Wine buying and drinking tips for non wine geeks

By Tobias Webb

A friend of mine asked me for some wine buying tips. He is someone who likes wine, but doesn’t spend the kind of time on it that I do. So I wrote the below. It’s entirely subjective and based on my tastes and experiences. I hope some readers find it useful.

All very subjective, but these are my views.

• All wine needs some bottle age, but bear in mind the year on the label is sometimes not the year when bottled, as good reds are often barrel aged for 18 months+ before bottling.

• Generally reds and whites need at least two years bottle age. So in 2017, 2015/14 is really the youngest you want to drink. I don’t regard Rose wine as worth the effort. Yes you can chill it to 8-10 degrees and drink it on a summer’s day, but you could alternatively drink Chablis for a little more, so why bother?

• Don’t buy wine in supermarkets if you can avoid it. Most of what they sell is crap and lacks bottle age. Wines to go for (sometimes supermarkets are your only option) if you are buying from them, are Côtes du Rhône wines, ideally with a couple of years of age on the bottle. Other supermarket wines that can be drinkable include mid-range Malbec (Catena particularly) wines, and cool (ish) climate Syrah wines from places like Crozes-Hermitage, if they are not too young. Here’s a superb producer from just further north, but the wines are not that easy to buy at value, outside France.

I wouldn’t buy a lot else from supermarkets personally, but I am not big fan of lighter wines, unless it’s northern Beaujolais Gamay wines, or some Cabernet Franc from the Loire, but you don’t often find them in supermarkets. Bordeaux 2010, the Cru Bourgeois wines, are excellent if you can find them in supermarkets. Avoid Pinot Noir, most of it is rubbish unless you are loaded and REALLY do your research.

• Buy wine in independent retailers and speak to the owner/manager about what you like, and commit to trying 5-6-10 types to see what works for you. Try Cornas, it’s the best value  quality Syrah out there at the moment, in my view. Here’s one producer I love, Ferraton.

• The Wine Society is the best place to buy drinking wine in the UK. Avoid Virgin/Majestic/Other online retailers, even if they claim to buy from small producers. They might do, but that doesn’t make the wine any good, in my view

• Avoid Big Brand champagne. It’s dull, monolithic and over-priced. Buy “Grower” champagnes. Single vineyard wines. The Wine Society does a lovely case of Grower Champagnes so you can try different ones. It’s a whole new world of Champagne when you get into them. Roger Brun presses grapes for Krug, and his top end champagnes (70% cheaper!) are superb, as are producers such as Tarlant and Fleury, both of which are biodynamic.

• American wines are always over priced for what you get. South African wines can be amazing, but the good stuff is very hard to find. Chile I know little about but again the good wines are hard to find. Australian reds are generally fairly one dimensional, unless you look around a lot (Yalumba aged wines, some Margaret River reds). New Zealand makes a lot of white Sauvignon, but for me, it’s too lemony, and their reds are generally too expensive for what you get at a decent level.

There are some superb wines from all these places, but they require time to research, and more money than the average punter wants to spend. Portugal, Greece and Turkey make some very good wines too, but you need to do your research again. Not worth the risk, if not.

• My go-to wines are: Whites: Chablis, Touraine, Saint Veran, 2011/12 Mersault. Also Andrea Felluga makes what I think are Italy’s best white wines. Whites from Friuli are often excellent, as is Gavi di Gavi, as a quaffer, and Grillo whites from Sicily. Avoid Provence whites, they are terrible. But white Rhone wines can be excellent, but are not usually cheap. A hidden gem is aged white Rioja, which you can get at decent prices, when available. It can be wonderful (Tondonia 2003, for example).

• Go-to reds and years: Bordeaux 2010 is probably the best year ever, so far. The higher end wines were over-priced but the Cru Bourgeois wines (150-200 producers) are now excellent and well worth buying cases of when you find a producer you like. I’d suggest St Estephe, Haut Medoc as having good value wines. 2011/12/13/14 wines from Bordeaux (forget the whites, mainly) are in my view quite forgettable. 2015 Cru Bourgeois reds are out now, and are very very good. Best since 2010. Stock up if you have a cellar, but don’t pay for storage (economics likely do not add up). 2016 also looks to be very good, but needs bottle age.

• Other reds I would recommend: Bandol (2011, older vintages if you can find them, but they don’t have many bad years) if you can find it. Cornas and other Rhone Syrah wines, if you can find them at decent prices, also superb. Generally I avoid new world reds, except some Malbec from producers such as Catena, unless you have the time to research them. If you want to try Bandol, the Wine Society has Tempier, which is always superb.

• The wine you can’t go wrong with is Côtes du Rhône. It can be very drinkable at 8-15 pounds a bottle, and it’s hard to get bad years. 2010 was a good year but most of it is gone. Look for Côtes du Rhône Villages, as they are the better wines, and worth the extra. Also I love wines of Cairanne, which is a Côtes du Rhône that is now its own Appellation in the region.

• In Restaurants: Take your own wine and ask to pay corkage! If you are buying on their menu, in the France the mark up is double, in Italy it’s often only 1.5 and in the UK it’s often x 4/5! On that basis in the UK I just, if don’t take my own, go with either a Malbec (can be hit and miss) or a Côtes du Rhône, as it’s the most reliable wine and usually not too expensive. See above for tips on whites, but I would rarely drink a bottle of white in a restaurant. I’m a reds guy, so have a glass of their best white if it matches your starter, and then enjoy a decent red. Happy drinking.

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About the author

Tobias Webb

Toby Webb is co-founder of Sustainable Wine. He is also founder of Innovation Forum, a leading platform for change in sustainable supply chains. He has spent 20+ years working in business and sustainability and has spent ten years teaching the subject at various London universities. He advises a number of companies large and small on sustainability. Businesses he has worked with include Patagonia, Interface, Bayer, SOK Group, Boots/Walgreens, Metro, Unilever, Nestle, Reckitt Benckiser, Sainsbury’s, and many others. He co-authored the UK’s national CSR strategy for David Cameron from 2006-10. He has been organising events, advising, teaching writing, blogging and podcasting on sustainable business since 2001. His (non-wine) blog is at