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What You've Always Wanted To Know About Wine (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)

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Photographed by Rockie Nolan
What is it about wine that brings people out in a rash? And I don’t mean if you’ve knocked back a few too many Cab Savs. Lots of us are nervous about wine. Whether it’s fear of ordering the wrong type at a restaurant or concern that people will laugh at the bottle you bring to a party, wine can be confusing. But it’s also supposed to be fun; one of life’s great pleasures. Ernest Hemingway said that wine “offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased.”

Now, Hemingway may have enjoyed his wine a little too much, but he also has a point. And being a wine appreciator on a modest budget rather than a full blown expert with deep pockets doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the good stuff.

Refinery29 sat down with one of the most respected wine critics in the world, Jancis Robinson, author of the brilliant new book The 24-Hour Wine Expert, and asked her all the questions you were too afraid to ask about wine. If you want to know the best bottle to buy for under a tenner, or whether it is ever acceptable to drink wine from a box, then read on…

OK, Jancis. The question we all really want to know the answer to is: what’s a good bottle of wine for under £10 that is acceptable to take to a friend’s house?
If something’s not fashionable, it tends to not be overpriced. For white wine, Muscadet is an insider’s wine. It’s underpriced and it doesn’t have such a strong flavour as to put someone off. It’s made on the mouth of the Loire in northern France and it’s very versatile – you can drink it with or without food. The farmers there haven’t been very good at marketing themselves but it’s the sort of wine that would appeal to anybody.

For red, it’s probably a Beaujolais. It’s sort of the red wine equivalent of Muscadet; it’s been unfashionable, therefore it’s underpriced. It’s made by a whole load of little farmers so try and get one that’s not got a name of a big industrial on it but is called ‘Domaine de something', showing that it’s from an independent farm. Then it is likely to have a bit of artisan workmanship behind it.

What about if you’re just drinking at home alone? (Not that I’d ever do that...)
If you’re just buying for yourself and looking for value then I’m pretty convinced that the best value whites come from South Africa. The country is cooled by currents from the Antarctic making it quite fresh. Their most planted grape is Chenin Blanc. Good value Chenin Blanc is a ‘please-all’. You can certainly get a decent one for under £7.

The best value for reds is probably Chile because they make masses of red wine and they’re very competent. But try to avoid a supermarket own label. I always say go to an independent wine retailer as their quality is so much better than the average supermarket. There was a time when supermarkets were very good places to find value but they don’t care as much as they did about the quality. Go to an independent wine retailer and ask for their best value South African white or best value Chilean red and you’re likely to get something good. Or good value anyway.

I’m really exposing myself here but I will often buy whatever is half price in the supermarket. Sainsbury’s and Tesco always have some £10 bottles reduced to £5. What do you make of those?
They are rubbish! Absolute rubbish! They call them half price offers and by law they have to have offered it at full price for a certain length of time [before reducing] but they never, ever bought the wine with the intention of selling it at the full price. And they’ll make sure there’s a nice profit margin in there, even at half price, because they know that 95% of the wine will be sold at half price.

The supermarkets are moving away from this sort of promotion, I’m glad to hear, because the discounters like Aldi and Lidl haven’t pursued that policy. They’ve just said, ‘These are our wines and these are our prices; take it or leave it.’ And the big supermarkets have seen that people quite like that approach. The public doesn’t like being played with.

If I was going to someone’s parents' house, and they really know about wine, what do you recommend I take?
I’d honestly go for a really nice bottle of olive oil or balsamic vinegar. You can’t go wrong with that. It’s quite a common gift between wine professionals.

Do men and women generally approach wine differently?
In society, wine knowledge is perhaps slightly overvalued; you’re almost not allowed to admit to knowing nothing about it but that shouldn’t be the case. I do think that women are more fortunate as far as wine goes because society expects men to know about wine; wine is a sort of status symbol. If a man is having to choose wine in a restaurant then it’s a sort of nervous, ‘Am I choosing the right wine?’ whereas I feel women are allowed to choose what they feel like drinking. We can relax more and don’t have to worry about obeying the “rules”.

How important is it to match wine to your food? Should we abide by the red for meat/white for fish rule?
No, that doesn’t matter at all. It’s more about getting the weight of the wine matched to the weight of the food. If it’s quite a light, not very flavour-dense food then go for a lighter wine, whether that’s white or red. But if it’s something like a hearty stew then go for a full-bodied, rich red or white.

Are we supposed to be letting wine breathe?
No, it doesn’t really make any difference. If you take the cork out or stopper off then how much of that wine is exposed to the air? A tiny, tiny bit. It can’t do much.

Does it matter what glass you serve wine in?
Absolutely not. The bigger the better (within limits). The main thing is not to fill a glass too full because you want to get as much of the smell as possible. The smell is a lot of the pleasure. You want to swirl it around and if the glass is too full then it’s going to fall out the glass. So just don’t fill glasses more than half way.

Is there anything you could say about wine to impress a date?
I think if you’re looking for shortcuts you’ll be caught out. It’s best to be honest and say you don’t know much about wine. And that goes whatever the subject!

How long can you keep a bottle of wine open for and still drink it?
It all depends how you keep the leftovers. The best thing is to keep it cool. Even if it’s red, stick it in the fridge, and bring it out with time to warm it up to drink. And expose it to as little oxygen as possible, as that's what spoils it. Keep a few spare empty half-bottles and decant the wine into those. Then stopper it up so there's no oxygen in there. If it’s an industrially made, supermarket-type wine then it can last a week. If it’s an old, fragile, expensive Burgundy, it might only last an evening.

Does putting a teaspoon in an opened bottle of fizz actually do anything?
No! That’s rubbish.

I thought it might be. What do you think about organic wine?
I like the fact that farmers today are moving away from agrochemicals and wanting to pollute our planet less – that’s got to be a good thing. I’m slightly dubious of producers whose marketing platform is, ‘We're organic’. I think a wine has to be good first and foremost and it’s not enough to just say, ‘We’re organic’. I would never claim that I could tell from the taste of the wine whether it was grown from organically grown grapes or not.

English wine – any good?
Oh it’s lovely, at last it’s getting good! I took part in this blind tasting in the autumn which compared English fizz with Champagnes of the same price and much to our amazement all the top places were taken by English wines. English still wine is getting slowly better but English sparkling wine has really come into its own. It’s not cheap though because, you know, English land isn’t cheap.
Yeah, our rent is testament to that. What about New versus Old World wines? Is there still snobbery about that?
It depends on the person. And where they live. Lots of Australians think they have the best wines. Some older Brits think Old World must be better than New World. But what’s good now is that there has been this cross-fertilisation. Pretty much every young wine producer in Europe has travelled outside of Europe and has friends making wine in, say, New Zealand. They’re much more open-minded and swapping techniques and advice so the divisions between Old and New World are less rigid than they used to be.

Is it, er, ever acceptable to have a box of wine?
Yes! I’m a big fan of containers other than bottles. I think that for everyday, inexpensive wine, it’s pretty crazy that it’s being shipped around the world in something as expensive and easy to break and heavy as glass bottles. Consumers and producers haven’t caught up with this point of view but they will. It’s much more sensible for the future of the planet to ship everyday wine in pouches, cartons, boxes. The technology is a lot better. Boxed wine is fine if you're going to drink it quite soon.

Now we’ve revealed just how classy we are, we only have one final question: What kind of wine will give you the smallest hangover?
All wine labels have to give the alcoholic strength so you do have a shortcut to knowing how bad you’ll feel after drinking a certain quantity. If you want to have minimal after effects then choose a lower alcohol wine.

Weirdly, that had never really occurred to me. Thanks, Jancis!

Jancis Robinson will be at Selfridges, Oxford Street, London, on February 3 from 7-9pm celebrating the launch of her new book, The 24-Hour Wine Expert. Details here.
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