FAQs - Buying Wine

How much of what I pay is for the wine itself?

Most of the costs on a bottle of wine are fixed, including packaging (corks, labels, capsule, carton, bottle - about 40p), bottling (approximately 12p) and distribution (approximately 32p). The government takes 40% of the cost of the wine in tax and duty. The rest goes on the retailer's margin (approximately 30%). So the more you pay for a bottle of wine, the more is going on actual wine.

What makes one wine more expensive than another?

  • How the wine is produced (hand-picking, use of oak etc. adds to the cost)
  • The origin of the wine (some vineyards are very small and unique)
  • Demand for specific grape varieties (example: Syrah is twice the cost of Chardonnay)

The most crucial factor in a wine's pricing is the level of demand - if a producer can sell his wine 10 times over (like many top Burgundy and California producers) then he is in a position to command a premium price for his product.

How do I spot a quality wine?

At the simplest level, there are two main indicators of quality: balance and length; i.e. the component parts of the wine all complement each other and the flavour of the wine persists once it has been swallowed. Price alone is not an indicator of quality.

On a label, what does Grand Cru or Premier Cru Classé mean?

Classifications like these are a way of grading vineyards or properties in terms of quality. Terms such as 'Grand Cru' mean different things depending on which region the wine comes from. See our Wine Classifications page for a list. The information on labels can give you clues to what the wine will taste like, in addition to the alcohol content, vintage, name of the vineyard or name of grape variety.

How important is the vintage?

Improved wine-making technology means disastrous vintages are now relatively uncommon. More often, one simply encounters different styles of vintage; for example,in Bordeaux, 1997 was a lighter, forward vintage in comparison with 1996 or 1995. In marginal climates, vintage variation is more prominent and is a good indicator of style. See vintage chart.

What factors determine the type of oak ageing?

  • The size of the barrel affects the maturation process (the smaller the barrel the more rapid the oxidation)
  • The age of the barrel (and the length of time the wine spends in it is also an important factor - the older the barrel the less intense the flavour it imparts)
  • The length of time the wine spends in barrel (the longer, the more intense the oak flavours
  • Where the oak was grown - French oak gives vanilla and butter flavours, whereas American oak gives more molasses and intense vanilla.

Which wines benefit from oak ageing?

Wines made from Chardonnay are commonly oak aged. Dry or sweet wines made from Sauvignon and Semillon blended together can also benefit. Many reds improve with oak ageing. The average Cru Classé property in the Médoc uses 75% new oak each year, while in Burgundy a lower proportion of new wood is generally employed. Oak barrels are used extensively in Australia and California.

How should I order wine in a restaurant?

Make use of the advice of the wine waiter, if there is one. First choose your food and then decide on your wines.

  • 1. When the bottle arrives, check the following; vintage (often changed without warning), name of the wine, producer.
  • 2. Check that the temperature is satisfactory. It is better for both reds and whites to be too cold than too warm. Don't be embarrassed to ask for an ice bucket to chill both whites and reds.
  • 3. Make sure that each bottle is opened in front of you and that red wines are decanted at the table.
  • 4. When invited to taste the wine, do so. Don't be rushed, do the following: look at it (it should be clear and bright), smell it (it should smell clean and fresh), taste it (it should have no off-flavours).
  • 5. If there is anything wrong, don't hesitate in saying so immediately.

When planning a party, how much should I allow per person?

Obviously this depends on the size and type of the party but you are unlikely to go wrong if you allow approximately a bottle of wine per head. Most wine merchants allow you to buy on sale or return which makes deciding quantities less fraught.