Chester Gap Cellars Viognier
- I came across this excellent Virginia wine when dining at L'Étoile in Charlottesville (a restaurant that has sadly since closed, being replaced by a catering enterprise).
- The wine is accurately described as having "lemon and subtle peach aromas with a creamy finish" and the 2009 bottle had a slightly "frizzante" tingle to it.
- The 2009 bottle that I had a glass from was also very strong - 14.6% alcohol by volume.
- In 2011 it cost about $18 a bottle in a Charlottesville wine shop. I am told that the Chester Gap Cellars winery is well worth visiting.
- Minaia Gavi di Gavi, Nicola Bergaglio
- Simply the best Gavi we have ever tasted (so far). It was served to us in the Flying Horse Restaurant, Clophill (also highly recommended, having returned to form after something of a down patch a while ago).
- For other places to find this wine, see here.
- About £13 at the end of 2017, and worth every penny!
Sparkling Wines & Rosé Wines
I lump these two together because for us these two categories often come to the same thing!
Rosé wines seem to have gained greatly in quality and popularity over the last few years. We hardly ever used to drink rosé wines; now, they are among our favourites. We tend to go for the dry-ish ones.
(If you are interested in knowing how rosé wines are made and how they are changing, look here).
For sparkling wines, we avoid Champagne, because you are paying for the name rather than the drink, and choose one of many good alternatives.
A sparkling wine that it is made properly will still be fizzy the morning after you drink it, without a cork or bung, whereas a wine pumped with carbon dioxide won't.
Having said that, should you open a bottle of sparkling wine and have any of it left to keep, you can get a nifty clip-on top that will preserve the fizz even better (for still wine, a vacuum plug keeps the wine fresh for many days, but such a plug won't work with a fizzy wine).
Some of our favourite wines in this category (rosé and/or sparkling) are:
Still rosé wines:
- A a number of our favourites are no longer available, and have been removed from the following list.
- We particularly like the French Provençale rosé wines, which currently do not feature below - hopefully they will in a future update! You should expect to pay around £9 or more in a store for a good one, but as with many wines they are often avaiable for less as special offers.
- Fetzer Valley Oaks Syrah Rosé California, USA
- A dark cherry-coloured wine made from Syrah (Shiraz) grapes, with strawberry and raspberry flavours but still dry-ish, and quite strong at 13.5%. Very easy to drink, like most of these wines!
- Available from Waitrose and other places, about £6 a bottle, less with special offers.
- Marquesa de la Cruz Garnacha Rosé
- One of our favourite rosés, 14% but easy to drink. Available from Waitrose and elsewhere, about £7.50 a bottle (2012), worth stocking up on plentifully when there is a special offer!
- (Note that the wines above are listed approximately in order of increasing depth of colour and "weight".)
- Tommasi Chiaretto Bardolino Classico
- A very nice, dry rosé wine which is served (among other places) at one of the best pub restaurants in England, The Black Horse (in a village confusingly called Ireland, near Bedford, Luton and Hitchin).
- Jacob's Creek Sparkling Rosé
- One of our favourite sparkling wines. Around £9 a bottle full price, but we buy it much lower than that when there is a special offer at Waitrose or at one of these places.
- Montana Lindauer Special Select Brut, New Zealand
- This is one of our top favourite alternatives to Champagne, available from Waitrose and other places. We keep it for special occasions or when we especially need cheering up. It costs in the region of £9 to £10, but there are times (like Christmas, but other times of year also) when it appears on special offer - if you see one of those offers, take full advantage!
- Prosecco San Leo Brut
- We really like Prosecco, a light sparkling white that makes a perfect apéritif. This Italian gem is one of our absolute favourites, costing around £10 in 2017, available from Waitrose and elsewhere. Worth buying a lot of when there's a special offer!
Wines That Go Well With Pasta
This is a separate category, simply because it's a combination we use so often!
For whites, we often drink any of our all-purpose white wines, or wines from Orvieto or Soave. For reds, I like wines made with the Sangiovese or Montepulciano grapes. My sister, the Italy expert, says that if you can find a Montepulciano (grape) from Montepulciano (place) this is a "Montepulciano di Montepulciano", and you should go for it! The bad news is, the Italians like it so much that they kind of hide it from everyone else...If you are looking for a wine that goes with pasta (or goes with anything else) then a good place to look is here.
Red wines that go with pasta (which are the kind I drink most often) are covered in the previous section.
For “non-pasta” reds, my personal preference is often for wines made from Shiraz or Merlot grapes, and these will often be from Chile, Australia, New Zealand or the USA - but there are plenty of other good sources.
Here are some of my favourite red wines:
- Waitrose Mellow and Fruity Spanish Red
- Wonderful value at £4.99 (2017), and its label says exactly what it is.
- An all-purpose easy drinking wine that also goes well with pasta, and so could be included in the previous section.
- Melini Chianti Pian Del Masso
- A soft, very pleasant Chianti, described accurately as: "Violets and red fruits on this nose of this traditional red wine. Very fruity on the palate with cherry-strawberry and cranberry fruit flavours to go with savoury spices."
- Goes well with pasta (Chianti is made with the Sangiovese grape), so could also be included in the previous section. Easy to drink with a wide variety of foods, or on its own.
- Around £7 a bottle, available from Waitrose and other places.
- Finca Muñoz Family Reserve
- A smooth, velvety Spanish red from Castilla in central La Mancha (Don Quixote country), great with rich meat dishes or barbecues. Described accurately as "Unusually dark, old-vine colour with ripe aromas of bramble and plum followed by richly textured damson, black cherry and raspberry flavours and a smooth, sweet-oaky finish."
- Available from Laithwaites and elsewhere, about £6.50 per bottle - in my opinion this is great value for this quality of wine.
- You will find more information and places to buy it here.
- Baron Philippe de Rothschild Syrah Vin de Pays d'Oc
- A smooth, velvety Syrah (Shiraz) from the great Baron, one of my favourite wines.
- "Complex, very ripe black cherry and plum flavours and a touch of spice."
- This was super value at £6.50, when we bought it in late 2009 from the wine shop at one the Baron's estates, Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire (which is also one of the most attractive National Trust properties in England).
- You may also be able to find it at one of these places.
- The "Vin de Pays" classification is a lower classification that VDQS and AOC, but is an example of how wine-making has moved on in France.
- The supposedly "higher" classifications severely limit the grape varieties that can be used, and the demand for varieties such as Syrah has resulted in much higher quality wine being produced under the Vin de Pays classification, to which the Vin de Pays d'Oc region is probably the major contributor.
- The advantage of a good Vin de Pays, compared to "higher" classifications, is that you are paying more for the wine and less for the classification!
- More on classifications or "appellations" here in my quick guide to wine.
- Apothic Red (new Oct 2017)
- This is a very drinkable and popular American blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah (Shiraz) and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and very reasonably priced (around £8 or less in 2017) from many outlets.
- Its taste is described accurately as “layers of dark red fruit complemented by hints of vanilla and mocha”.
- Goes well with robust-flavoured food, or I'm perfectly happy to drink it on its own.
- Girasole Vineyards Pinot Noir
- My friend from StumbleUpon days, Sandy, is obviously very fond of this one! She writes:
- "Being a red wine lover, one of my favorite reds is an Organic Pinot Noir bottled by Girasole Vineyards of Mendocino, California. ( jeer-a-so-lay) This wine is certified Organic, has less sulfites to benefit us with sensitivities, and it has plenty of fruity flavors with a nice balanced tannins for a long delectable finish."
- Around $13-$15 a bottle, depending where you buy it - more information will be found here.
- Our Daily Red
- Here is another one from Sandy:
- "I foung a new Organic Wine to add to your Wine list. It's a California Organic Red Wine, with 'NO SULFITES'...yes, can you believe it? The name is Our Daily Red. I accidently found it a month ago in a small Gourmet store. Price is excellent and the taste, .....ahhhhh, ......it's smooth and actually a fabulous finish. No headaches or after tastes either."
- You will find more information on this wine here. It looks like you should be able to get this one for $9 or less a bottle.
- I look forward to being able to update Sandy's recommendations with some personal tasting notes!
- Torres Sangre de Toro (Bull's Blood)
- A soft red wine with rich aromas from the Penedès wine-making region of Catalonia in Northeast Spain, very nice with roast dishes, about £9 a bottle.
- Siddura Èrema Isola del Nuraghi IGT (new Oct 2017)
- I discovered this very drinkable Sardinian wine, made with a blend of 85% Cannonau (Grenache) and 15% Cagnulari grapes, in 2017 at a community wine-tasting.
- The official tasting notes describe it accurately as: “Fine and intense with delicate wild berries and cherries”.
- I would be happy to drink this on its own, or with any dish (including pasta) that has a reasonably robust flavour.
- Over-priced (but only from my point of view) at around £18 - if you can buy it for less, go for it!
- This is the least restrictive Italian classification for wines, although (as with the French equivalent) some really excellent wines can be found with this classification.
- See information on DOCG, DOC and IGT.
- HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
- I had a glass of this expensive and wonderful wine at Vino Volo's Wine Room at Washington's Dulles Airport. It was described as "...a supple Cabernet with blackberry, vanilla, slate and a hint of cola that blend with silky tannins. A finish of mission figs, nutmeg and plums."
- If you are looking for a wine that really is worth $30 to $40 a bottle, try this one!
- When I next visit California, as I shall certainly do some day, I plan to visit the HALL St. Helena winery. It looks like a great place, for several reasons!