Become a wine connoisseur on the cheap

This is something I wrote for The Fence’s newsletter. A friend described this new magazine like this: “The Fence seems a new and rare original voice in the magazine world, it’s good nature and high spirits rather reminiscent of Spy magazine in the 80s.” High praise indeed, it’s well worth signing up to the newsletter and subscribing to the magazine itself. 

I know what you’re thinking, what with all these queues for petrol and bare supermarket shelves, it’s about time I started a wine cellar. There’s no shortage of information out there on the subject but the best advice I’ve had comes from a now-defunct blog called Sediment: “1) Buy wine 2) DON’T DRINK IT!!” Incidentally, their review of a Nero D’Avola from Sainsbury’s in the style of Bruce Chatwin is one of the best things you’ll read this week.

Once you’ve decided to start a cellar, it’s a question of where to buy your wine. I’m assuming that like me you are trying to raise a family on a writer’s salary with only the occasional meagre bequest from deceased relatives keeping your nose above water. I cannot, therefore, recommend one of those trendy wine merchants that started to appear in British cities around 2009, exploiting the gap left by the decline of Oddbins, Bottoms Up et al.

The new wave wine merchants

I remember my first experience with one such place. I was living in Bethnal Green when Bottle Apostle opened across Victoria Park from my flat. It was lavishly-appointed shop with enomatic machines so you could buy small tasting samples of expensive wines – most of which I had never heard of. Opening in East London around the time of the financial crash and offering very little below £10, I gave it six months at best. Much to my amazement, not only did it survive and thrive, but other new wine merchants opened within walking distance including one run by French hipsters on Hackney Road which sold austere natural wines from the Loire with not much available below £30. 

These places are fun with their esoteric lists, but the wines can be maddeningly unpredictable especially if you’re on a budget. Clearly there are plenty of people in London who don’t mind taking a risk on a £20-30 bottle of wine that might not be to their taste. I’m just not one of them. 

The Frenchsters were unusual in that they actually imported their own wine. Most independent wine merchants will buy from a wholesaler like Liberty Wines or Fields Morris & Verdin. There might be lots of talk about “visiting my growers”, but this often means a jolly at the importer’s expense, or just attending a tasting in London.

The usual mark-up will be between 30-40% on top of wholesale prices. It sounds like a lot but once the rent has been paid, staff costs accounted for and the various council hoops jumped through, there’s very little profit left. A few years ago, when the writing work wasn’t pouring in, I worked part time at one such a shop in South East London. The owner was so terrified of giving away margin, that she actually winced when I asked for a staff discount. You do, however, come across retailers who are frankly taking the piss. There’s a shop near my house selling Chateau Ksara Reserve de Couvent for more than £20 a bottle. I’m happy to pay a little more to support a local business but not when it’s charging nearly double the price at The Wine Society. 

Tom Ashworth and Jason Yapp. Note French peasant-esque jacket

Red trousers

My kind of wine merchant is not the sort of person who wears skinny jeans and a T-shirt featuring the names of cult Beaujolais producers. I’m afraid that I’m more drawn to tweed, red trousers and, best of all, those kind of blue cotton jackets that French peasants stopped wearing years ago and are now only sported by English wine merchants or retired lawyers in Kent with a passion for fixing sash windows. 

In the blue cotton camp is Yapp Bros in the West Country, specialising in the Rhone and the Loire. While in the tweed corner you’ll find Tanners in the Midlands, particularly strong on Portugal and Bordeaux. Then there’s the Wine Society, a members’ club which only costs £40 to join with prices so good that if I was an independent wine merchant I’d just give up.

Most experts will tell you that only the very best wines improve with age. This is nonsense. Even quite ordinary wines can mature. I’ve tasted old bottles of Jacob’s Creek Riesling from the corner shop that had gone positively opulent sitting gathering dust on the shelves. Every now and then, I do a sweep of the wines that my father has forgotten about in the garage, and we’ll find that some cheapish red from Rioja or the Languedoc has matured with the grace of decent Burgundy.

Ignore the experts

You can ignore the soi-disant experts who tell you that you need either a proper underground cellar or a ‘wine fridge’ that mimics cellar conditions in order to keep wine.

I finished the last bottle of a case of 2009 Bordeaux (Sarget to Gruaud Larose, in case you’re interested) this year. It tasted superb despite having spent most of its life stored under the stairs in a council flat in Lewisham. Unless you’re planning to keep your wine longer, your ‘cellar’ just needs to be dark, and not get too hot or cold. In a cupboard by an outside wall should be fine for a few years.  Wine can be surprisingly resilient, but whatever you do, don’t use the racks that come in fitted kitchens, usually right next to the oven. Bottles left there will be suitable only for mulling. 

What sort of wines should you buy? Well, you don’t need a lot of money to play the connoisseur, delving into your ‘cellar’ and boring your guests with how this Côtes du Rhône, “as good as some Châteauneuf-du-Papes, don’t you know, has blossomed in the last year or two.” As long as you’re buying from a good merchant then sturdy reds like Bordeaux, Chianti or Barossa shiraz, NV Champagne, riesling of all sorts, better chardonnays from Chile, Argentina and Australia, will all improve with a couple of years in your makeshift cellar. Even rosé tastes better the following year. Buy Provence rosé when it’s on sale in the autumn, keep it somewhere dark and by June you’ll be sipping the nectar of the gods.

But the ultimate bargain keeper has to be LBV (late bottled vintage) Port. I had a bottle of 2003 Taylor’s LBV not long ago that would have put many proper vintage ports to shame. You can pick it up for £12 a bottle. Buy a case, put it away, and you’ll be richly rewarded in five years time. 

Think of it this way, foreign travel might be nearly impossible and your fuel bills are about to go through the roof but you can still do as our ancestors did and get a bit of southern warmth through the magic of fortified wine. In fact, can you afford not to start a cellar now?

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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1 Response to Become a wine connoisseur on the cheap

  1. Jyrgenn says:

    Hah, yes, wine merchants. I am lucky to have an independent wine merchant (Altrovino, wine shop and bar) here in town who sells Italian wines outside of the mainstream, and purely from autochthonous grapes. You won’t find a Barolo or Chianti there, and certainly no Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay. He does have a Barbera d’Alba, though. Never in my life have I heard as many grape variety names as in that shop.

    The owner imports everything himself and does visit his growers, although, as I understand, mostly on trade fairs like Vinitaly. To assess their market chances, he tastes the received samples together with friends, colleagues, and customers, an extremely interesting and fun activity to which, to my honour and pleasure, I have been invited a number of times (before the plague).

    I love wine shopping there. The owner and his sole employee know every single wine of the not overly large selection, and they give good recommendations. Rarely do I leave the shop with a bill below three figures, mostly because I don’t shop there very often due to the journey involved. It is a curse that I don’t have a shop like this in my own neighbourhood, but it is also a blessing that does save me a lot of money.

    Unfortunately, I really have no suitable place for long or mid term wine storage. The flat itself gets rather hot in summer, and even the cellar is too warm due to heating pipes. My wife and I plan to move to her childhood home on the country when we retire, though. That house has a cool cellar excellently suited for storing wine, which my recently deceased father-in-law put to good use. The downside is that this is no less than 8 years hence.

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