Note from Sasha: Guest post season commences! As anyone who reads this blog will know, wine makes me happy*. And my love of wine has developed from teenage glasses over dinner at mum’s house, to bottles of pinot grigio with the girls after work, to wine-tastings in the Hunter Valley and Mendoza, to now – as a sort-of grown up with more developed tastes – to wanting to pay a bit more for a beautiful bottle that makes a meal incredibly special (yet, lets face it, I still enjoy a £5 Lindemans Sauvy B from time to time too…). I still don’t know enough so I asked lovely friends Suzanne & Justin from Griffinwell Wines, who were kind enough to let me
drink all their wine help out at their Taste of London stall a few weeks ago, to answer some basic questions.
Suzanne & Justin at Taste of London
1. One problem I’ve found with French wines is that when I go to a French restaurant, I get handed a wine list with the names of Chateaux and dates, but without helpful pointers like the type of grape. This is the same when I’ve gone to a French supermarket. How can I pick a great white and red wine with only this information?
Honestly, the French make the some of the best wines in the world but they wouldn’t win any awards for making their product easy to understand. It’s kind of like walking into a modern art gallery and trying to make sense of the latest “masterpiece” when the extent of your art knowledge was that last colouring book you had when you were five. With restrictive labeling laws, tremendous regional diversity, and often complex blends, how should a mere mortal approach French wine?
First plan of attack should be to ask some questions and to describe what you tend to like and what kind of wine you’re in the mood for. In a restaurant setting, the sommelier should be able to provide guidance on the entire wine list. In the supermarket, look for shelf-talkers that will provide you with a bit of information. Also, be sure to look at back labels when they are available as the grape varieties are often found there.
Secondly, pay attention to regional differences in pricing. “Brand names” likeBordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne tend to carry more prestige so often come with an associated markup. A wine from Languedoc-Roussillon or the Loire at the same price point as a Burgundy is almost certainly going to be better value for money. Another good rule of thumb is to look out for “Premier Cru” or “Grand Cru” on the label. These are wines which typically come from better sites.
It’s true that French wines can be intimidating but don’t let that put you off! Taking a class or a going to a couple of wine tastings is a great way to get educated. If that’s not an option, organize informal tastings with friends around a particular region.
2. Summer is all about bottles of rosé in beer gardens – not too heavy or sweet preferably. What should I be looking for and are there any you can recommend?
Rosé wine got a bad rap a few years back because of the sickly sweet stuff coming out of California. The trend in recent times has definitely been toward drier styles and even the guys are getting on board! As a rule of thumb, things to look out for when shopping for that perfect summer rosé are:
If you see “demi-sec” on a bottle of rosé, that means it is semi-sweet so stay away if you don’t want the sweetness.
Provence-style rosés tend to be very dry with high acidity which makes them very refreshing and perfect for summer. Rosés from the Loire are often lighter in alcohol and generally are overlooked and under-valued so keep an eye out for some of those. Outside of France, Portugal in particular is worth a try.
Price – Don’t be afraid to pay upwards of £8 for a rosé, you won’t be disappointed with the difference in quality.
At Griffinwell, we have a number of rosés in stock that definitely fit the bill – Le Guêpier from Domaine de Ravanès went down a treat at Taste of London this year, and we’ve got a new highly rated rosé from our Sancerre producer just in. All are dry and light but with enough roundness so as not to be aggressive. If you are into spicy foods then a little hint of sweetness can help to balance the heat – we’d recommend our Cabernet d’Anjou if you want rosé with your curry.
3. When I go to a wine tasting, apart from the taste, what should I be looking for?
Get a spot close to the food, and watch out for lots of people looking overly pretentious whilst they swirl the wine around in their glasses. In all seriousness, wine is truly a sensory experience so you can spend as little or as much time as you like enjoying the ride. Sight, smell, taste, it’s all there. Colour can provide indications of a wine’s age and whether or not it has been filtered. Swirling serves to release aromas in the wine, and palate cleansers like bread or crackers can help you taste differences between wines. Some foods can really help a wine shine so be sure to try any suggested food pairings.
It’s easy to get caught up in wine analysis but at the end of the day, it should be a pleasure. Have some fun and don’t be afraid to expand your horizons!!
4. I used to spend no more than £3.50 on a bottle of wine but my tastes have got more sophisticated and I find it hard to find wine I like in my local supermarket. Where should I be looking to buy wine from and how much should I spend on a decent bottle? Is it just a big mark up or is it worth paying more?
It is DEFINITELY worth paying more for wine if you’re looking for something of higher quality and with a little more sophistication. When buying wine, take the following into consideration:
- Approximately 50% of a £5 bottle of still wine goes straight to taxes (it’s more for sparkling). This doesn’t even start to account for cost of transportation, storage, packaging, etc.
- Thus, only about 10p of a £5 bottle actually goes into making the wine
- A £10 bottle has more than 20 times the available cash to go into making quality wine than does a £5 bottle
Always try to buy from someone who will provide the support you deserve when picking out some decent wine (see question 1). We have a special section on our site called “Ask Suzanne” for this very purpose. Whether you are buying from us or not we are happy to act as a sounding board!
It’s amazing how much of a leap in quality you get by spending just a few pounds more – aim for £8 and above as a starting point for higher quality juice.
5. What is the perfect red wine to drink with steak? And the best easy-drinking white wine for after work drinks?
With wine, “perfect” is in the eye of the beholder. That said, tannins can help in the digestion of protein so we tend to go for bigger style reds when pairing wine with steak. Personal favourites would be Bordeaux, Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon. If you’re an Argentinean Malbec fan, try a wine from Cahors, made from the same grape. From the Griffinwell collection, be sure to try the Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine de Ravanès or the Cuvée Del Ros from Domaine Mas Rous.
In terms of easy-drinking whites, there are so many to choose from! Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc have been popular for a while and those are great choices of course. Unoaked Chardonnays are increasingly fashionable and can be wonderfully refreshing. If you want to expand your palette, we would encourage you to try Riesling from Germany or Alsace, Chenin Blanc in a lighter style, or Torrontes from Argentina. And don’t forget the bubbles! We particularly recommend French crémant – “the other champagne” – or Viognier from Domaine Brescou. (Note from Sasha – I’m a big fan of cremant, especially served in those lovely flat French glasses, and Viognier since I tasted it in Hunter Valley – amazing with Thai food, and Rieslings from Austria that Lady B let me try…sigh…)
6. Does the alcohol percentage of the wine matter? And is there any way (apart from the obvious!) to avoid white wine hangovers?
Alcohol is a byproduct of grape fermentation and as such is a key element in wine so it definitely matters in that context. Alcohol percentage is a legally regulated element – table wine has to be less than 15% ABV or it is considered fortified.
The hangover question is one that haunts us all! To avoid, try to pace yourself, always have food with wine, and drink lots of water in between sips. Going for lighter alcohol wines is another way to keep things under control.
7. Why do you get “bits” at the bottom of your glass when you drink heavy red wine? Is this a good thing?
Sediment is more common in unfiltered wines and/or wines that are designed for long ageing. The “bits” you sometimes see in a bottle or a glass are nothing to be concerned about and usually indicate a fine wine that has already spent some years in the bottle.
8. Can you recommend some amazing vineyards for me to visit next time I’m in France? What is the etiquette for wine tasting – can I just rock up or do I need to book? Am I expected to buy anything?
So many to choose from!! My advice would be to start with a guidebook. Alistair Sawday has a one called “French Vineyards” which is a great starting point.
In terms of etiquette, it is always best to call and book, particularly for smaller vineyards. If you have paid for a tasting, you are not necessarily expected to buy. However, if you have gone through a range of wines and have spent time going through the winery, common courtesy is to make at least a small purchase.
9. Apart from snobbery, is there any reason why I shoudn’t buy screw top wine? And if cork, how can I tell if the wine is corked?
There’s no reason not to buy screw top unless you’re a traditionalist – some of us just can’t resist the sound of a cork being pulled! For wines that are intended for long cellaring, the jury is still out as screw top technology is fairly new. But particularly for wines that are intended to be enjoyed while young, the convenience of a screw top is hard to dispute.
Corked wines are easy to recognize once you’ve encountered a tainted bottle. Basically, if you sniff the wine in your glass and it gives off a distinctly musty odor without the expected wine aromas, it’s probably corked.
10. Tell me about the wines you sell.
All of our wines are hand-selected by the two of us from small, independent French winemakers. We seek out those bottles that punch truly above their weight in terms of value for money. We like to pay special attention to some of the lesser-known regions and styles, as France has more to offer than many consumers are aware of. For more information, be sure to visit www.griffinwell.com or ask Suzanne any wine question you might have!