I know that picking wine can seem intimidating, especially if you're just getting started! We've all been sat at a party or in a restaurant with that person who thinks that they know everything about wine (yep, that was probably me - sorry pals!). They talk about vintages, bottle and barrel ageing, describe the aromas and use lots of French words (that was probably me again, sorry...) You nod, and pretend to know what they're talking about whilst you sip the wine that you chose because the label was funky and it was on offer.
Now, I am absolutely here for picking wine based on pretty bottles, but it's fun to have a bit of extra knowledge about what's inside the bottle too. We are, by nature, creatures of habit. Many of us will reach for the same bottle of dry white wine or fruity red every weekend because it's what we know and we like what we know. And whilst I have no intention of imploring you to stop doing that, planning a dinner party can be the perfect occasion to try something a little bit different from your usual tipple.
There are so many different styles, flavours and types of wine out there at every price point. I could go into detail about the different grape varieties and styles however that isn't necessarily going to help you know which bottle to pick from the shelf. So I have put together my top tips to help you choose a yummy bottle for your next dinner party, along with a couple of FAQs, in a user friendly way. I hope that this will give you a bit of confidence to pick something a bit different next time you're hosting.
Dotty's Top Tips For Picking The Right Wine
1) Drink what you like - who says you have to have white wine with fish and red wine with steak? Yes, certain wines and certain foods can enhance each other's flavours, but the most important thing is that YOU enjoy the pairing.
Having said that, it's fun to try new things, especially when you're cooking something a bit different. Take a look at the descriptors on the bottle of wine that you like and find some of the key words that describe the flavour profile. When you're in the supermarket looking for your next bottle, have a browse and find other wines that use similar words.
For example, if you usually like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you might find words such as "crisp", "citrus", "gooseberries" on the bottle. Try picking up a bottle of Vinho Verde or Picpoul de Pinet where you'll find similar descriptors and some familiar flavour profiles.
2) What grows together goes together – this saying is as true when you’re pairing the flavours on the plate as it is when pairing the food with a wine. You might hear wine-y people talking about how a wine tastes of its 'terroir'. This just means that the taste of the wine is influenced by the climate, soil and terrain of the place it was grown.
Food that comes from the same region will also share this sense of place too, making it a sensible place to start when trying to make some pairings. For example, if you were cooking with Italian flavours – tomato, rosemary - then an Italian red would be just the ticket. If you were dealing with Spanish flavours- paprika, chorizo or olives - then look to Spain for your wine etc. It's pretty simple logic, really!
3) Match the wine to the mood – Sometimes, you have to match the vine to the vibe!
A casual picnic with friends needs a casual wine –a pale Provencal Rose or a Vinho Verde (which is only around 9.5% alcohol so it's perfect for an afternoon tipple), perhaps.
A family meal, served sharing style, might suit a rustic Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon. Whereas a special meal that you've spent a good bit of time on deserves something a little more decadent. Spend a bit more, buy a bottle that's seen a bit of age or oak. Pick something with a description on the bottle that sounds decadent and exciting.
Champagne is a mood in itself and it is always the right time to serve champagne.
4) Match the wine by “weight” – is the meal light and fresh, buttery and full of cream, or earthy and rich? Think about the “weight” of you food and match it to the “body” of a wine. For example – a pea soup with a zip of lemon is a light, fresh dish therefore it needs a light wine – Sauvignon Blanc or Gavi for instance. Yes, I mean light in colour, but the description will also feel zippy and refreshing. Limes, grass, lemon, apples etc.
A creamy, buttery chicken dish is heavier, so it could take a wine that is described as more full bodied. Its label might talk about stone fruits or tropical fruits - peaches, melon, mango, or it might talk about buttery notes, or perhaps toasty coconut. These sweeter, stronger flavours These are going to be wines that feel a little fuller and "heavier".
Similarly with red wines, big hearty stews and casserole need big hearty reds - high alcohol and dark purple fruits like blackcurrants and cherries. Juicy pink roasted meats - a leg of lamb for instance - need lighter, juicier wines. Think strawberries, red currants and violets.
Wine can also be used to balance out dishes as well as match with it. Dishes that are really fatty and rich can benefit from an acidic wine as the acid in the wine cuts through the great just like a squeeze of lemon juice would. For example, crispy fried foods often pair well with bubbles (imagine the little bubbles of hot oil as the calamari fries paired with the little bubbles of a nicely chilled cava...mmmm).
Q: Helpful tips Dotty, but how do I know which wines are juicy? Fruity? Citrusy? Heavy? Creamy etc.....
A: You've got to try them! If you're really into it, then spend a bit of time doing some research. There are a tonne of great books and websites out their with loads of information about what to drink and tasting notes for particular wines. I like The Wine Dine Dictionary by Victoria Moore as a reference book for choosing wine. The website Wine Folly also has a lot of really easy to digest infographics about wine. You can read reviews of what other people think they taste like on websites like Vivino but, the best way to learn about ANYTHING is to just get stuck in trying stuff yourself.
Q: How much should I spend per bottle?
A: Last time I attended a wine course, the course leader explained that the total fixed cost of the packaging, import costs, plus taxes for one bottle of wine is around £4.50 in the UK. So if you are spending around £5 on your bottle of wine, the actual juice itself is only roughly 50p. So every little bit you can afford to spend over this could make a real difference to the taste of your wine.
Q: Where is a good place to shop for wine?
A: Of course, you can't beat an actual wine shop. The staff in places like Majestics as well as local wine shops (Carruthers and Kent, Rehills, Kork Wine and Deli, if you're based in Newcastle!) will be able to give you a tonne of advice about what kind of styles you might like and what kind of wine might pair well with a particular meal.
If you're just starting out, I think that supermarkets are still the best place to find good wine. Avoid the big brands (Echo Falls, Barefoot etc.) and go for supermarket own label stuff from their premium range - Taste the Difference, Extra Special, Tesco Finest... you know the ones! The large supermarkets have so much purchasing power that they are often able to get some really good quality wine from well known producers, stick their own brand label on it and sell it at really reasonable prices. If you're looking for a way to taste some different styles of wine without breaking the bank then this is definitely a good place to start! Once you've built up a bit of confidence with the kind of wines you like and don't like, then you can tackle the wine shops and feel like you know what you're doing!
Let me know if you find these tips helpful, or if you have any other questions about getting started with wine!