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New to wine: Being a savvy wine buyer

I was recently asked by a national newspaper to give my 'insider advice' on smart strategies for buying wine. I was glad to be asked, but it was tough to condense all my thoughts on the subject into just 300 words, which is all they had room for. Here's a slightly less condensed set of tips to turn you into a savvy wine buyer.

  • How much do you want to spend? At 5 and under, branded wines dominate the shelves. The likes of Lindemans, Penfolds, Hardys and Jacobs Creek offer accessible, tasty, consistent wines that are real crowd-pleasers. However, the cost of this consistency is dullness: brands can lack character and variety. If you really must go for brands, two tips. First, Aussie branded wines tend to be better than their Californian counterparts. Second, brands rely on regular promotions as part of their sophisticated marketing strategy, so wait for these until you stock up.
  • But cheap wine doesn't have to be dull. You can still drink interesting wine without breaking the bank; you'll have to buy smartly, though. For a start, avoid well known regions: cheap Bordeaux and Burgundy is almost always a disappointment. Instead, head for the South of France, a brilliant source of characterful inexpensive wines. Hot on its heels are southern Italy (Sicily and Puglia), Portugal and the lesser known regions of Spain.
  • Spending more? Let's say you're looking for a brilliant wine for up to 25. Now this is quite a challenge: there are plenty of very good expensive wines, but the very best examples are keenly sought after. The increasing popularity of wine has meant that it's now getting difficult to find the good stuff, which simply isn't produced in large enough quantities to satisfy the supermarkets or high street chains. You'll need to take your custom to the smaller specialist merchants. The very best wines are limited-production, and there often isn't enough to go round.
  • If you are located near a reliable independent wine merchant, then capitalise on your good fortune by developing a relationship with them. They'll get to know your palate preferences, and you'll be first to know of any special parcels that arrive, some of which probably won't make it to the shelves. Many independent shops are run by interesting people with a real passion for wine, and purchasing this way can be an extremely satisfying experience.
  • Remember, with wine, smaller is often better. This applies to producers, as well as retailers. Fine wine isn't manufactured: it has its origin in the vineyard, and so production of the leading wines is not scaleable (unless you plant new vineyards, which is only feasible in certain situations and takes a lot of time, money and effort). Because of this, it's often the smaller producers, making wines from individual vineyards, who do the best work. And it's the smaller retailers who tend to stock these sorts of wines, which are often of limited availability. Leave the beaten track.
  • Critics are useful, but don't follow them slavishly. Learn which critics have palates that match yours reasonably closely. Remember, wine is not an exact science, and even the best critics aren't as fallible as they would like to believe. And most of them take themselves too seriously. I'd add that the newspaper critics spend their time providing shopping lists of mostly industrial supermarket wines: it's not always that they lack imagination, rather that their section editors won't let them do anything else. As I said earlier, most of the really interesting wines are made in very small quantities and are hard to get hold of, so the newspaper critics can't write about them.
  • Make use of the internet. Wine is an information-dense subject and it's taken brilliantly to the web. Mind you, if you're reading this, the chances are you already know this.
  • If you are fairly new to wine, try not to stock up too heavily at first. Your palate will no doubt evolve, and it would be a shame to be left with a cellar full of Aussie Shiraz if your true passion in life turns out to be domaine-bottled Burgundy. Or vice versa.
  • Buying from France can be a good idea. Two options. First, the classic booze cruise, which is now a more attractive option since Majestic crossed the channel to join Oddbins, Tesco and Sainsbury. There are also decent French merchants in striking distance of the ports, such as Perdadel and Milles Vignes. Second, you can buy directly from the producer, after tasting. If you travel in summer, beware cooking your wine in transit. You're allowed to import, tax-free, an unlimited amount for personal consumption, but in reality customs will get cross (and possibly nasty) if you try to bring in more than their guideline of 90 litres of wine.
  • Finally, remember to plunder the bin end sales. Most merchants get rid of their excess stock twice a year, in January and August. It's a good time to buy, but the decent stuff will disappear quickly, so getting on as many merchants' mailing lists will pay dividends as you'll be the first to hear about the bargains.


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