I can’t think of another consumable that attracts as much pretension as wine. It offers great opportunities for snobbery and one-upmanship, with the added bonus of a whole world of in-crowd chatter to confound outsiders.
Wine may be the simple, fermented juice of grapes, but it’s much more than that to many.
It used to be simpler. The Australian wine industry very successfully converted a nation into wine drinkers via sound quality, well-priced table wines, and the notion that you could drink anything, with anything, any time.
That was before an army of peripheral voices started to influence things.
Wine writers and critics proliferated, offering advice, scoring wines on various scales, while sometimes pursuing ambitions of stardom. Of course, some of these people were admirable types, others less so.
Then the sommelier arrived. Some of these were admirable too; some dodgy. Wine lists in restaurants often became essays in unfamiliar wines; mystifying customers; empowering those who controlled the wine buying and listing functions, and sometimes offering customers precious little they might like.
And for the retail shopper, the shelves of wine shops groan under the weight of unknown imports and local obscurities.
In the midst of all this noise, the consumer could be forgiven for getting a mite lost. So how do you manage to snare a good bottle?
1. Seek advice
If you know a retailer, large or small, who has recommended a bottle to you that you really liked, the chances are that they are pretty good at assessing your tastes. Stick with them. Good advice is very valuable.
2. Read a wine column
If the writer highly recommends a wine in your price range, buy it. If you like it, follow the writer’s other recommendations if they sound to your taste.
3. Buy according to past form
Pedigree is important when it comes to wine, whether it’s a particular winery, a region, or a winemaker. Consistency of quality is sought by good producers across vintages; reliability is a passion for them.
If value for money is your prime mover, there are wines to avoid and wines to seek out. Certain grape varieties are ultra modish; others out of fashion. Supply-and-demand issues make the latter better value. In white wines, choose Riesling instead of Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. In reds, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot don’t enjoy the cachet of Shiraz or Pinot Noir these days, so go for them.
4. Don’t be dissuaded by low price tags
I’ve often seen lowly labels like Jacob’s Creek confused with wines of much higher price and reputation, and the annals of Australian wine shows are full of high awards won by lowly labels.
5. Buy wines from the larger wine companies
They usually have high standards and economies of scale that keep prices real. Some of them, like Yalumba and De Bortoli, remain family-owned, too, giving a personal touch to the wines that corporatised producers don’t have.
6. Watch for trendy regions
Areas such as Victoria’s Yarra Valley, Margaret River in Western Australia and the Adelaide Hills can attract a premium, while less fashionable places sometimes carry price tags that haven’t gone up in years. The Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra in South Australia, some parts of central Victoria, and other less groovy places haven’t kept pace and can make happy hunting grounds for the bargain hunter.